Alexander Hamilton: A Martyr for Liberty?

Eight days after his notorious June 18 speech at the Constitutional Convention where he recommended an executive and senate to serve during good behavior, potentially for life, Alexander Hamilton rose to make some general comments about what was at stake at the Convention.  He thought the present debate would decide forever “the fate of Republican Government.”  He conceded that his opinion of republican government was not favorable but “He professed himself to be as zealous an advocate for liberty as any man whatever, and he trusted he would be a martyr to it though he differed as to the form in which it was most eligible.” He urged the Convention to “tone their Government as high as possible” so as to give the highest probability of proving that the republican form is compatible with liberty.

Hamilton’s declarations about liberty and republicanism and his actions as the first Secretary of the Treasury did little to convince many of his contemporaries that he was sincere.  Jeffersonians routinely accused Hamilton of harboring imperial ambitions, of being a monarchist, and of trying to subvert both liberty and the republican form of government.  Jefferson himself also called into question Hamilton’s loyalty to the United States, his personal courage, and his horsemanship!  More recently, Hamilton’s conservative and libertarian critics have seen him as a “big government conservative” indistinguishable for the most part from the progressive advocates of the contemporary administrative state.  Conservative politicians have become, at least when it comes to style and tone, decidedly Jeffersonian.  Hamilton’s critics’ case has been helped by the embrace of Hamilton by liberal writers such as Michael Lind and by bastions of liberal thought like the Brookings Institution which runs The Hamilton Project, a wonky economic policy unit.

In his new book, The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, Michael P. Federici, a political scientist at Mercyhurst University, does an admirable job of trying to sort out this swirl of opinions.  Synthesis and balance are the hallmarks of his work.  He assesses the now voluminous scholarship on Hamilton, weighing each contribution’s accuracy and insight, in order to develop an account of Hamilton the political thinker.  Along the way he adds some insights of his own.  Federici also attempts to come to a balanced assessment of Hamilton’s contribution to American political thought by pointing to its strengths and its weaknesses.

Federici is aware that there is something a little strained in speaking of Hamilton’s “political philosophy.”  Hamilton was surely no Plato or Hobbes.  He co-authored only one book, admittedly, a very significant one, The Federalist.  His writings otherwise are all occasional pieces written on the fly and usually in response to pressing political events.  The Federalist itself shares something of this character.  Federici, nevertheless, argues that Hamilton is a significant political thinker in the same mold, though not of the same stature, as Cicero, Machiavelli, and Burke.  Like them, Hamilton was a political practitioner who reflected deeply on political matters and whose writings constitute a serious and coherent body of thought.

Building on the work of many scholars, Federici deftly exonerates Hamilton from the charges routinely laid against him in his own time and now.  Federici believes that Hamilton’s theory of constitutional government is his greatest contribution to political theory.  Hamilton thought republicanism to be a noble and worthy experiment that ought to be given the best chance possible of success.  This required investing it with institutions and a political culture somewhat at odds with the conventional view of republicanism.  Hamilton championed a strong executive, an independent judiciary, and energetic government.  Hamilton feared the power of the large states and tried to rein them in.  Hamilton advocated the development of a strong military, including a strong army, but in foreign affairs he was — outside of what he saw as the necessary development of an American sphere of influence in the western hemisphere — very cautious about foreign engagements.  He believed that enlightened principles of government would be spread by example.  If the American republican experiment was successful it would be attempted elsewhere.

Serving as the foundation and starting point for Hamilton’s various positions was, a “philosophical anthropology,” as Federici terms Hamilton’s basic understanding of human nature.  Federici describes Hamilton’s understanding of human nature as a type of “moral realism” that draws on Christian, classical, and modern sources.  Human nature has inclinations towards good and evil, it has higher and lower desires, and it is a mix of reason and the passions.  Government must control what is evil, low, and passionate and foster what is good, higher, and rational.  Hamilton’s philosophical anthropology also gave Hamilton a profound sense that all human undertakings, however well-conceived, necessarily fall short of perfection.

There is not scope here to elaborate on the astute and subtle ways Federici develops these basic points. Instead, let me, first, address one specific problem I see in his argument and, second, raise a question or two about the weaknesses that he identifies in Hamilton’s political thought.  The specific problem concerns Federici’s claim that Hamilton “was not enamored of natural rights theory” (p. 105; see also pp. 59-61).  This claim is connected to Federici’s understanding of Hamilton as embracing Christian and classical ideas along with the liberalism of Hume, rather than the natural rights philosophy of Locke.  As a young man Hamilton was unquestionably in love with natural rights.  In 1775 Hamilton lectured Tory Bishop Samuel Seabury: “The fundamental source of all your errors is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind.”  Hamilton was a natural rights revolutionary.  It is true that Hamilton almost never mentions Locke and that his references to natural rights diminish after the revolution.  Yet he does mention frequently philosophers influenced by Locke, notably Blackstone and Montesquieu.  Furthermore, the decline in references to natural rights would seem easily explained by the shift from a revolutionary situation to the situation of an infant republic.

More importantly, Hamilton never ceased to use natural rights as a philosophical framework.  Consider the logic of Hamilton’s reasoning in his twentieth “Camillus” essay, written in 1795, defending the controversial Jay Treaty. (Essays XVIII and XIX are also relevant.) The essential issue Hamilton addressed is whether it is lawful to sequester in time of war the investments private enemy foreigners have made in the United States.  To answer the question he had recourse, as he frequently did, to first principles, something that in this case required an inquiry into the foundation of the law of nations.  Hamilton explained that the law of nations has three components, the first of which is the “necessary” law which is the law of nature applied to nations – “or that system of rules for regulating the conduct of nation to nation, which reason deduces from the principles of natural right, as relative to political societies or states.”  Hamilton went on to say that where custom conflicted with the necessary law, custom must give way.  “For where REASON is the guide, it cannot properly be renounced for mere OPINION, however respectable.” He observed specifically that ancient law and practice on such matters, say of the views of Cicero, is of limited relevance.  There had been a considerable “improvement of moral science in modern times.”  Hamilton mentions with disapproval the ancient view that it is just to take enemy foreigners as slaves on the outbreak of war.  Hamilton went on to attempt to show that the modern customary law of nations supported his position on the injustice of sequestration.  But, he added, “let it not be forgotten, that I derive the vindication of the article from a higher source, from the natural or necessary law of nature—from the eternal principles of morality & good faith.”  This issue of the foundation of Hamilton’s thought is of critical importance.  Whatever their differences, the leading Founders — Hamilton, Adams, Washington, Jefferson and Madison — shared a belief in the modern natural rights philosophy.

There is another important issue that grows out of Federici’s account of the influences on Hamilton.  Federici makes a compelling argument for the important classical and Christian influences on Hamilton that political theorists frequently overlook.  He draws attention to Hamilton’s keen appreciation of the virtues of the classical gentleman.  There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this than Hamilton’s remarkable account of the virtues of ill-fated British spy John Andre (see Federici, p.88).  As Federici also notes, Hamilton’s constitutional theory depends not only on checks and balances but also on the importance of virtuous and disinterested public officials.  Yet, however much Hamilton took Cicero admonitions about virtue and the inspiration  of Plutarch’s heroes to heart, there is something in Hamilton that has a distinctively modern edge to it – his love of fame, the “ruling passion of the noblest minds,” as he once put it.  Hamilton longed for glory and he became despondent when it seemed like it would escape him.  Hamilton’s stress on the love of fame both in his own life and in his constitutional theory puts a considerable distance between himself and the classical account of the virtues.

Federici points to what he believes are some weaknesses or blind spots in Hamilton’s political thought.  The first is that while Hamilton assumes that virtuous characters are essential for the success of republican government he says little about the moral and intellectual cultivation of such leaders.  Furthermore, Federici wonders whether Hamilton’s assumption that virtuous leaders will predominate led him to fail to take adequate precautions against the time when unenlightened statesmen, including those in the judiciary, might be at the helm.  The second and, perhaps, more important weakness was Hamilton’s failure to see the dangers of centralization and in particular the importance of preserving the power of the states to challenge the national government.

At a certain level it is hard to argue with both of Federici’s criticisms of Hamilton’s constitutional theory.  Yet, is there a way to transcend what might be termed the clash between Hamilton and Jefferson?  Is there a way to transcend the clash between liberal construction of the constitution, energetic government, and a tendency towards excessive centralization, on the one hand, and strict construction, a vigilant citizenry, and a tendency towards disintegration, on the other?  Or is it a matter of matter of prudently balancing the virtues and the vices of each position in light of the prevailing circumstances?  My sense is that Federici thinks there is no transcendent possibility.  Hamilton himself thought that nothing in this world is truly capable of perfection.

Let me conclude with a comment related to the question of Hamilton’s character.  I mentioned at the outset Hamilton’s claim that he would be a martyr for the noble cause of liberty.  Federici leaves little doubt that Hamilton would have been a martyr for liberty and, while not specifically a study of Hamilton’s character, his fine study of Hamilton’s political thought gives us some considerable insight into what makes for such a complex and compelling figure.

Related items at Law and Liberty: A podcast at Liberty Law Talk with Michael Federici, author of The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton.