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Founding Statesmanship and the Recurring Temptations of Democracy

America is awash in programs, books, and seminars about leadership, and we have inflicted upon ourselves a perpetual presidential campaign so that democracy can find its leader. This fetish indicates a deep problem.  America largely has turned itself into a democracy across three centuries, at the urging of intellectual elites as much as the people.  One price of democracy is that government by the not-so-discerning many, absent tempering or refining mechanisms, gets pulled down into being led, needing a leader.  An older wisdom deemed this model of a singular figure leading the people as demagoguery.  The competing idea for a free politics was statesmanship, the high but achievable ideal of constitutional office holders who employ authority prudently, as public servants, to achieve the polity’s necessary and noble aims.

Stephen Knott and Tony Williams offer a splendid joint biography of America’s founding statesmen, the crucial duo that forged a national constitutional republic – from a revolutionary war against a superpower, through a failed trial of a constitution, to the Constitution that endures to this day.  Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America studies the volatile but ultimately durable alliance of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, showing that constitutional statesmanship is not some mythical creature.  This is a timely study for a country currently inflicting upon itself a plebiscitary presidential contest featuring the demagoguery of Trump and Sanders.  Washington is the more admirable, steady, and statesmanlike of the two, but he could not have achieved great success – thus would not have needed to show his exceptional moderation regarding power and personal glory – were it not for the brilliance of Hamilton and their successful collaboration.

Perhaps the singular contribution of the Knott-Williams duo is to demonstrate that the contest between – as traditionally formulated – the Hamilton and Jefferson conceptions of America’s constitutional republic is erroneous, for it always was the Washington-Hamilton view.  While they favor this pair as the most significant statesmen of the founding era, above other impressive characters, they carefully recount the main debates between office holders about principles and policies under the Constitution.  Given the attraction of most scholars to the democratic appeal of the Jefferson-Madison side, Knott and Williams think it fair to correct the record by defending against distortions, even deceptions and slanders, made by Jeffersonians.  That said, a fifth of this volume is devoted to the extensive notes, bibliography, and index that indicate the care and erudition informing their case for Washington-Hamilton.

They note the hypocrisy, and clever propaganda, that portrays the latter as enemies to the people, closet monarchists, opponents to equality – charges launched by two wealthy slaveholders against the only president ever to act on his moral regrets by emancipating all his slaves, and against a self-made immigrant who founded the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves.  Committed Jefferson and Madison advocates should grit their teeth all the way through this impressive study to confront its argument that Washington and Hamilton were crucial for each other as founders, and, together indispensable for launching the America we enjoy today:  the greatest combination of freedom, equality, prosperity, and power known in history.

Washington & Hamilton recounts two ambitious characters who dedicated their talents over a quarter century to liberty.  They exercised their natural right to pursue happiness by launching a sustainable, decent republic that also could be a model to the world.  They differed with Jefferson, ultimately with Madison, about what liberty meant and required.  This was an honorable debate in principle, but often demagogic and vituperative in practice – with only Washington able to resist, mostly, the temptations to low partisanship.

Knott and Williams remind us that part of the challenge of statesmanship is to weather storms of popular anger or wild charges hurled about the intentions of one’s policies.  These lessons about how to defend sober judgment against democratic passion, and about arguing one’s interpretation of constitutional principle against competing views, provide a much better educational diet for our students and citizens than Progressive-democratic dogmas about transformational leadership.  The premise of that gospel is to ignore constitutional principle, and bemoan the inadequacy of mere transactional leadership under legal constraints; the people must be led to fulfill their wishes and needs in a new promised land.  The Federalist – the brainchild of Hamilton with the collaboration of Madison, both protected and encouraged by Washington’s stature and principles – warns of such demagoguery masquerading as justice.  A generation later, a young Lincoln repeated those warnings for Jacksonian democrats.  Some lessons we never learn, or, must continually learn if we value a decent liberty under rule of law.

All the important episodes and debates of the constitutional founding are here, but in the spirit of Plutarch, Washington & Hamilton initially recounts the origins, education, and character of each protagonist up through the forging experience of war.  The middling gentry of Virginia is a world away from the Caribbean colonialism in which Hamilton, raised by a single mother, grows to young adulthood.  They shared, however, a belief in liberty and wariness of British imperial power, which ripened into disgust by the 1770s.  Both wrote about violations of natural rights and the need to take up arms if necessary – Washington in Virginia resolutions and in letters, Hamilton in A Farmer Refuted, a year before the Declaration:  “The sacred rights of mankind . . . are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself.”

They first became allies through war; Washington discovered the young artillery officer and invited him to the commander in chief’s staff.  War is a reality so few of us experience, and one that Jefferson and Madison did not appreciate for its effect on veterans, to include conviction of the need for stronger Union and more adequate federal government.  After winning the war they both retired from national action; Washington was the extraordinary military hero who would be a Cincinnatus rather than a Caesar.

Even then, however, they separately called for reforms of the Articles of Confederation, and each maneuvered for a mechanism to achieve stronger Union.  In Philadelphia it was Washington’s immense credibility that permitted the legally dubious turn from reforming the Articles to replacing them.  Here Hamilton showed his alternating capacities for political genius and bone-headedness, anticipating the need for Washington’s moderating hand if he was to help his republic or himself.   Knott and Williams defend Hamilton against charges that his (in)famous June 18 speech advocated monarchism, but they call it a political blunder, the first of many in his career.  The exceptional moment of Philadelphia, a free people reforming its government via a deliberative assembly of select citizens, was a triumph but only an opening move.

The Constitution needed ratification by the states, and the duo pulled together in the harness again.  Here, Hamilton was the more active, conceiving of Publius and The Federalist for the New York effort, and recruiting John Jay along with Madison.  The latter joined Hamilton in persuading Washington to provide support.  The Founder wrote letters, and arranged to have Federalist essays reprinted in Virginia.  Knott and Williams recount the Anti-Federalist and nascent Jeffersonian view that Washington’s influence carried ratification, but they offer the further insight that it was the Convention and ratification debate that renewed the Washington-Hamilton alliance that had been strained by the war’s end.

Their alliance would be crucial for successfully implementing a government for the more perfect Union they achieved, and for making a true nation, America.  Washington was the indispensable first president, but his first appointment was Hamilton as Treasury Secretary.  This relationship was decisive for both of Washington’s terms and for steering the young ship of state through storms, indeed hurricanes.  We see how Washington encouraged Hamilton, but sought and carefully weighed the views or objections of Jefferson and Madison, while largely either adopting or tempering Hamilton’s measures.

The Washington-Hamilton program for a strong, durable republic argued for the constitutional propriety and necessity of funding a national debt to restore national credit; an executive power of independent but limited capacity that was not merely a clerk to the legislature’s democratic tendencies (especially the House), holding primary responsibility for national security and foreign policy; a national bank to energize the economy and provide emergency capacity to fund military forces (given that a republic jealous of liberty tolerated only minimal regular forces); and, a federal plan for supporting industries to produce war materiel and, generally, economic strength.  Throughout, Washington tempered Hamilton’s immoderate and frenetic ideas, but generally he supported these measures despite increasingly ferocious opposition, and Jefferson’s launching of the first political party.

On foreign policy Washington consulted but largely decided, first on the contentious issue of declaring America’s neutrality in the war between Britain and France sparked by France’s revolutionary zeal after 1789, then on the explosive issue of the Jay Treaty of friendship and commerce with Britain in 1795.  These last two debates nearly tore apart the country and federal government, but the Washington-Hamilton alliance persevered and established important precedents.  Toss in the Whiskey Rebellion, and all together the rhetoric was as ferocious, or more so, than any we hear today – a time of “folly and madness,” Washington deemed it – but, the debates at least were closely connected to first principles of constitutional order.  Strengths of the Knott-Williams account include demonstration that Washington always was the senior partner in various policy measures and in drafting the Farewell Address, not a semi-senile general bamboozled by a young dynamo (as Jefferson’s slander repeatedly urged); and, recollection of the dignified support the Washingtons showed to the Hamiltons amid the politics of personal destruction in the Reynolds Affair (which also was an episode of Hamilton, Icarus-like, bringing disaster upon himself ).

It is telling that, after the founding alliance of Founding Father & Federalist passed, and after a few decades under the rival Jefferson-Madison model, those two Virginians – and the republic generally – accepted many Federalist measures they had tempestuously protested as threatening liberty itself.  The invasion and burning of the capital city by a superpower during the disastrous War of 1812 induced a sober recalibration of how much federal government capacity was needed to ensure that a continental republic had enough means to ensure its great ends.  With Washington and Hamilton dead there was no felt need for the Democratic party to recant its alarmism against these measures and the founding duo that established them.

It was this conception of constitutional liberty, nonetheless, that laid the foundation for a solid Union able to sustain the republican greatness future generations would enjoy:  protecting not only liberty and law at home but supporting, through enlightened self-interest, the liberty of other peoples and a global liberal order of commerce and peace.  Knott and Williams also recount how the reckless partisanship of Jeffersonian democratism, bent on extirpating Federalists after Washington’s retirement in 1797 and death in 1799, bequeathed the potential for demagoguery and political fanaticism.  They mark this as the seed of the Jacksonian and later Progressive dogma that the cure for America’s problems always is more democracy, more populism.

This bold study will provoke rejoinders, and criticism, from friends to the Jefferson-Madison approach, but that would be a salutary consequence of the Knott-Williams effort at scholarly revision and republican education.  Some debates should never be forgotten, given the dignity of the protagonists and issues, and because later generations need models of how statesmanship can prudently and moderately address recurring challenges.

Among the distinctive arguments here is how slavery divided the Washington-Hamilton and Jefferson-Madison conceptions of America.  Hamilton always opposed it, and Washington gradually did so in thought, finally in practice; Knott-Williams argue that a quiet brief for slavery was central to the Jefferson-Madison zealotry for local democracy against federal power, and that in hindsight it is only the Washington-Hamilton conception of a strong federal Union that permitted abolition of slavery and ultimately eradication of legally sanctioned racism.  Regarding character, they reveal that Washington was more consistently educated, and moderated, by religious principle and belief, although the closing tragedies of Hamilton’s life – mostly occurring after his guardian Washington was gone – revived in him a deep religious belief.

A fundamental lesson about republican statesmanship is the evidence of Washington’s powerful moderation, which was not mushy compromise or mere conflict-avoidance, but the judgment to resist political extremes while reconciling competing principles in a higher middle ground.  We might consider today how timely these and other lessons are from our founding statesmen, wondering whether neglect of precisely these lessons has led to our current predicaments.

Reader Discussion

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on April 20, 2016 at 16:24:11 pm

I did not read your post, but this person Slavoj Zizek is quite good on this. He decries not just conservatives but also what he calls liberals, which is to say liberals who always want to compromise or vacillate on democracy. Zizek's work implies that for a stronger democracy, you need to be more radical in some way. So, democracy, for them, would be very MUCH a "temptation." Like a sugary confection treat, they are fascinated or titillated but not truly committed to their own principles of "human rights," equality, and so forth.
Mr. Zizek might agree with you (from what I read of it) on one point. There needs to be a particular place wherein the authority lies. (I.e., he is not anarchist).

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Jacob Silverman

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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