Hamilton’s Report on Human Nature

The great insight of Alexander Hamilton is that all serious nations take serious measures on behalf of their own security and prosperity. This is what good governments do. There is a clarity here that is absent from our current partisan debates, if only because Hamilton unapologetically offers good government as a foundation for republican government. To the extent that Americans today accept that foundation—and it is not clear to me that we do—Hamilton’s argument still has relevance today.

It is important to notice that Hamilton goes out of his way, in his 1791 Report on Manufactures, to make it seem as if he is not arguing that manufacturing is better than agriculture. He begins by conceding “that the cultivation of the earth” has “an intrinsically strong claim to preeminence over every other kind of industry.” Agriculture is the “immediate and chief source” of human subsistence; it is the “principal source” of materials for other industries; it is “most favorable to the freedom and independence of the human mind”; and, perhaps, it is “the most conducive to the multiplication of the human species.” The question, then, is not whether to have agriculture, but whether to have only agriculture. It is not whether manufacturing is better than agriculture, but rather whether manufacturing plus agriculture is better than agriculture alone.

Today this seems almost self-evident, and, consequently, it is for this essay that Hamilton is often praised as being the most farsighted of the Founders. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who famously praised those who “labor in the earth as the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people,” and who wanted our factories to remain in Europe, Hamilton imagined a more robust and self-sufficient American economy. His Report explained that encouraging manufacturing would offer a “greater scope for the diversity of talents which discriminate men from each other” and would expand the “field of enterprise.” Both of our rival modern virtues are here, diversity and enterprise, and both seem to work on behalf of that goal of every nation, economic “development,” especially underdeveloped nations. It is here where Hamilton is at his most attractive to moderns. Today, who is against development? And who could be against diversity?

In its time, however, Hamilton’s vision was deeply contested, and it is worth our while—even if it is impossible to turn back the clock—to revisit the arguments from the other side. The reason why we should consider the other side is not because we are obligated to find some balance in historical arguments, but rather because it turns out that Hamilton was not simply making the obvious argument for manufacturing in addition to agriculture. Instead, as his argument unfolds, it becomes clear that he was making the more ambitious claim that manufacturing was indeed superior. In this more ambitious argument, Hamilton’s Report is worth our consideration not so much for what it means for current arguments about free trade and protective tariffs (and who today could really care about what Hamilton thought about our partisan debates?), but more for what it assumes about the psychology of the human soul, about what motivates human excellence, and about what makes people most happy.

This more ambitious part of the Report can be seen in the explanation of the relationship between manufacturing and immigration. In a startling passage that is often left out of excerpted editions, Hamilton argues that the way to persuade immigrants (presumably Protestant Christians) to come to the United States—and this was considered by virtually everyone at the time to be a desired goal—is to offer economic incentives. People will come to the United States, he wrote, because of the “powerful invitations” of a “better price for the fabrics,” a “greater cheapness of provisions and raw materials,” and liberation from “taxes,” “burthens,” and “restraints.” In addition to all this, political and religious freedom would cause people to “probably flock from Europe to the United States.”

This might sound unobjectionable, but it rests on the key assertion that political and religious liberty alone was insufficient. These immigrants would not bother to “transplant themselves” to the United States if they knew they were to become mere “Cultivators of Land.” It turns out that freedom and farming are not attractive enough to people who live under less free governments. Economic advantage and employment, not a government based on securing political rights, is what makes America attractive. This implies of course that limited government is not an end in itself, and it implies that the individuals want more from their governments than to be left alone to pursue their own happiness.

This seems to be true not only of would-be immigrants looking for jobs or markets but also for a certain class of elites. Manufacturing offers a “more ample and various field for enterprise.” Part of the argument is that it offers more by expanding the kinds of enterprise—more kinds of jobs the better for more kinds of people.  Another part of the argument is that it offers more by improving the quality of enterprise. The “spirit of enterprise,” which seems to be a kind of Hamiltonian virtue, can expand or contract, not only on the basis of the number of opportunities but also on the “simplicity or variety of the occupations and productions.” The “busy nature of man” needs a field for exertion, and, for some men, that field cannot be an agricultural one. More than that, it seems that Americans, by Hamilton’s reckoning, demonstrate a “peculiar aptitude for mechanic improvements,” thus, some part of the American genius is stultified by the farming life. Hamilton also argues that women and children (who would presumably not be in school) would benefit from manufacturing because they too would have jobs and therefore would become “more useful” “than they would otherwise be.” The manufacturing plants would free them from the monotony of the household and field, and more broadly, from the domestic sphere.

All this implies a criticism of not only an agricultural economy but also of a more agrarian way of life. No person would bother to make his way to another continent in search of liberty if that liberty was accompanied by a life of toil in the field. And toil in the field would deaden the souls of certain men, men like the Caribbean island-born Hamilton, who needed more complexity to awaken and satisfy the longings that called them.

It is no wonder then that Madison and Jefferson disagreed with Hamilton. Jefferson was confident throughout his life that political and religious liberty was sufficient incentive for Europeans to leave the Old World. Madison, for his part, seemed to concede that economic questions would come into play in the decision to immigrate in the sense that the immigrant always chooses places where “living is less difficult.” But Madison used this simple proposition to explain the expanding immigration westward. It was not that there were jobs, but rather that the more or less free land made life sufficiently easier.

Madison and Jefferson also disagreed with Hamilton about the comparative quality of life. Where Hamilton left the impression of farming as dull, Madison praised it as the model of republican independence: “The life of the husbandman is pre-eminently suited to comfort and happiness.” This is because the farming way of life was ultimately a moderate way of life. Even though it is true that “the mind is less susceptible of polish in retirement than in a crowd,” the person who lives in the country is more likely to be both competent and independent than a person who lives in the city. Those who can “provide at once their own food and their own raiment” are the “most truly independent and happy.” The more of such people, the more free and the more happy the society (Madison Writings, 511-13).

These models of republican independence were to be preferred to reliance on the whims of the consumer class. “Twenty thousand persons are to get or go without their bread, as a wanton youth, may fancy to wear his shoes with or without straps, or to fasten his straps with strings or buckles,” wrote Madison. The fortunes of those who made shoes would rise and fall with the tide set by the fashion-makers. For Madison, this was the cruelest of despotism and a threat to national security, as fashion was all but surely to be manipulated by European trendsetters. The cultivator of the land who makes his own clothes was less dependent than the shoe-factory employee. The answer to the policy question was clear: As long as the West lay “vacant,” public authority should encourage that life which was the best for human happiness.

There is something surprisingly modern in this defense of the agrarian life. From Netflix to the New York Times, there is evidence that more Americans are rejecting the encumbrances of the consumer world and choosing more nimble and less cluttered ways to organize their lives. This is not to say that Madison or Jefferson had in mind van life or tiny houses, but it is to say that the renewed interest in minimalism and do-it-yourself living suggests that there is nothing necessarily “modern” about manufacturing. More than that, the surge in interest among urban dwellers in local food and start-up farming offers some evidence of the enduring appeal, not only of leaving the city, but also of self-sufficiency. The praise of the person who makes his own clothes doesn’t seem as quaint as it once did.

In fact, one could say that Hamilton might have been farsighted in predicting and justifying the period from, say, 1870 to 1970, but not so much in predicting and justifying the world today. Hamilton’s Report has very little to say about equality (or inequality, as it is now called in our politics) and very little to say about constitutional limitations on government. Also absent, of course, from Hamilton’s account is any concern about what we now call the environment. The emphasis is on expansion and growth, not conservation of scarce resources. In this, Hamilton seems rather old-fashioned.

To be fair, this can be said of the other side as well, for the Jeffersonian notion of the agrarian life always rested on the Lockean premise that enclosing and dominating the land was synonymous with improving the land. Where the Jeffersonian alternative to Hamilton does differ is in its unrelenting emphasis on individual freedom. Freedom from fashion is but another name for freedom from consumption; and freedom from consumption is but one form of freedom from appetite. Likewise, while it is true that the farmer is captive to the rain and sun (at least until agricultural science can devise methods to overcome nature), the more immediate point is that the farmer is less dependent on others for, at the very minimum, feeding and clothing his family.

In my view, the life of the manufacturing employee seems less attractive, less free, than the alternative. But the lesson of Hamilton points elsewhere than my own happiness and even my own freedom. It may very well be that a nation of manufacturers is more self-sufficient and more interesting to those with the intellect and the means to lead it. It may be that start-up farming is a luxury afforded only by the economic progress brought about by two centuries of manufacturing. It may be that humans care more about their economic advancement than their natural rights.

Hamilton was not the deepest or the first person to make these points. But he was the most forceful and the most able of exponent of them during the nation’s Founding. His surprising return to fame surely has something do with the fact that he glimpsed some eternal truth about the human condition, especially about the ambitious longing for economic improvement and advancement—a longing that he believed was deeper than and prior to a concern for political and religious liberty.  Whether Hamilton was right about that has serious implications for constitutional government.

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