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The Political Theory of Alexander Hamilton and Its Reflection in American Political System
Alexander Hamilton was one of those political thinkers whose theory shaped the political profile of the young American nation. A theoretician of republicanism, author of about a half of the Federalist papers, signatory of the Constitution, friend of Washington and somehow an aristocratic idealist, Hamilton left a legacy, which continues to influence America until now. This legacy can be found in Hamilton’s works on political philosophy and state building.
In turn, these works were written not only by a Founding Father, but by a man, thus every piece of Hamilton’s political writing is deeply personal, reflecting not only abstract mediations, but practical experience. In this paper, I will attempt to analyze certain Hamilton’s ideas to prove that his theory had a strong relation to drafting, adoption, application and interpretation of the basic American constitutional instruments. In this theory, Hamilton managed to reconcile such controversial matters as liberalism, aristocratism, democratic values and political centralism.
This complex theory became a practice of American government and American people. Accordingly, America is still affected by Hamilton’s individual reflections, insights and mistakes. Review of Literature on the Subject Hamilton’s personality and Hamilton’s political views have attracted scholars ever since 1800-s, this, for the purposes of this paper I will review only certain landmark works presenting various approaches to the subject. An example of Hamilton’s comprehensive biography is “Alexander Hamilton” (2004) by Ron Chernow.
This book presents a classical view of Hamilton as a national hero and a founding father. Another classical approach is demonstrated in “Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government” (1970) by Gerald Stourzh. The book offers an image of Hamilton as a patriot of the Republic and influential theoretic of centralized government. Another approach to research on Hamilton’s heritage is presented in classical “Alexander Hamilton” by Henry Jones Ford first published in 1900. The book presents Hamilton as occasional figure torn by inner controversies, admirer of Britain and a latent monarchist.
A contemporary view of a famous conflict inside the federalist movement, including conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson is available in “Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character” (2000) by Roger G. Kennedy. Hamilton’s view of human nature Even the most perfect political system would not work in case it contradicts human nature. A government and a people consists of individuals sharing all virtues and weaknesses peculiar to human species. Thus, Hamilton’s starting point was understanding of human nature, including nature of those men who are vested with authority.
As put by Hamilton himself, principles of human nature “are as infallible as any mathematical calculations” (Stourzh 76). Rosano argues that Hamilton’s “predominately and radically liberal conception of human nature is based on Locke’s concept of liberty, Hobbes’s concept of power, and Machiavelli’s concept of the “effectual truth. ” (Rosano 61). This rather tricky combination was a result of Hamilton’s controversial views formed by demonstrative superficial idealism and deep inner skepticism. This controversy, probably, has never been resolved by Hamilton himself.
His nature was profoundly aristocratic, what he proved by his duel with Burr. Hamilton chose to die as a nobleman in spite of submitting a dispute for judicial consideration as a profound democrat would do. On the other hand, Hamilton admired the ideas of European Enlightenment with their call to democracy and self-government. Perhaps, Hamilton would be happy to see a free community of noble individuals without vices; however, he realized that such vision is practically impossible. This antilogy made Hamilton skeptical about human nature itself.
He pessimistically noted that, “A vast majority of mankind is entirely biased by motives of self-interest” (Stourzh 78). Later Hamilton claimed such views openly when he wrote of “deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature” (Federalist No 78). These Hamilton’s position corresponds to Hobbes’s concept of corrupted human nature which has to be oppressed by the government in order to preserve peace and stability (Stourzh 73). Surprisingly, Hamilton simultaneously managed to admire the theory of Hobbes’s eternal opponent Locke, who worshiped the natural state of man as a supreme value.
To what extent has Hobbes advocated power, to the same extent had Locke strived for recognition of human rights. Hamilton shared the ideas of the latter when he wrote: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power” (Stourzh 14). According to Hamilton, implications like love, liberty, desire of happiness, and public good are deeply rooted in every heart (Rosano, 63).
This makes a contrast to his early writings of human corruption. It appears that Hamilton suffered from mismatch between that what he wanted to see and that what he actually saw. This should be taken into account when analyzing Hamilton’s political heritage. For him the government was an instrument for bettering human nature and prevention of its corrupted manifestations. Deep understanding of Hamilton’s political theory is impossible without consideration of this peculiarity.
Hamilton’s Political Theory Theoretical views on politics shared by Hamilton are best reflected in the Federalist papers, about a half of which were authored by Hamilton personally. Seemingly, there is no crucial issue which Hamilton would not touch, yet his primary concerns were necessity of Consitution, separation of authority between the federal government and the states, powers of the central government, as well as issues concerning national bank, national debt, national armed forces and navy.
Hamilton venerates the people as a source of national will, yet this will has to be presented by someone, and this “someone” is likely to be corrupted. Hamilton’s response was a system of direct ties between the people and the central government, which would not be interrupted by intermediaries in the person of local authorities. In his letter to governor Morris Hamilton wrote: “it has ever appeared to me as sound principle to let the federal government rest, as much as possible, on the shoulders of the people, and as little as possible on those of the State Legislatures” (Chernow 774).
This view caused Kapstein to assert that “No other American statesman has personified national power and the rule of the favored few so well as Hamilton” (Kapstein 36). And indeed, in his most influential theoretical work reflected in the Federalist papers Hamilton speaks as an advocate of a stronger union between states which is likely to secure rights of the people inside this state. According to his idea, a slimsy confederation of half-independent states is likely to sink in inner conflicts, thus making the rights of the people insecure and the entire union vulnerable to foreign invasions.
To justify this view Hamilton once more referred to the corrupted human nature by observing that “to presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious” (Federalist No 6). Envy, national conflicts, territorial disputes, apportionment of national debt, senseless scholastic debates, disputes upon private contracts: all this, According to Hamilton, is likely to ruin a Union (Federalist No 7). Thus, the Confederation appeared to be insufficient to preserve the union.
Powers of states had to be strongly limited for the common good. Central government could impose such limitations only. Hamilton’s idea of the central government is quite authoritarian, causing allegations of monarchism and betrayal of ideals of freedom. Hamilton’s views on this subject were strongly affected by his personal experience during the Revolutionary war. The work of a procurement officer performed by Hamilton during the war was not heroic but very necessary. During this period Hamilton desperately fought against Congress’s foot dragging in every matter of supplying the army (Kennedy 36).
This pretty logical idea has been reflected in the Constitution and the American Bill of Rights, although there are at least two basic problems with it. Firstly, elimination of state authorities with aim to reduce the influence of human corrupted nature is a two-edged sword. The problem is simply raised from the state level to the federal level. A federal government controlled by unworthy people was probably Hamilton’s nightmare, especially in a situation when the states have no considerable opportunities to oppose the corrupted central government.
The second problem is in delegation of powers. Mutual consent may be a good theory; however, it is never practically achievable. Thus, there exists a notable problem of defining those powers which have to be delegated to the central government and which should not. One more criticism of Hamilton’s theory came from his opponents like Jefferson. A strong central power will have a strong army and police to enforce its decisions and protect the union. These institutions are likely to be used by the central government to expand its powers against defenseless states (Stourzh 198).
As regards matters of finance and taxation Hamilton, surely, advocated centralized taxation and centralized banking system based on national debt. According to Hamilton, this would enable to centralize and effectively apply the resources of a nation (Federalist No 30). Yet this idea, as understood by Hamilton himself, would bring about the issue of inequality, since those who borrow assets to the central government would tower over the rest of the people (Kapstein 37). Some response was provided by Hamilton when he wrote that “The loans it might be able to procure would be as limited in their extent as burdensome in their conditions.
They would be made upon the same principles that usurers commonly lend to bankrupt and fraudulent debtors, with a sparing hand and at enormous premiums” (Federalist No 30), however, it appears that Hamilton simply tried to escape the problem. As a Secretary of the Treasury, he obviously realized the need for centralization of assets through banking and taxations system, however, as a freedom idealist, he could not have avoided the view of national indebtedness as a burden imposed on every free person. Current situation with national debt demonstrates that Hamilton simply chose the bad from between bad and worse.
Centralized financial and taxation system did enable to preserve the Union in hard times, however, currently America faces the negative consequences of such preservation. This is Hamilton’s theory where the roots of the present situation are found. In his conclusive remarks to the Federalist Papers Hamilton notes that “there would appear still to remain for discussion two points: “the analogy of the proposed government to your own State constitution,” and “the additional security which its adoption will afford to republican government, to liberty, and to property.”
But these heads have been so fully anticipated…that it would now scarcely be possible to do anything more than repeat” (Federalist No 85). However, American national history proves that these crucial issues were far from explained both in the time of Hamilton and in the following decades. Hamilton has not offered a universal solution; he simply suggested one of the possible models which, as any models, had its strong and weak points. Perhaps the USA survived thanks to these strong points. However, this does not mean that the weak points never revealed themselves.
Practical Application of Hamilton’s Theory The most notable practical application of Hamilton’s political teaching is the Constitution of the United States of America, whose most furious advocate Hamilton was. The Constitution follows a model for division of powers proposed by Hamilton, including a single legislative body consisting of representatives of the people, a unified executive system, unified judiciary. Exclusive right of the central power to solve the issues of taxation and public debt.
In accordance with Hamilton’s idea, the Congress has a militia under its command. Thus, Hamilton’s political model was eventually reflected in the organic law of America. Application of this organic law appeared to be more complicated. Not less important than the adoption of the Constitution were sharp debates about its application in the late 18th and early 19th century. Perhaps the most controversial issue around these debates was Hamilton’s doctrine of implied powers, contrasting Jefferson’s idea of strict interpretation of the Constitution (Kapstein 37).
The doctrine of implied powers began to flourish already after Hamilton’s death in the judgments of John Marshall, Hamilton’s confederate, who served as Chief Justice. Centralization of American government was completed after several rulings rendered by Marshall in such landmark cases as Marbury vs. Madison (1804) and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Cohens v. Virginia (1821). At that, the Constitution shaped by Hamilton was used as a mighty tool for centralization. In Marbury vs. Madison Marshall determined that “the judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the Constitution”.
To support this Marshall created a pretty logical construction pointing out that as long as the Constitution is a supreme law, the Supreme Court is empowered to review all cases where the Constitution is concerned. This was the first application of Hamiltons implied powers doctrine, but far not the last. Another direct reference to the doctrine was the Supreme Court judgment in McCulloch v. Maryland, where Chief Justice Marshall put a period to application of Hamilton’s idea of centralized power and centralized banking.
By determining that the Constitution grants to Congress implied powers for implementing the Constitution’s express powers, in order to create a functional national government and that the State action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government (Smith, 89) the Supreme Court made the states entirely dependent on the central government in every matter related to the Constitution. Deserves noting that by referring to implied powers Marshall laid grounds not only for application of Hamilton’s political heritage, but for subsequent violations of Constitutional rights.
Thus, just few years after Marshall’s death, his theory proved to be a double-edged sword. Conclusions Rosano fatefully observes that Americans are happy and “the founders are celebrated because they had the chance to prove their virtue; they were virtuous because they loved liberty and the public good as well as fame” (Rosano 72). This passage is very much applicable to Hamilton. A revolutionary hero and a prominent author, he presents a perfect set of virtues admired in America.
It is hard to find another figure which would be so momentous for America as Hamilton was, perhaps with exception only for Washington. However, being a momentous figure, Hamilton gave America not only liberty and virtues, but a sense of helplessness against central government, as well as long-lasting problems such as national debt. The controversies of Hamilton’s theory made American political system controversial. Numerous attempts to fix this by subsequent amendments and court decisions prove that Hamilton’s model is viable, but far from ideal.
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