Who was Alexander Hamilton? Militarism, High Finance and Checking the Democracy.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories “Declaration” and The Whiskey Rebellion. He is also the author of the book Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation”. His blog is Hysteriography. Follow him on Twitter @WilliamHogeland

This interview was conducted by Nathan Tankus, a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @NathanTankus

Nathan Tankus: Let’s begin with the basics, who was Alexander Hamilton?

William Hogeland: To us — why we care — Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury and the architect of the comprehensive plan of finance that established the United States as a viable nation. He had an interesting background — he came from the colonial British West Indies, was born out of wedlock (a distinct disadvantage then), abandoned by his father and then orphaned by his mother. He didn’t “come from nothing,” as some romantically describe him: he grew up at first on inherited property; his mother had a store and other property including enslaved Africans. Hamilton would have had a modest inheritance, but the court gave it all to his mother’s husband, the man she’d left for Hamilton’s father. So he had to go to work as a teenager in an trading firm and blew everyone’s mind with his efficiency and brains. He was always like that. He had sponsors who sent him to New York, where he trained himself incredibly fast to get into Columbia. On George Washington’s staff during the Revolution, he became a de facto chief. He married into the Schuylers, one of the most elite of elite New York families. A very appealing story, and an intense personality.

NT: What was his relationship to George Washington during the Revolution?

WH: Washington and Hamilton had a highly fraught relationship. During the war, Washington depended on Hamilton as a key staffer, so he kept frustrating his protege’s intense desire to join in the actual combat. At one point they had an actual blowout over the issue in front of other officers. In private letters, Hamilton ran Washington down, questioning the chief’s ability as a general and so forth; he sometimes liked to present Washington as seeking a deeper friendship with him than Hamilton wanted to have, but I think that was pretty much just preening. These attitudes were worrying to Hamilton’s father-in-law and mentor Philip Schuyler, who was a great supporter of Washington, but it was part and parcel of Hamilton’s character, even from a young age, to be impatient with any restraint and excoriating in his opinions.

Then, after leaving the army and entering the Continental Congress, Hamilton courted Washington, by letter, to get involved in a scheme to threaten the Congress with a military coup unless it passed a tax that Hamilton and his finance mentor Robert Morris wanted to use to fund interest payments to a small number of wealthy investors in the war debt. Washington was totally aligned with their finance goals. But he declined to involve himself in what he began to see as a very dangerous scheme. Weirdly, as Hamilton confessed some of his own involvement in the plot, and covered some of it up, Washington’s relationship to Hamilton became closer. They came to depend on each other to bring about major projects in the early federal period.

NT: Expand on that point: why did they threaten Congress with a military coup and why was it necessary in their minds?

In the later days of the war, the high-finance types that Hamilton saw as critical to the strength and greatness of an independent America were getting worried that the domestic war debt — multiple tiers of state and federal war bonds they’d invested in — would never be funded with regular interest payments, and might even be wiped out completely. They weren’t wrong. Ordinary people, non-bondholders, were agitating within the states for radically discounting bond payouts to face value and equalizing burdens and payoffs.

What Hamilton, Morris and others wanted to do is to assume all this debt as a federal responsibility — centralizing the relationship of government to wealth — and reliably fund it. People writing about Hamilton recently seem unable to face this fact, which he cogently explained: he worked hard (Madison did too!) throughout the 1780’s to swell the federal debt, not reduce it. He, Washington, Madison, and Morris were nationalists, and they knew that great nationhood is possible only if it has access to a concentration of wealth. Anyway, before there was a nation, they had no power under the Articles of Confederation to directly tax people in order to fund these bonds, so they tried to get Congress to alter the Articles and pass such a tax, an impost on foreign goods. This proposed impost was only a wedge: after people got used to it, Morris said, Congress could start passing other tax laws, collecting money earmarked for bondholders’ interest (tax-free, of course) from people who would never own a bond and “open the purses of the people,” as Morris put it, really concentrating wealth upward. Some states saw what they were up to — Rhode Island, mostly — and refused to pass it. Meanwhile, with peace in the offing, the nationalists saw all unity about to dissolve. States might start to pay off or fund their own debt instruments. The whole national hope would crumble.

But the army’s officer class had not been paid what it was promised — a fact due partly to Morris’s preference for paying investors over soldiers! — and so the nationalists saw a chance of joining military force to wealth and forcing Congress to pass the impost for funding the bondholders. What if the troops simply refused to lay down their arms unless the officers — and crucially, to Hamilton and Morris — the bondholders were funded? Controversy about this episode — it’s called the Newburgh Crisis, because Washington’s army was then at Newburgh, New York — centers on the extent to which Hamilton and Morris envisaged possibly carrying out a real coup, in partnership with certain officers, or whether they just wanted to scare Congress with the idea of coup. Either way, it’s Hamilton’s first entry into politics, and it set him on a fairly startling trajectory. Nobody can say he didn’t have guts.

NT: That is amazing. What is the fallout of the crisis for him? how did he manage to become the first Treasury Secretary of the United States after what easily could be construed as treason?

WH: Nobody involved was openly accused of treason. These were Washington’s friends and political allies in nationalism. Washington was infuriated by their dangerously bonehead tactics — he thought they’d put the whole nationalist program at risk — but he stayed friends with Morris, and it was now, strangely enough, that he and Hamilton began working more closely together. Almost everybody calls the Newburgh conspiracy a failed threat of coup, but I think it was largely successful. After shutting down an attempted officer coup by his hated enemy Horatio Gates — Hamilton shrewdly never admitted to Washington that the conspirators had reached out to Gates! — Washington himself wrote to Congress, described the coup he’d just shut down, and demanded that the officer class be added to the bondholding class, which Congress instantly did. That created a new concentration of wealth in military power, the strongest lobby of all. When the time really did come to fund the debt, when Hamilton was Treasury Secretary, the table had been set. Hamilton took huge risks in the Newburgh crisis, and they all paid off.

NT: I’d like to focus in on something you just said: “Washington himself wrote to Congress, described the coup he’d just shut down, and demanded that the officer class be added to the bondholding class, which Congress instantly did. That created a new concentration of wealth in military power, the strongest lobby of all.”. Many say one of the greatest victories of the Revolution is that we avoided a military junta. Do you think this is as true as commonly believed?

WH: I think it’s manifestly true that the country did not come to be ruled by a military junta. The armed forces remained under civilian control. That’s something to be happy about.

During the revolution, however, Washington, as commander, was arguably the most powerful person in the country; second or maybe nearly equal to him was Robert Morris, and I think the combination of of military power and high-finance power played a far stronger role in establishing nationhood than is commonly recognized. I mean, how wouldn’t it? That’s part of what a nation was — a concentration of power in wealth and military strength. When it comes to Hamilton himself, while he could always talk the Whiggish talk, I think he was always romantically drawn toward military derring-do and felt frustrated by the structures of civilian control. When he led 19,000 troops into western Pennsylvania to occupy it in the 1790’s, he paid no attention to legal restraints on using military force on the citizenry. The troops brought along a federal judge, but the judicial power was explicitly subordinated to military authority, and Hamilton oversaw roundups without warrants, indefinite detentions without charge, loyalty oaths extracted by soldiers.

Here again we see the weird symbiosis of Washington and Hamilton. The President approved all that stuff. And yet he turned back before the troops got into the west; he left Hamilton in charge, the tough guy who takes the historical blame. So no, we did not get a military junta. But some important figures in the Federalist era were the first in U.S. history to flirt, at least, with militarism, and I see Hamilton as foremost among them.

NT: What did Hamilton do after the Revolution? how did his experiences in the immediate aftermath inform his and other “founding fathers” views of the articles of confederation?

WH: He practiced law in New York and worked hard to get the country turned into a nation. It’s commonly said that the Articles were weak. The more important point is that they acted only on the member states, only within the context of their common goals — administering the war, then administering the Northwest Territory, etc. A real nation would pass laws acting directly on all citizens throughout the states — like a real impost, and like an excise, earmarked for paying bond interest. To get the high financiers paid, to put down populist rebellions for democratic finance, to assume all state debt into the federal debt, to stop the states from printing paper currencies that devalued creditors’ often predatory investments in private debt, to form a nationally controlled regular army to expand U.S. sovereignty and investment into Indian country north and west of the Ohio River, would take national power, and Hamilton was important in getting the Constitutional convention going.

NT: Many on the left seem to be in love with Hamilton, or at least see him as the “best” of the founding fathers. An example of this kind of left revisionism comes from Christian Parenti in this piece in the left magazine Jacobin:

In the face of these changes, Hamilton created (and largely executed) a plan for government-led economic development along lines that would be followed in more recent times by many countries (particularly in East Asia) that have undergone rapid industrialization. His political mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change — a policy also known as dirigisme, although the expression never entered the American political lexicon the way its antonym, laissez-faire, did.

What do you think of this vision of Hamilton?

WH: It sort of depends on what you mean by “left,” and nobody will ever agree on that. Obviously Hamilton was no laissez faire economic libertarian, and he was a kind of liberal-capitalist proponent of active government management of the national economy, so certain kinds of liberals and conservatives alike naturally hold him in high regard. On that spectrum are those who take Hamilton’s personal upward mobility as a sign of his commitment to upward mobility for all, which I find fantastical. There were Soviet managerial planning types who might have admired Hamilton’s way of doing business, if you think of them as left. And he was militaristic, unabashed abut using state power to crack down on dissent without regard for law, and there certainly have been left regimes that might relate to that.

But in terms of goals we might more seriously imagine a modern American left endorsing — equality, democracy, restraining the power of wealth in government, fostering labor over capital — that’s not Hamilton. It’s not Jefferson either. Parenti’s argument struck me as a fairly typical liberal argument in favor of Hamilton, and not very informed by the real purposes and beneficiaries of Hamilton’s policies for concentrating American wealth, but I don’t understand why some on the left keep looking for heroes in the founding generation. People keep trotting out this tired Hamilton-vs.-Jefferson binary, picking one guy over the other to hold up, this week, as a founding model, and then fighting about who’s more proto-left. It’s been going on for generations. There’s nothing there.If the left is seeking figures in the founding generation, look at Thomas Paine, Herman Husband, James Cannon, Thomas Young, e.g. They had issues too, of course. But at least their careers have something to do with the history of the American left.

NT: Was Hamilton an abolitionist or “anti-slavery”?

WH: Hamilton opposed the institution of slavery, both personally and in his policies, which promoted a national economy driven by industrially organized labor, urban and rural. That was in opposition to the agrarian vision of Jefferson, which lauded the white yeoman freeholdiing farmer, and was in fact based on a plantation economy reliant on the labor of enslaved black people; unlike Washington, say, Jefferson never even seriously considered freeing his slaves. That makes Hamilton a far more appealing founding figure than Jefferson.

But it’s a far cry from the abolitionism that some of Hamilton’s biographers — most recently Ron Chernow — claim for him. I think usually we mean “abolitionist” to refer to those who pushed to eradicate the institution nationally, by law. That wasn’t Hamilton, putting it mildly. As a nationalist eager to get the Constitution signed, he naturally supported the three-fifths clause that effectively wrote slavery stubbornly into the national founding, over and against petitions by Quakers whom we might more accurately call abolitionist of their day. He did belong to the New York Manumission Society, which worked to get slaveowners in New York to free their slaves and pushed for a law for gradual abolition of the institution in the state. It should be noted, for clarity, that slave ownership was no bar to membership in the Manumission Society. Many in both the North and the South had concerns, no doubt sincere, about the vileness of the institution; many of those same people nevertheless held slaves. Hamilton fans assert that Hamilton himself never did, but the record suggests otherwise to me. There’s a note from Hamilton to George Clinton arranging payment for “the woman Mrs. Hamilton had of Mrs. Clinton”; other letters show Hamilton arranging slave transactions for relatives. Such was the national pervasiveness of the institution, lest we forget. Making Hamilton an abolitionist who recoiled from ever dealing with such things is wishful thinking that I think helps us forget.

NT: Much is made of the fights between federalists and anti-federalists. Could you talk about how much they fundamentally agreed on?

WH: When the 1787 meeting opened, which became the Constitutional Convention, I think pretty much everybody in the room was agreed that something had to be done specifically to end the populist movement for democratic approaches to finance, which was undermining the likelihood that the bondholders would ever get paid. At least that’s what Edmund Randolph said they should be addressing, when he called the meeting to order. The delegates believed the only way to assert the claims of the interstate elites was to now form a national rather than a confederated government: the state legislatures had shown themselves just systemically too weak in resisting democracy. Some who were just as concerned about the threat of democratic finance stayed away from the convention: Patrick Henry was no populist, but he saw that Virginia would lose sovereignty in a national context, so he couldn’t endorse where he saw the convention going. But generally what the parties that became “federalist” and “antifdederalist” disagreed on was how to structure a national government and how much power it should have vis a vis the states (Hamilton wanted to eradicate the states completely, make them departments of the federal government). Those differences became deep, stark divisions; they’ve messed us up ever since. Still, the popular movement for democratic finance had done the near-impossible: bringing together American elites with nothing in common except the desire to crush the popular movement.

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  1. Erwin Gordon

    LOL! I especially liked the phrase, “liberal-capitalist proponent of active government management of the national economy”. In other words, the wealth class and government working for their mutual self benefit. Gee whiz that’s almost the exact definition of fascism! Let’s be clear, Hamilton was a federalist. He wanted to re-enslave the population to the federal government through taxation in the same way that they were previously enslaved via taxation to the British monarchy. As it shown by the early history of the US, it only took them a little more than 200 years to achieve their objective. And now we’re there. US Constitution is completely ignored. Taxes are extracted in multiple direct and indirect ways from the population to pay creditors and wealth is concentrated in a few individuals at the top with politicians feeding on the scraps. His vision is achieved. Enjoy it!

    1. Paul Tioxon

      The wealth class and the government are presented by you as two distinct groups of people. Obviously, they are one and the same in this historic instance. All of the governments of these colonies and then states of the newly formed United States had economic requirements, among several others, for holding public office. By the very definition of political power of voting or holding public office, you had to be a white male, Christian, usually exclusively Protestant, and held a certain amount of land debt free and or also had a certain amount of money. There was no group of up and comers hanging around getting elected and then rich people buying them off. To be in the political game, here and at that time, it was of no use to be young, smart and energetic. You had to possess wealth as well. This is a typical intellectual projection of our current state of affairs backwards into another era and trying to understand a completely different culture not on their terms, but on ours. Fascism is hardly the issue. If the use of military force by the state in conjunction with wealthy elites is fascism, then all empires, nations and wandering armed hordes and viking loaded ships are fascism. This is hardly the case.

      The use of the state and the market together to pursue wealth is capitalism. The populist inroads of democratic controls of the state to mitigate the concentration of power by the wealthy are also using the state to force redistribution extensively among the greater populace as opposed to the intensive accumulation of power and wealth in the hands of a few. Both popular extension of wealth and intensive concentration of wealth use the coercive power of the state and neither is fascist. Fascism’s use of the state was not a pluralistic pursuit in a multi-ethnic empire but the focusing on nationalism as a homogenous society not circumscribed by financial markets but by direct, brute force. Capitalism produces a social order via the market, finance, wages and profits, fascism is an exercise in unmediated state violence to coerce and intimidate without any socialization other than fear of being non-conformist or fear of any other kind of non-conformist, whether religious, racial, ethnic, political ideology, or factions.

      1. Disturbed Voter

        Not even wrong ;-) Prior to industry … imperialism and despotism flourished. This became fascism with the advent of industrialization. The British Empire was the first fascist state … in the Victorian age. The American colonies were pre-fascist … but caught up with the British Empire during the Spanish-American war. The US continued to be the junior-partner of the British Empire and the Rothschilds until WW II … and from that point on, became the sole surviving Anglo-American Israelitism (remember Palestine/Israel). Of course other nations, not necessarily nice ones, opposed this juggernaut … and lost. Basically, Chancellor Bismark let the cat out of the bag, when he wrote that Germany’s primary problem was that N America spoke English instead of German. He also said that the Civil War in the US was caused by inducement of the South by the Rothschilds (as agents of the British Empire) … because British policy before 1914 was to destroy the US … except that Queen Victoria got cold feet. He also blamed the assassination of Lincoln on the Rothschilds (as the Booths were British agents). This hostility was mutual even after WW I … the US had contingent war plans against the British Empire into the 1930s. The Anglo-American … Winston Churchill, changed all that, making the US into a British colony once again … though via the policy of cooption … the British decided in 1914 … if you can’t beat them, join them. History isn’t just abstract -isms … it is real people and factions with blood on their hands.

        1. jonboinAR

          This is fascinating, people! More about the history of British/American empire competition and also early-American government-elite cooperation. My IQ increased by a point this morning. I know it did!

        2. Deaf Smith County

          Are you able to cite your sources for those revealing statements about US-British-Rothschild relations?

          1. Disturbed Voter

            I am not able to be as scholarly as I would want to be. But I would take Chancellor Bismark’s opinion over most other people’s opinions. You can research that for yourself. I simply have a good memory for anything I have read.

            The Elite have no intention of providing paper trails. Never have, never will. In the old days, they didn’t have to keep public emails on private servers, and carefully extract and redact for public consumption the contents thereof, nor erase/destroy the originals or backup tapes.

            Yes … there are no bankers, no Papacy, no monarchies, no crime syndicates etc … unless you can prove that they exist. And if they did exist, they would never have any interactions between each other. Proof is a high standard … it took hundreds of pages to prove that 1+1=2.

            Notice we are never taught about:

        3. Greenbacker

          Yes, the Rothschilds plan to break the US up is a well known “fact”. The fact Tsar Alexander II brought his fleet up to help Lincoln and the northern states is good circumstantial evidence. The Tsar was a noted opponent of the Rothschilds for years.

          “Anti-Federalists” were actually the globalists. They wanted the “US” to fit in a globalist scheme. The Federalists were the “Nationalists” who wanted to put their own capitalist brand against the Euros in competition. AKA, you have the House of Hamilton as our banking system up into the 1830’s. Andy Jackson gets rid of Hamilton’s bank that was used to finance industrialization. The North is fed up by 1860 and elects a nationalist in Lincoln. The Roths refuse financing at first of course, then when Lincoln successfully finances the war through Greenbacks, the Roths give up knowing they had little chance to break up the US without foreign intervention and finance the Union setting the stage for the long post-war partnership until the Great Depression. The Morgans sniff out the weakness and help push through Glass Steagall, which split the Rothschilds in two. In 1944 the Dollar replaces the Gold Standard as the reserve currency. The Roths are destroyed. Roths join the Rockefellers financing the ‘nascent’ “Libertarian” movement(originally by financing Mises). David Rockefeller finances the “Volker Fund” and Volker finds a young intellectual named Murray Rothbard. Rothbard comes up with “populist libertarianism” which is a pure scam. It paints the government as being run by “internationalists” who destroy your freedom by financing social programs and are in cahoots with the capitalist cabal. What a hoot that is. Lets get rid of all the laws……….so the monied elite can directly control the law.

          You see, “Gilbers” are the modern “globalists”. The Pauls are globalists as much as the neo-cons, DLC types. They are the modern CSA. A pure scheme inside a scheme. The problem is, the black problem. It has been used for years separate the tribes that oppose the “market statism”. You have Christian influenced multi-culturalists and you have the Gentile Left that opposes Multi-Culturalism. The schism has left a huge void in politics. They won’t work together to get rid of the modern day “Libertarians”. Eventually the day will come, where they do come to power as the Hamiltonian nation state crumbles under the lack of care. The entire government structure will collapse. Lily white america will loose much property and wealth from the middle class(protected in the recent bailout). While the rich billionares and millionares loose little as deflation restores all their wealth via the huge assets they own as the country’s currency crumbles. They start hiring private armies and states begin to crumble. They buy up whole cities and townships for private use. The day of the market state has arrived.

          Guenon and Evola would say everything is a scheme for the last 2000 years and the imperial state is the natural course.

          1. Disturbed Voter

            Your eyes are open. The greatest propaganda of history, is what you choose to highlight. You don’t even have to lie about the rest. And of course winners vs losers. On that song and dance … the US and the German Empire nearly went to war at the end of the 19th century … and just a bit earlier … the US and the British Empire nearly went to war. The Spanish Empire was easier pickings … and the British Empire was at its peak. The German Empire wanted to take out the US (see Chancellor Bismarck) … but Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to take out the British and Russian Empires first … though the long term plan was still being developed … the Zimmerman telegram. Hitler was merely continuing the policy of Bismarck and the Kaiser … in allying with Japan and opposing the US.

            Today war with the British Commonwealth is more difficult … because under Five Eyes … GB, the US, Canada, Australia and NZ … are uniquely allied in all Intel operations. The British always talk since WW II, about their “special relationship” … which as far as I am concerned, given the links between the FR and the BoE … the US is a defacto colony … with aristocracy stoked for decades by the Ivy League graduates. That FDR was an aristocrat … was crucial in relations with Churchill.

            Of course, going back to the presence of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico … the square dance involved France as well. But they are not part of the Five Eyes, nor is Israel. So France and Israel have to spy on the US etc to protect themselves against betrayal. And that is why the US spies on France, Israel and Germany.

      2. Martin Finnucane

        I agree. I don’t know if this is an American (i.e., U.S.) phenomenon or more general, but it seems that many people of even only mildly center-left propensities are quick to attach the term “fascist” to their adversaries. Particularly feeble-minded is the confusion of Mussolini’s corporatist ideology and contemporary “corporate democracy.” One word sort of sounds like another, and Mussolini is bad, so there’s a quick and easy “ah ha!” moment for a lazy leftist. “Fascism” is not an analytically or politically useful term if all it really boils down to is “bad stuff.”

        I think sometimes the promiscuous (mis)use of the term comes from a case of bad conscience. The enemy is actually capitalism, but we just can’t quite bring ourselves to say as much, so we resort to a commonly accepted bad word instead. Nobody (in the U.S. anyway) ever lost a job for disliking fascism.

        1. Disturbed Voter

          An overused word … fascism. Like any other name calling. During WW II, all major parties were fascist … including Chiang Kai Shek … Stalin was fascist too … Mao wasn’t but only because he was still leading a traditional peasant revolt. Only after Chiang was defeated, could Mao become a proper fascist … but industrial development took so long, it was really after Mao that China became a proper fascist nation under the current one-party industrial regime.

          At one time … colonial was a curse word, particularly if a Minuteman was shooting at you from behind a tree ;-)

        2. alex morfesis

          no one lost a job disliking fascism ?? snarkish maybe ?

          you have heard of greta van susteren…the one with the stretched out face (like Katherine Helmond in ‘brazil’) on the network which shall not be named…she had a dad named Urban

          He was the good friend of Crazy Joe McCarthy, and Urban gave crazy joe his first copy of
          mein “dumm” kompf…and Crazy Joe suddenly decided that what we heard in Nuremberg didn’t matter and the real problem was uncle joseph…and anyone who complained about all those little green men (nazi and japanese super soldier mengele experimentts) brought over during operation papeclip and all those “nah-tzeez” roaming around…well they just had to go…

          one aside…if visiting new york city, the home of Robert Morris which was the HQ of washington still stands…its a great example of how power is fleeting…and things change…

          one person who complained about fascism, paul robeson, lived in a home facing the mansion during those years when he went from one of…if not “the” most popular concert singer, to someone who had to do tours in black churches to pay his bills (luckily his brother was a garveyite and ran the mother AME zion church in harlem)…His mothers family supplied Washington bread from their bakery in New Jersey in that fateful year of 76…

          The song Paul Robeson sung…”ballad for americans” is probably one of those songs lost to the dustbins of history


  2. PhilK

    In 1926, Vernon L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought extensively compared Jefferson and Hamilton. I think his overly-favorable treatment of Jefferson would seem quaint to most modern readers, but his criticism of Hamilton is so on-target that I can’t resist quoting (and adding emphasis to) some of it:

    He accepted frankly the principle of exploitation. He was convinced that the interests of the manufacturers were one with the national interests, and he proposed to put the paternal power of the government behind them. With the larger social effects — the consequences to the working classes, congestion of population, the certainty of a labor problem — he concerned himself no more than did contemporary English statesmen. He was contemptuous of Jefferson’s concern over such things. He had no Physiocratic leanings towards agriculture; material greatness alone appealed to him; and he contemplated with satisfaction the increase in national wealth that would accrue from levying toll upon the weak and helpless.
    . . . .
    In his understanding of credit finance and the factory economy, he grasped the meaning of the economic revolution which was to transform America from an agrarian to an industrial country; and in urging the government to further such development, he blazed the path that America has since followed. “A very great man,” Woodrow Wilson has called him, “but not a great American.” In the larger historical meaning of the term, in its democratic implications, that judgment is true; but in the light of our industrial history, with its corporate development and governmental subsidies, it does not seem so true. As the creative organizer of a political state answering the needs of a capitalistic order — a state destined to grow stronger as imperialistic ambitions mount — he seems the most modern and the most American of our eighteenth-century leaders, one to whom our industrialism owes a very great debt, but from whom our democratic liberalism has received nothing.

  3. Carolinian

    This is a fascinating NC post. Thanks so much. If you go to the above linked blog Hogeland has some interesting material there as well. For example here’s one on why Hamilton should stay on the ten dollar bill.


    Given the recent zeal to expunge politically incorrect reminders from various public places consider Hogeland’s rather thorough debunking of the Spielberg version of US history. Just a sample (in opposition to a NYT piece by Steven Rattner)

    But “contrasting their records” is not what’s going on here, as the conclusion of Rattner’s attacks on Jackson make especially clear. Jackson played an important role in “waging war,” Rattner complains, “particularly against Native Americans.”…..

    But can Rattner seriously be trying to conjure, by unstated contrast, a peace-loving Hamilton with progressive ideas about indigenous people? Hamilton spent his whole career in love with war and trying to make more of it. He envisioned leading armies into Florida and Louisiana, and even into Virginia; he did lead a massive military occupation of western Pennsylvania, complete with door-kicking mass arrest, detentions without charge, and loyalty oaths extracted by dragoon.

    Hamilton’s efforts in helping Washington make war on the Great Lakes Indians, in what the U.S. called the Northwest Territory, were critical to the success of that war. So what is Rattner talking about? If making war on and depopulating and trying to eradicate Indians means you shouldn’t be on the money, that’s yet another reason, along with his slaveowning, for Washington to go — and in this context, Lincoln has to go too. To Grant’s slaveowning add his campaign against the Plains Indians (“even to their total extermination,” Sherman reported to Grant, “men, women and children”); as well as General Order #11, by which Grant tried to remove Jews from parts of three states.

    Who’s left? Nobody? Good. At least with nobody on our money, we’ll avoid the historical vacuity of essays like Rattner’s.

    Which is to say if you want to judge America’s historical figures by modern standards then you are pretty much going to have go after all of them. While some historical reminders are far more checkered than others, history is just history. Choosing to be offended by it isn’t going to change the fact that it happened.

    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      I second the hurrah for the posting from Hogeland, he doesn’t post every day so I lose track of him – yeah, I’ve heard of something call “feeds”, sounds like time at McDs…

      But Hogeland is not judging historical figures by current standards. He is judging current judges by historical standards. Standards of truth, relevancy, and accuracy. Current judges like Rattner are clearly shown to be of a poor quality, but the Founding Fathers are found to be fascinating white guys. I don’t admire them but Hogeland makes them a lot more interesting to read about than what is in my high school or college history book.

  4. knowbuddhau

    I love the smell of synchronicity in the morning. Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about Senator Obama’s showing of fealty to the Hamilton Project, and wondering what the heck the Rubino crime family saw in him that they would name their project after him. Now I know.

    Thanks for scratching that itch. And thanks for the bonus material, PhilK. I bow in your virtual directions.

    I keep coming back to this February, 2010 TRNN interview with Jeff Cohen. Yves sometimes mentions the Powell memo. There was a parallel effort.

    Progressives and the Democratic Party, part 2.

    PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Ithaca, New York, and joining us again is Jeff Cohen. He’s the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. Thanks for joining us again.


    JAY: In the first part we talked a bit about Massachusetts and what a swing voter is, but we wound up really talking about the corporatization of the Democratic Party. And also, I guess, maybe we should—just before we deal with that, let’s talk a bit about the very conscious plan where to take the Republican Party, ’cause the Republican Party used to be this kind of also broad alliance of different political forces, and it’s gotten narrower and narrower.

    COHEN: A lot of people know that there was a memo written by Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer lawyer, to the US Chamber of Commerce in 1971 in reaction to the new left, saying that big business has got to fight for itself: we’ve got to do messaging; we’ve got to deal with liberals and leftists in academia; we have to challenge the media. And that Powell memo set off a series of fundraising by big corporate forces and big donors. They set up their think tanks; they set up the Heritage Foundation; they mobilized the Christian right.

    JAY: Also in response to, I guess, partly what you’re calling new left, but the antiwar movement. The politics was very in flux.

    COHEN: Oh, yeah. And, understandably, this corporate lawyer, who became a US Supreme Court justice after the memo was written—but the memo didn’t surface until he was already on the Court, or he may never have been confirmed—they had real reason to be upset. And he’s writing it to Chamber of Commerce, saying the business class has got to stand up for business and fight these forces of, you know, new left, anticorporate—.

    JAY: Sometimes referred to as the forces of anarchy, I think.

    COHEN: Yeah, right. And what’s interesting is that that memo to the US Chamber of Commerce—we look at the Scott Brown victory, where he takes Ted Kennedy’s seat, and everyone knows that the US Chamber of Commerce was a big player in getting Scott Brown elected as a populist. Alright. So, largely their goal was how do we take a mainstream party, the Republican Party, and turn it into an agency of the corporate right. And they did that over a period of decades. What’s not talked about as much is that there was a parallel movement that started in the 1980s, which was to take the other major party, the historic party of the people, the Democratic Party, and turn it more toward the corporate right. And what happened in the 1980s—and it was in fear of these same forces—labor unions, new left, antiwar, environmentalist, feminist. There was this sense that the Democratic Party was too allied with these movements, these social movements that were representing millions of people, so the Democratic Leadership Council was set up. It was set up, funded by oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies, some of the biggest companies in the country. It was largely a corporate front inside the Democratic Party to fight the movements in the Democratic Party and move the leadership of the party toward corporate prerogatives. Who were the leaders of it? Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman. These were three of the big figures, and, of course, they were the presidential and vice presidential candidates in ’92, ’96, and 2000. So it was, frankly, a very successful movement. Well, let’s update the Democratic Leadership Council. In 2000—. And they set up a few other groups, think tanks, that would push what was their agenda, so-called free trade, deficit reduction, budget balancing, and taking on the teachers unions, school vouchers. So now let’s move to 2006, and a new group is formed as part of this constellation of moving the Democratic Party to the corporate right, and it’s a group called the Alexander Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution. And the director of it is Robert Rubin, who had been the Treasury Secretary for Clinton, had been at Goldman Sachs and, later, Citigroup. Roger Altman had been US Treasury Department under Clinton. And there’s an amazing thing. And this group is set up for budget deficit, international trade, taking on the teachers union, and they had their founding meeting in April 2006. And only one US senator shows up to speak at this founding meeting, and that’s a very new senator, Barack Obama from Illinois, who’s only been in Washington a little over a year. So for a lot of us who were tracking Obama in 2007, of course he got a lot of $25 and $50 donations from people that really wanted change they could believe in, but in 2007, way before he was a front-runner, he was out-fundraising all the other candidates from Wall Street. And it was something I’ve never quite been able to figure out. There were two presidential candidates from the state of New York, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, and Obama was out-fundraising them from Wall Street early in ’07. Now, Wall Street money and corporate money always goes to the front-runner. Obama was getting this money before he was the front-runner. So the missing piece to the puzzle is this clip where Obama is the only senator who shows up at the Alexander Hamilton Project.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL): Thank you very much. I would love just to sit here with these folks and listen, because you’ve got on this panel and in this room some of the most innovative, thoughtful policymakers. I want to thank Bob and Roger and Peter for inviting me to be here today. I wish I could be here longer.

    COHEN: By the way, Alexander Hamilton in American history was, you know, leader of the Federalist Party, was seen as the elitist party. And the Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson was founded as a party of the people that would challenge the elitism of Alexander Hamilton. And here you have all these Wall Street Democrats setting up this group, had Obama as their first speaker from the US Senate, and in the clip Obama says that he wants to thank Bob, Roger, and Peter. Bob is Robert Rubin. Roger is Roger Altman. These are Clinton Wall Street Democrats. And who’s Peter? It’s Peter Orszag, the first founding director of the Hamilton Project, who then becomes, later, Obama’s head of Office of Management and Budget. So what you’ve had is the Democratic Party since the ’80s, big corporate money going in there, trying to elevate these candidates, giving them money, giving them a lot of media protection. This is a Democrat who can get elected, who can appeal to those swing voters. And so we’ve had Clinton, Gore, Lieberman, and now Obama that are part of this. Now, Obama was never close to the Democratic Leadership Council, but it’s interesting that a newer incarnation of Wall Street Democratic think tank, he’s there at their founding meeting.

    JAY: So the progressive political movement or segment of the population should have known most of this. Now, they may not have known about the Hamilton Project, they may not have known some of the specific details, but if you listen to what candidate Obama said philosophically—he was asked about his foreign policy. He said, “I come from a tradition of American pragmatism.” He would date—the lineage began with Truman. He would even include George Bush senior. On economics, on any serious interview, he talked like a center, center-right politician, but the progressives all kind of drank the Kool-Aid.

    COHEN: They heard the slogans, which was “change you could believe in”. When there’s thousands of people at a rally all holding up signs that say “change”, you know, people sort of glommed on a message that they wanted to hear. The important thing that Obama said as soon as Hillary was out of the race—. Remember when both Hillary and Obama were trying to present themselves as populists who are against NAFTA in Ohio? Which is a joke, ’cause they’re both free traders. But as soon as Hillary was out of the race, what did Obama do? He runs to CNBC and says, “I’m a free-market guy. I believe in the market.”

    OBAMA: I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market. I think it is the best invention to allocate resources.

    COHEN: Now, Obama’s a smart man; he knows that in 2008, by 2008, there’s not a free-market. I mean, a few companies have taken over basically every industry. And when somebody announces “I’m a free-market guy,” it’s a softer way of saying “I’m a corporate guy.”Obama’s smart enough not to say that. But I think what’s happened was the left was so intent on getting the Clintonites out and defeating Hillary Clinton, which brought with it all the baggage of the Clintonites that the left had suffered through for eight years of what we consider DLC, Democratic Leadership Council governing, that there was this sense that while Obama’s got some of these same connections, at least he’s not a Clintonite and he’s not in the DLC. And it turns out he’s sort of a newer incarnation of the corporate Democrat. And what we’ve seen after one year is that while Bill Clinton, who’s as slick as any candidate ever was in ’92, or Obama, who’s as slick as even the “slickster” (which is what they used to call Slick Willy, Bill Clinton) in 2008, you have to govern, ultimately. You can’t get reelected, you can’t even get your people to win the congressional elections two years later, unless you deliver for the swing voter. And it turns out that Obama is just so tied to these economic advisers that he brought from the Wall Street Democrats that he’s just bungled away his first year. And the American public wanted change; they voted for change. He didn’t deliver change, and now the Republicans, the faux Republicans, are posing as the populists who will deliver change.

    JAY: Okay. So in the next second of our interview, let’s talk a bit about the historical struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, assuming there is one, and where it might be going now. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jeff Cohen.

    1. jsn

      Industrialization, buy changing the structure of all economically productive social relations, created the period of political revolution that probably started with Cromwell. The industrially transformed economic relations needed a political transformation to make them sustainable: wherever economic values manifest they externalize onto the weak or the environment all the negative and retrograde consequences of the changes they impose. This started with a world population of around 600M in 1700, now we’re at 8B.

      Network effects dictate that economic activity becomes more efficient with scale. Strictly speaking, in its purest form, economic efficiency is anathema to biological efficiency because of the logical conclusion of the process of externalizing mentioned above. Political revolution has periodically introduced new feedbacks into economics that constrain externalities so that the beneficiaries of the profit side of markets aren’t pitchforked by the “beneficiaries” of market externalities. Each such revolution cleans up the nastiest side effects of the previous system and embarks on a new course of externalization.

      In this framework, the European project of imperialism was in fact an economic revolution: it ended slavery at home and in its conquests in order to create paid employment in order to expand imperial markets. As Baptist’s great book “The Half Has Never Been Told” shows, slavery out competed every other form of capitalism on the productivity side, if you haven’t read it do, post Civil War outputs of cotton never got close to the pre-war efficiency driven by the whip. Our Civil War was an economic revolution in overthrowing a system that constrained market growth by preventing the spread and wages.

      Hamilton was earlier than this by a century but was concerned enough with markets, money and capitalism that he may well have seen the long term capitalist utility of emancipation. His concern, however, was to capture the power of network effects to make markets maximally profitable and that meant scale. Wages, wage growth, technological advance, cultural and economic innovation have all followed from the scaling by aggregation his “federation” encouraged. Ginghis Khan’s agglomeration of the Mogul Empire five centuries earlier had a similar economic effect. There hasn’t been a better mechanism in history to sustained improvements in economics than integration of vast populations. There hasn’t been a better mechanism in history for improvements in living standards than capitalist industrialization, and with that the scaling of political and economic units.

      On the other hand we are clearly at one of those points where the externalities of the system are much larger than the profits, and much more evenly distributed. In my logic, power naturally concentrates and economics, to the extent they can represent a positive force, distribute. The industrial and its concomitant political revolutions of the last 300 years have evolved a system of increasingly distributed benefits that have led to an exponential population growth. This success of political economy will be different from the population spike Diamond described on Easter Island in “Collapse” only if we can revolutionize our politics, preventing concentration of benefits, before the externalities power concentration encourages exterminate us.

  5. susan the other

    I knew the stuff about Hamilton being a well-connected orphan with a genius for finance. I didn’t know Geo.Washington was so sneaky. That’s telling. So it used to be that the Federalists were nationalists because that’s where the money was. Now the erstwhile Federalists are globalists for the same reason. And even back then they were very busy socializing their losses. I swear it’s genetic. Does make me wonder if it is possible for democratic processes to govern, since it has never been tried.

    1. twonine

      Rivera Sun mentioned that “never been tried” thing this week too.

      Democracy has always been a hollow word in the United States. We have never seen a full constituency of citizens voting in our electoral system. We have never witnessed all of our people voting directly on a single issue that affects our lives. We have never broken free of the prevalence of the wealthy ruling over the poor. We have never experienced real democracy.

      1. juliania

        Yet indeed there was a substantial change honestly envisioned by the founders that caused them to believe this nation to be far different from those governed by inherited royalty whose whims and prejudices had indeed been whittled down by parliaments, but nontheless ruled royally as far as they were able.

        Those checks and balances laboriously implemented took us far along the course which led to expanded privileges for the common people, whether or not they were practised at the time of the language of the Declaration, as (one might say) democracy percolated down. Which became a hard thing for Thomas Paine facing the brutal realities, and one might say a hard thing for Hamilton also.

        Wonderful stuff. Thank you, nakedcapitalism, Mr. Tankus, and Mr. Hogeland!

    2. Greenbacker

      and anti-federalists are globalists. The real globalists. The ones that prefer the market state over the nation state. The ones that want ownership of capital, property and monied strength to determine law. True internationalism.

      traditionalists like Guenon and Evola would call them the “wannabe” imperialists of the pre-christian era.

  6. James McFadden

    Very interesting and informative interview, but it avoids the major question of how the early federal government was funded. I would be interested in William Hogeland’s views on what revenues funded the federal government for the first 140 years with no income tax or property tax.

    When I asked people ‘how did the U.S. rise to be a world power, build federal institutions, defeat England Spain Mexico in wars, build a navy and army, fight a civil war — all without a major source of revenue?’ most people baffled. A few will respond with ‘tariffs.’ When you ask them again how they think puny tariffs could have funded the rise of the U.S. to a world power – they are also baffled. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States’) seems to provide the correct answer.

    The short answer is that the federal government was funded from theft of Indigenous people’s land — confiscation and subsequent selling off the land to speculators. When the government ran out of land to steal, then it finally had to implement an income tax.

    One of the ideas that surprised me was that the westward expansion was really planned right from the beginning – a viscous colonial project. The expansion was necessary to fund the federal government – see the wiki page on 1785 Land Ordinance.
    Land theft was the primary mechanism by which the US federal government funded itself for the first 140 years — before income taxes were put in place. No income taxes, no payroll taxes, no sales tax — just tariffs and import excise taxes. Local/State governments were funded with property and poll taxes. But how was the bulk of the federal government funded? Land theft through westward expansion. Poor landless whites (often led by Scot-Irish who were more cruel than any current terrorists) would squat on Indian land and kill/terrorize the Indians. The counterinsurgency techniques that are still in use today by the military were developed back then — destroy the food supply of Indians – maximize Indian civilian casualties (women, children, old men) – total war – until the Indians would leave or surrender. The primary collectors of scalps were white men — and the federal government paid a bounty on Indian scalps to encourage the land theft — just the reverse of what we learned in school – scalps became a form of currency. Most of the super wealthy early government leaders benefited from this theft including George Washington and Andrew Jackson. When enough squatters were in place, the US Army would move in and remove the rest of the Indians and declare the land property of the US government — then subdivide and sell the land to speculators to fund the government. Squatters could not compete with large land barons or plantation owners, would go into debt, sell their land to the speculators and move on to squat on the next parcel of Indian land. Our country’s government was funded by land theft in the westward expansion involving genocide of ~20 million Indigenous peoples in the US alone. This is sometimes called manifest destiny or doctrine of discovery – but colonization and genocide are a better description. The expansion continued until the government ran out of land to steal — then they finally had to implement an income tax. The plan dates back to the founding – colonialism from the start — see the wiki page – and the chief architect was Thomas Jefferson.

    1. Norb

      Very interesting observations. Fundamental questions that get to the root of a problem. I have another fundamental question. Throughout human history, has there ever been a society that was not founded on the concept of exploitation of both other peoples and the environment?

      Does not everything depend on the relationship between the Powerful and Powerless in a society? This relationship defines what that society is. Who wields Power and what is done with that power defines that society. A type of society spectrum can be envisioned with Absolute Authoritarian Power on one end and Pure Democratic Socialism on the other. Also, individual people make up the society collectively. Individuals can also be placed on a spectrum from Sociopath on one end to Jesus-like on the other. This interplay between the large and small scale- between the individual and society is the process of human life.

      The relationship between information, propaganda, and politics is another realm that defines a society.

      It seems that western history is evolving to produce the Authoritarian/Sociopath model of human existence.

      Constant war. Increase in poverty. Apathy to human suffering. Unwillingness to address environmental degradation. Predation and exploitation of the citizenry. No accountability under the law. Massive economic inequality.

      A choice needs to be made. Support the discredited Powerful Elite. Or abandon them and their worldview.

    2. FederalismForever

      @James McFadden. There is some truth in what you say, particularly as an account of the history of what would later become Tennessee, Virginia and the surrounding areas, but overall your account greatly exaggerates US complicity in the supposed “genocide” of “millions” of indigenous peoples. Do you really believe that a few million white Americans could have killed 20 million people? And let’s not forget, many of the “indigenous” peoples weren’t so indigenous. Much of the land claimed by Iroquois Nation, the Five “Civilized Tribes,” the Comanche, etc., had been acquired by conquest of other indigenous groups – often by genocide or selling them into slavery in the West Indies. They were no more “indigenous” to those regions than King Adolphus and his Swedish minions were indigenous to Germania following their conquests in the brutal Thirty Years’ War.

      That aside, your history is also wrong on economics and taxation. For one thing, you account is too heavily focused on the federal government, which didn’t do very much back then. For much of U.S. history state and local governments handled a far larger percentage of total U.S. government activities, as compared to today. But even if we limit our focus to the feds, the fact is tariff revenues really did supply a large percentage of federal revenues, as tariff rates were often very high. If land sales really did account for so much federal revenue, why don’t we see this in federal government records from that era? Moreover, when you say the land was “stolen” and sold to speculators, are you saying that these speculators had a superior title to the land as compared to those who received land grants under the Homestead Act and other similar federal acts?

  7. Greenbacker

    My take on Hamilton is, he was a ardent American however. He wanted to build a capitalist tradition in the Americas free from Euro rule. Whatever means to secure America’s economic future, he would do. Andrew Jackson let his anger toward US Bank stopping his credit boom in the 1810’s cloud his judgement. Martin Van Buren was a outright British Sympth. Aaron Burr, a British Agent. Augustus Belmont and New York(origin of Wall Street) were his chief supporters.

    So he was a elitist. But he was our elitist. Sort of like General Eisenhower AND the Kennedy’s. Compare that to Joe McCarthy who was being run by jewish zionist Roy Cohn. Who is the greater patriot?

    I will say it today and I will say it tomorrow. The “Left” is a mess right now because of the Christian do gooder, puritanical pc complex. They simply don’t understand world history. They take “blame” for the “Leftist” “genocide” personally but fail to understand HOW these ‘killings’ game about. One is the origin of Bolshevism and Communsim. Once you study it, you get a awe shucks grin. I tell Righties all the time it was a scam and financed by capital. They spit in rage and hatred. It goes against their dialect. The truth is, “communism” was a scam. A pure hoax invented to make money for capital. WWII, the “cold war”. The Rockefellers financing the Central American “commies” while Reagan pumped money to the arms dealers to ‘fight’ it. Then the Russians pulled the rug. They didn’t want to play anymore.

    As they say “History is a lie”.

  8. Jim

    “(Hamilton wanted to eradicate the states completely, make them departments of the federal

    And that is basically what we have today with the states largely administrative units of a public/private bureaucratic monolith.

    It is interesting to note that when the Articles of Confederation where replaced by the Constitution,
    the new national government quite quickly (1791) established the Bank of the United States (BUS).

    The chartering of this bank was opposed by Jefferson who argued that the new national government did not possess the authority under the constitution to charter a bank. But Hamilton successfully argued that bank chartering was part of the implied powers of the federal government.

    When this charter got to the floor of the House of Representatives the split in the 39-19 vote reflected the populist bias of rural regions, with the Banks victorious supporters being largely from the commercial classes and opponents mainly agrarians.

    But the federalist political structure of the US, at the time prevented, the Federal Government from gaining the sole right to charter banks.

    The Bank of the US was the product of deal between a select group of Federalist bankers financed by the National State, with that same State giving these bankers lucrative concessions (like the right to limited liability for its shareholders).

    Wouldn’t it be something if a movement from the left endorsed a new federalism to take on the emerging public/private monolith–allowing that movement to articulate a political theory of the State embedded in our actual history!

    What a way to ideologically outflank Republican rhetoric and win over many new converts.

  9. Bagehot-by-the-Bay

    Hamilton was indeed the most modern of the founders. Consider insider trading. Revolutionary war debt was not held by the original creditors, but as fungible notes that had been sold on at ever-increasing discounts. While Hamilton’s plan to redeem the notes at par was still secret, his cronies scooped up all they could find, from any who would sell, including veterans, at pennies on the dollar. There are stories of overloaded wagons of paper crawling back to New York. The full faith and credit of the infant U.S. for 30 years went to enriching this classs of vultures, the Elliot Associates of their day.

  10. Tony Wikrent

    I am always perplexed by these attacks on Hamilton. Do the attackers deliberately leave out most of the historical context with malicious intent? Or are they really that ignorant of the historical record?

    Certainly, you can conclude that Hamilton’s (and Morris’s and Washington’s, etc., etc.) sole (or, I’ll be generous here – primary) purpose was to concentrate wealth at the top, IF – and only IF – you look only at financial history. But once you look at the broader sweep of economic history, most especially technological, industrial, and scientific history, such a conclusion becomes obviously shallow, and even so misleading as to amount to a deliberate attempt to obscure the historical record.

    Hamilton was creating a national economy at a point in human history that the machine age had barely just begun. Newcomen’s atmospheric engine hardly provided adequate power for almost any purpose, and Watt had applied a condenser to a steam engine – finally making steam an adequate source of power – in 1765, just a decade before the Revolution, and two decades before the Constitution. Oliver Evans was perfecting his automated flour mill during this time, and would not develop the high-pressure steam engine until 1801 through 1806. You know, I want to release a string of expletives at this point, because if you don’t understand this historical context of machinery and technology, there is no way – I repeat, NO WAY – that you can intelligently understand what Hamilton was doing.

    The key to understanding Hamilton is his 1791 Report to Congress on the Subject of Manufactures, most especially “Section II: As to an extension of the use of Machinery…” viz.:
    “The employment of Machinery forms an item of great importance in the general mass of national industry. ‘Tis an artificial force brought in aid of the natural force of man; and, to all the purposes of labour, is an increase of hands…”

    Two points to note here. First, the obvious, that the United States at its founding had to deal with an acute shortage of labor, so it was obvious that replacing human brawn with machine power was an important desideratum. But the second point is the most important in understanding Hamilton: the promotion and advance of the machine age was fully intended and hoped for, as a means of ameliorating and improving the material condition of humanity. To free humanity from being just another beast of burden, you had to increase the productive powers of labor. Or as almost any history of steam power, technology, or the Industrial Revolution, notes: make it possible for one man to do the work of a hundred.

    You get snippets of this idea in the Report on Manufactures, but to get the full sense of it, you need to look at the history of science. To be precise, the history of scientific societies in the United States. The letters, speeches, and actions of men like Franklin, Priestly, Rittenhouse, Bartram, simply make a mockery of the flawed historical analysis of Hogeland – unless you believe that the constantly repeated desire to cultivate and spread the fruits of “science and the mechanic arts” was just so much smoke meant to obscure the true intent of concentrating wealth. Go and read, for example, the charter of the American Philosophical Society, or the Society for the Promotion of Useful Manufactures. Only by ignoring the establishment of these and many similar institutions, such as the colleges, can you focus solely on the financial history and reach the conclusion that the Founders were engaged in plain and simple class warfare.

    A list of the earliest members of the American Philosophical Society speaks for itself:  George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Tadeusz Kościuszko, James McHenry, David Rittenhouse, Nicholas Biddle, Owen Biddle, Benjamin Rush, and John Marshall.

    A problem today is that the idea of progress has been bastardized, corrupted, and deformed – indeed, nearly destroyed – by the past century of advertising this or that “new and improved” gadget or geegaw. If you want to truly understand Hamilton, and his focus on increasing the productive powers of labor, spend a few hours some night investigating how people in the late 1700s and early 1800s conceived of progress. Just look up some dedication speech or other for something, anything, like a new road, railroad, canal, harbor improvement, lighthouse, or post office. Even the lowliest local politician back then was usually more erudite and eloquent that a US Congressman or Senator today.

    Finally, one of the most unforgivable crimes of de-contextualizing history is to decry the desire to “concentrate wealth and power” without painting a picture of what the United States faced at the time. To the South, the Spanish empire ruled Florida, and the Gulf coast. To the north, our recently defeated enemy, Britain, controlled Canada, with a chain of forts extending to the Great Lakes, and greatly influencing the hostile Native American peoples. The Appalachian mountains presented a massive obstacle to westward movement by all but the hardiest and most adventurous – no less a frontiersman than Daniel Boone was not heard from for two years and presumed dead. And even if you did cross the mountains, the Mississippi River valley was being contended for by the British, French, and Spanish. Use of the Mississippi River was regularly prohibited by one or the other of these European powers; the original instructions that led to the Louisiana Purchase were only to secure free passage on the river to and from New Orleans. In the far west, the Spanish controlled California, with some areas contested by the Russians, and the British, who were claiming all of the Oregon territory, whatever that might being defined as.

    The claim that there was a “new concentration of wealth in military power, the strongest lobby of all” and that Congress was threatened with a military coup, must be understood in the context of the nearly complete failure of the Congress during the Revolutionary War to adequately supply, feed, clothe, and pay the Continental Army. Given the mythology of Valley Forge, it is unforgivable to make this error in historical judgement. The Society of the Cincinnatus, which Revolutionary military officers organized themselves into after the War, was, in fact, the most powerful “lobby” in the period between the War and the adoption of the Constitution, but its objectives were extraordinarily different than those of the military lobby today. They were not so much concerned with the maintenance of a large military establishment (in fact, they weren’t) as they were concerned that the squabbling and bickering between the 13 independent states provided huge opportunities for intrigue and mayhem by the European imperial powers, and the new republic would soon be swept away, – meaning all their fighting, suffering, and sacrificing, by themselves and by their dead comrades in arms, during the war, would be in vain. Under no circumstances were these men going to allow the new nation to collapse and die.

    Finally, someone mentions Charles Beard in the comments. Let me put it this way: Charles Beard did not write what you think he wrote. His commentary on Hamilton is exactly the opposite of what Hamilton’s critics today charge. And Beard was always bothered by the explanation that his analysis of the Constitution was merely a carefully cloaked form of Marxist analysis. So, in 1945, Beard published The Economic Basis of Politics, in which he explicitly wrote that Marx was incorrect in believing that a dictatorship of the proletariat would bring and end to class conflict, but that, in contrast, Madison, Hamilton, and the other founders were more historically accurate and more realistic in arguing, per The Federalist “Number 10,” that political factions will always arise based on different economic interests, and the never ending, and most important, role of government was to regulate those conflicting interests.

    1. Norb

      I don’t know much about Hamilton. He is no doubt an important historical figure. Is your argument that Hamilton deserves credit and admiration because he believed in a strong government able to regulate and moderate the excess of free capital? How do you counter the argument that Hamilton is an example of a member of the elite class using the power of government to further his own self interest?

      While Hamilton’s genius was his ability to perceive the potential for industry to develop the natural resources of the nation, the question as to the wisdom of this course is still open to debate. This all leads to a debate of Capitalism as an organizing structure for society and should we continue down this path.

      I would also be interested in your take on the role of modern banking/finance in today’s society. Should banking/finance be an engine of private profit or should it function for the public good?

      All these years later, the survival of our Democratic experiment is facing the final test.

      1. Tony Wikrent

        “Is your argument that Hamilton deserves credit and admiration because he believed in a strong government able to regulate and moderate the excess of free capital?” No; in fact, this is one point on which I have concluded that Hamilton was wrong to disregard the fears and warnings of Jefferson, Madison, and others that the creation of a financial system would inevitably result in concentrations of economic wealth which would corrupt the public spirit of the citizens, purchase control of the political system, and destroy or at least disfigure republican government. What Jefferson and Madison feared has, in my opinion, come to pass.

        “How do you counter the argument that Hamilton is an example of a member of the elite class using the power of government to further his own self interest?” 1. There has never been any evidence found to implicate Hamilton in insider trading, favoritism toward cronies, self-dealing, or anything. And this, despite his enemies like Jefferson and Madison launching Congressional investigations of the Treasury’s finances and records. 2. Hamilton actually died relatively poor, a fact which even Charles Beard cited as evidence that Hamilton did not further his own self interest as SecTreas. I have Beard’s book at hand, and I direct you to page 114, where Beard writes, ” augmentation of his personal fortune was no consideration with him.” 3. Which “elite class” did Hamilton belong to? It’s easy to assert there was an “elite class” but reality is much more complicated than that. Would you consider both the Kochs brothers as in an “elite class” along with Elon Musk? Both the Kochs and Musk are rich, but their financial vested interests and ongoing economic activities could not be more different. The Kochs are rentiers and exploiters of natural resources; Musk is, in my view, a technologist and industrialist. So, was being a civil servant what made Hamilton part of en elite class? Or was it being a leading lawyer in New York? He was not really a banker or financier like Robert Morris was: Hamilton wrote the charter for the Bank of the United States, and the Bank of New York, but I do not recall that he served as either bank manager or bank director or bank officer. In fact, many financiers were in the circle of Aaron Burr and hated Hamilton. Hamilton was certainly not in the planter class; most of the Southern planters, hated him as much as Jefferson did.

        “Should banking/finance be an engine of private profit or should it function for the public good?” For the public good, absolutely. As should ALL economic activity. In fact, I agree with those who argue that banking should be treated and regulated as a public utility. And Hamilton himself wrote, “Public utility is more truly the object of public banks than private profit.”

        On the question of “Capitalism as an organizing structure for society” I would argue that what we have now is mostly not capitalism. As the example of the Kochs and Muck implies, we now have an economy that is more based on rentiers than industrialists, And decapitalization goes hand in hand with deindustrialization. If we must use the word “capitalism” then I insist that we understand the difference between industrial capitalism, rentier capitalism and financial capitalism, and use the terms accurately. Personally, I think of myself as a social democrat. I think the economy should be a mix of capitalism and socialism. I shudder to think of trying to organize such things as bath towels and shower curtains along any lines other than capitalism. But I am for national – and nationalized – health care, and retirement.

        1. Norb

          Thanks for the reply. I remember reading a thesis that stated change in a society comes about from the elite class. While social interactions are complex and many faceted, the direction a society takes is determined by those in positions of power. Where the elite move, the society moves. It seems to me a major obstacle facing our society today is the obfuscation of terms and relationships between the various members of society. Do we have a working definition of elite, capitalism, freedom, and democracy? From my perspective, throughout the past 35 years in America, a concerted effort has been underway to confuse as many people as possible. How to unwind this confusion is step one in making progress toward a better society.

          I wish I could remember the source, but the discussion was the idea that two factions within the elite power structure were at conflict with one another for supremacy. One holding the belief in the divine right to rule over and dominate the rest of society and the other holding that those exerting power had a moral duty to improve the lives of all members. The first group believed in rule by force. The second sought legitimacy through improving living conditions for all. The conclusion was that the faction claiming divine right won the struggle.

          To my mind, this is the winner take all attitude that we see every day in America. Those who make it to the top of the social pile through talent, social connections, or brute force and thievery are rewarded and revered. This also points to the criminal nature our current social relationships. Honesty is driven out of current arrangements. Root causes for problems are ignored or obfuscated.

          Is this by design? Can history be searched for individuals who saw clearly into the future, putting into motion programs and institutions to achieve a certain social end?

          In the end, all of this is about social engineering. Finding the answer to the question, can capitalism and democracy coexist? I would say no. The past 30 years have made obvious that those in power have no interest in social programs or social welfare for all. The idea that the economy and government are two different entities has never been true. They function together one supporting the other. The revolving door to government/private life is not a problem in itself. It becomes problematic when the main function of government becomes private enrichment. Public service is a noble endeavor-or should be rewarded as such as long as that service is to the greater good.

          The question for all of us is how do we hold those in power accountable for their actions.

          One last thought, why is Thomas Paine rarely talked about when considering the founders?

    2. FederalismForever

      @Tony Wikrent. Truly awesome comment, displaying a deep and profound understanding of Hamilton and his vision for America.

      Recently, Michael Pettis also made a strong defense of Hamilton’s genius and overall awesomeness:


      Two observations about Hamilton. First, many who deride Hamilton as a wannabe Napoleon bring up a period towards the end of his short life, around the time of the first Jefferson Administration, when Hamilton was trying to raise an army, and conducting military drills, and even wearing a military uniform, etc. In retrospect, Hamilton looks a bit silly during this period, and is not helped by some letters he wrote to Miranda, which hint at possible military exploits throughout Latin America, etc. But there is more to this story. Hamilton rightly foresaw that Napoleon would desire to reclaim New France for France. To that end, Napoleon dreamt of reconquering Haiti, and using it as a base from which to launch invasions up the Mississippi. Hamilton knew that the U.S. was woefully unprepared for a Napoleonic invasion, thanks to President Jefferson’s unilateral disarmament and other feeble measures. Fortunately (for the U.S.), French troops got bogged down in Haiti, in part due to widespread yellow fever, and never could secure the island, let alone launch invasions up through the Mississippi Valley. This was one reason why Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory to Jefferson to help finance yet another European war instead. Truly, Jefferson was the beneficiary of the luckiest break any U.S. President ever got, and Hamilton’s military preparedness campaign came to naught.

      Second, even though Hamilton’s reforms were decidedly pro-banker, and (let’s admit) often benefitted the financial class, he remained thoroughly incorruptible throughout his public career. Jefferson and Madison were merciless towards Hamilton, and repeatedly called for a thorough accounting of all Treasury Department activities, often accompanied by totally unrealistic deadlines. Yet Hamilton routinely met these deadlines with ease, and emerged from all of these inquiries unscathed. At another point, he also admitted to an extra-marital affair, rather than compromise his public reputation. Nor would he trade on his reputation and influence for personal gain. His friend and admirer Talleyrand simply could not believe that Hamilton still had to work for a living after leaving Treasury. In the end, Hamilton did not even own a large estate. Friends and admirers had to help support his widow. All in all, a very great man indeed.

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