Jack Rakove: Review of Michael Lind's "Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States"

Roundup: Books

Jack Rakove teaches history and political science at Stanford University.

Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States
by Michael Lind
Harper, 592 pp., $29.99

IN OUR CURRENT slough of economic despair, is it time for Americans to recognize that we should all become Hamiltonians, following the genius of our first and greatest Secretary of the Treasury? That is the appeal that Michael Lind makes in Land of Promise (a title that faintly echoes the work of The New Republic’s founding co-editor, Herbert Croly, in The Promise of American Life.) Lind has already gained a pair of appreciative (but hardly uncritical) nods in the New York Times, one in a book review by David Leonhardt, the other in a column by David Brooks. True, both journalists take issue with some aspects of Lind’s Hamiltonianism. Leonhardt wonders whether other nations have not pursued more Hamiltonian policies than Americans have, but with lesser results. Brooks goes much further, arguing that Lind is seeking to turn the true Hamiltonian philosophy “into something that looks like modern liberalism.” A real Hamiltonian, Brooks suggests, would favor “long-term structural development” above “providing jobs right now,” while fostering “national power and eminence” over individual wealth or social equality.

Anyone scouting this terrain should proceed with a great deal of caution. What does it really mean, after all, to wonder what a Hamiltonian or a Jeffersonian approach to issues of contemporary economic policy should look like? Interpretations as broadly worded as the ones that Brooks offers similarly operate at a level of generality so vague as to defy any sensible assessment. It is a bit of a surprise, for example, to learn that Hamilton did not care much about individual wealth, when most accounts of his financial policies emphasize his desire to attach the propertied classes of the post-revolutionary United States to the national government. Then, too, his insistence that President Washington take the field against the Whiskey Rebels of 1793 was contrived to persuade the “lower orders” of Americans that they were as obliged to pay taxes as their wealthier neighbors. Brooks has a long way to go to demonstrate that he is describing actually existing founders or policymakers....

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