William Hogeland: Critics are misreading Hamilton's legacy to suit their own purposes

Roundup: Talking About History

[William Hogeland is the author of The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty.]

... The once “forgotten founder” [Alexander Hamilton] is now the subject of a PBS American Experience feature, which aired in the spring and is likely to live on in classrooms on DVD. Between scenes of bewigged actors reciting their characters’ written prose in awkward soliloquy, Chernow and a raft of other historians relate an even more vaulting story than those told in the exhibit and the biographies. Some of the talking heads give Hamilton virtually sole credit not only for founding the American financial system, but for the country’s very nationhood.

There’s a wonkish side to the Hamilton revival too. Certain policy writers, way ahead of the curve, have been contributing to its torque, shooting Hamilton’s legacy past history buffs and toward the halls of power. In 1997 David Brooks and William Kristol published a Wall Street Journal op-ed making an early case for what the authors called “national-greatness conservatism,” a theme they’d been developing in articles for the Weekly Standard, which Kristol helped found and where Brooks was senior editor. Looking for activist-government leaders that Republicans could love, they came up with Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Clay, and Alexander Hamilton—anything but bleeding-hearts of what Brooks and Kristol called “the nanny state”—who nevertheless saw an important role for the federal government in setting and achieving ambitious national aims at home and abroad.

Since then, as Brooks has become a New York Times columnist and TV pundit, he’s pressed the theme that Hamilton personifies national-greatness conservatism. In a major essay in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2004, he described Hamilton as author of a conservative tradition favoring limited government activism in service of social mobility and national unity. That same year he raved up Chernow’s biography in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Indeed, pairing the national-greatness theme with Hamilton grew more intense after September 11. For the swearing-in of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2006, President George W. Bush’s speechwriters went out of their way to note the importance of Hamilton’s legacy, and Paulson himself remarked that his father had been “a real Alexander Hamilton fan.” The Hamilton cause drew financial support—for both the Historical Society exhibit and online components of the PBS special—from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History, whose founders Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman have backgrounds in such conservative organizations as the Club for Growth and the Project for the New American Century.

Neo-conservative claims on Hamilton came to a head when Brooks, in a June 8 New York Times column on economic issues in the 2008 election, announced outright that he and like-minded others were “Hamiltonians,” who hold the rational balance among radical populists, tinkering liberals, and knee-jerk anti-government conservatives.

Hamilton’s reputation has bloomed on the liberal side, too, with the Brookings Institution’s “Hamilton Project,” which is dedicated to proposing “pragmatic policy responses that will create new opportunities for middle class affluence, bolster economic security, and spur more enduring growth.” Emphasizing Hamilton’s immigrant status and impoverished background, the project describes Hamilton as a representative of American traditions of opportunity and upward mobility. “Broken Contract,” a widely discussed paper by the project’s policy director, Jason Bordoff, published in the September issue of Democracy, sets out an agenda clearly inspired by this vision of Hamilton. An essential promise of American democracy—families who work hard and prize education can expect their children to advance economically—is in danger of being broken, Bordoff argues, but the extreme solutions coming from the left and the right will fail. He proposes instead maintaining mandatory forms of social insurance, making heavy investments in training and education, and increasing individual responsibility. The Hamilton Project’s advisory council boasts Democratic Party luminaries such as Robert Rubin, Roger Altman, and others redolent of both the Clinton-era pragmatism and New Deal liberalism espoused by Bordoff.

That the Hamilton revival admits conservatives and liberals alike gives it obvious appeal. But if opinion-shapers really want to strengthen democracy by enhancing competition, opportunity, and mobility, Hamilton is not their man. Nor did he want to be. Neo-Hamiltonians of every kind are blotting out a defining feature of his thought, one that Hamilton himself insisted on throughout his turbulent career: the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force.

That’s putting the matter bluntly, and bluntness is necessary. Time and again this galvanizing principle in Hamilton’s political life has been denied, ignored, and glossed over by his proponents, who thereby risk distorting the entire founding period....

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/9/2007

I cannot forget this gem that Chernow unearthed: The boarding instructions for Coast Guard customs agents written by Hamilton in 1789 were still in use in the 1960's, notwithstanding all the other things Hamilton did in 1789. Hamilton had more genius and gave the United States more lasting direction than any of the other Founders.