Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to explore the legacy of Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to American political thought. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Few would dispute that Alexander Hamilton influenced the development of American economic and political institutions and public policies in the early republic. His place in the development of American political thought, however, is not as clear. Because he was a practical statesman who often disparaged theory, and because he did not produce a work of political theory that encapsulates his central political ideas, Hamilton is generally not considered to be among the leading American political theorists. He is known for his politics, personality, and policies, but not for his political philosophy.
Hamilton’s place as an American political thinker deserves reconsideration. Not only did he provide the early republic with firm and bold leadership, but also in justifying and explaining his political actions he articulated a theory of politics that has served as the foundation for one of the two central varieties of American constitutionalism. His greatest contribution to American political thought may be his conception of constitutional government. Hamilton’s Federalist essays and other writings and speeches encompass a theory of politics that is grounded in the moral realism of ancient and Christian political thought, the skepticism of David Hume, and the common sense philosophy of modern thinkers like James Steuart. His realism is evident in every facet of his political thinking. In foreign affairs, he combined an appreciation for power, interest, and circumstance with the virtue of honor and a concern for national character. He was an early opponent of American exceptionalism and provided a theoretical foundation for opposition to meddlesome foreign policies born of it. He recognized the dangers of Jacobinism to American republicanism and, in his cautions against it, provided one of the first arguments against a mass ideological movement. In doing so, his political theory shares its pedigree with that of Edmund Burke.
The similarities between the political theories of Burke and Hamilton have not been given due attention. In their books about Hamilton, Robert Hendrickson and Clinton Rossiter make passing references to particular theoretical commonalities in the writings of Burke and Hamilton, and other commentators have noted similarities, but a more systematic analysis is needed and would identify specific continuities in their political theories. There are several significant points of contact between the two thinkers. Both Burke and Hamilton used historical experience as the standard for judging the validity of ideas and policies. They rejected appeals to ahistorical abstraction, disparaging metaphysical and theoretical speculation. Historical circumstances were paramount in their prudential judgment. Consequently, they avoided ideological rigidity in their thinking because they understood that a priori rationalism could not account for the particular circumstances in which statesmen had to navigate the ship of state. In a similar vein, they recognized that radical change was antithetical to preserving order. They vehemently opposed the French Revolution and its Jacobin ideology because they believed ancient institutions to be essential guides in the search for a just political and social order. Yet both Burke and Hamilton were reformers. Their affinity for established ways of life did not mean that they opposed change; rather, they thought that change should be moderate and should avoid tearing up established institutions root and branch. They both abhorred slavery, and they both admired the British Constitution. Hamilton was significantly more sanguine about the benefits of manufacturing and economic development than was Burke, but they both favored free economies and recognized the occasional necessity of sacrificing economic efficiency for important national objectives.
In his political economy, Hamilton synthesized ideas from not only Hume and Steuart, but also Adam Smith and Jacques Necker. From Steuart, he developed a prejudice against economic systems and he treated economics as a human science that required prudence in the navigation of changing circumstances. He generally opposed tariffs and favored bounties. He believed that a diversified economy engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing was more likely to protect the nation than the one-dimensional agrarian economy advocated by Jefferson and Madison. Sensing that economic life was in transition, he regarded economic self-sufficiency, touted by the Republicans, as the path to happiness, as a romantic illusion. A modern economy, Hamilton believed, required financial institutions like banks and a means for regulating currency. The United States needed to pay down its debt and increase the flow of investment capital if it was going to generate enough wealth to fund future debt, a military, and the infrastructure on which the economy depended. His tax system was among the more unpopular parts of his economic plan, but it provided a source of revenue that was lacking during the War for Independence and under the Articles of Confederation, and he asserted that taxes should be modest, so as not to choke off the production of wealth from which tax revenue was generated. While he advocated the use of debt as a source of capital and economic stimulation, he insisted that the debt remain small and responsible, which would ensure the nation a credit rating equal to those of the great states of Europe.
Hamilton’s theory of constitutional government is the hallmark of his political theory. Explaining that human nature invites political institutions that can restrain the propensity toward greed and power, he adamantly supported the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. Contrary to the prevarications propagated by Jefferson and others, Hamilton did not advocate monarchy; he favored a mixed constitutional government and he described his preferences for the American government in such terms; the executive should have the energy and independence of a monarch, but be constrained by a legislature that combines democratic and aristocratic influences. Hamilton’s least appreciated contribution to American political philosophy may be his understanding of judicial power. He was an early, if not original, advocate of judicial review, and he anticipated important Supreme Court decisions made by the Marshall court and others. He felt acutely that the rule of law was bolstered by a judiciary insulated from both popular control and the interference of legislative and executive manipulation. Hamilton did not trust the momentary popular will, and his conception of executive power, as well as the role of the Senate, includes the notion that a permanent will should be present in the government to counteract and check the inclination of the people and of the House of Representatives to democratic impulse. The executive can provide this sense of permanence if it is indirectly elected and, if Hamilton had his way, serves for life. The same can be said of the members of the federal judiciary. The president needs independence and insulation from the popular will in order to promote the national interest, especially in regard to defense, and federal judges are more likely to uphold the Constitution if they are beyond the control of the momentary passions of the people. Hamilton presumed that a well functioning constitutional system would be animated by individuals who possessed republican virtue. Without their judgment and leadership, the Constitution would be a dead letter. What happens in instances when these political elites fail to conduct themselves in accordance with republican virtue? In such cases, political institutions would provide checks to restrain will and appetite. Judges who replace the will of the people embodied in the Constitution with their own ideological preferences should be impeached. Hamilton’s constitutionalism saw to it that for each part of the constitutional system there was a way to address poor or corrupt leadership.
Hamilton argued for and conducted his political affairs with great energy. His insistence on strong, energetic government seems antithetical to the aim of other American Framers to create a government that was restrained by its inefficiency. Jeffersonians have argued that Hamilton’s political theory is contrary to the American revolutionary principles that oppose strength in the government. No doubt, significant theoretical differences divide Hamilton’s constitutionalism from Jefferson’s, but Hamilton’s argument for strong, energetic government is by no means inconsistent with the American idea of making government inefficient in order to protect against tyranny. As a thoroughgoing constitutionalist, he believed that the separated powers and checks and balances within the government create a useful tension and inefficiency in government. But once the process of designing a government had come to conclusion, when a constitutional consensus had been reached, the task of administering the laws and policies would begin, and the administration of government, in Hamilton’s view, requires an energy and efficiency that the executive branch is most suited to provide. The creation of the Constitution illustrates Hamilton’s belief in this divide: The delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated, argued, synthesized, and compromised; they did what the constitutional process compels statesmen to do, consider the interests of various groups and try to reach a compromise that promotes the public good. No one group got everything it wanted. Hamilton signed a document with which he was not in full agreement, but afterward, no one worked harder than he for its ratification or to give it life by creating institutions and policies that helped realize the objectives of the Preamble.
In areas where government is granted power, Hamilton argued that the Constitution gave it the full range of means to carry out its duties. He has been credited by some and vilified by others for developing the doctrine of loose constructionism. He advocated a looser reading of the Constitution than did Jefferson, but his theory of constitutional interpretation did not reach the more radical extents of twentieth-century progressive judicial activism. His critics charge that he led a counter-revolution that used this judicial theory to undermine what the American Revolution had established. Hamilton’s judicial theory, however, has been poorly understood. Sound constructions of the Constitution account for the exigencies of politics, but Hamilton never advocated a brand of constitutional interpretation that gave judges license to rewrite the nation’s fundamental law. He was a firm advocate of the rule of law and did not look favorably on those who would bend the law to meet their self-interest. Statesmen, Hamilton believed, required a degree of discretion that gave them the latitude to adjust to changing circumstances. His variety of discretion was of a different pedigree than later theories of the “living constitution.” When clear lines of constitutional demarcation are not provided, “a reasonable latitude of judgment must be allowed.” Hamiltonian discretion is not animated by metastatic faith, the desire to change the order of being. His underlying philosophical anthropology was a constant ground that kept his political theory from straying into the idealistic realm of progressive historicism.
Hamilton’s theory of constitutional interpretation is open to question in regard to the confidence he placed in government’s ability to serve the public good by pushing its constitutional powers to or beyond their pinnacle. When Hamilton defended the creation of the national bank, his critics charged that he construed the “necessary and proper” clause in a way that left little room for limiting Congress’s power. What he implied, but never made explicit, was the idea that, in conjunction with the written understanding of constitutional power, which remains to some degree vague, statesmen must exercise the virtue of prudence. Hamilton’s political theory depends on the existence of talented public officers, with the discretion to construe the powers of government broadly. When power is vested in the hands of a ruler like Washington, who was a model of republican virtue, the outcome might be different from when discretion rested in the hands of persons with little regard for historical precedents and who believed they had the ability to use political power to transform human nature.
One of Hamilton’s theoretical blind spots, especially evident when he was in power, guiding Washington’s administration, was the potential for broad interpretation of the law by men like Aaron Burr, who were unprincipled, or like George Clinton, who were motivated by parochial interests. Hamilton was an excellent judge of character and recognized a personality type that was dangerous to the constitutional order when he saw one. He went to great lengths in the press to alert the public to such individuals, and in doing so took on the responsibility of policing the ruling class. He was not so quick to recognize how broad constructionism could be justified in face of the likelihood that individuals of intemperate mind, sinister design, and idyllic dreams would inevitably occupy the offices held by Washington, Marshall, and himself. It may be true that interpretative discretion is simply a necessity of constitutional government, given the dynamics of changing circumstances and the limits of written legal sanctions and boundaries. Nonetheless, good political theory accounts for a broad range of circumstances and character types. Hamilton, who was skeptical about the wisdom of the people, seemed surprised at times that the people were willing to vote men like Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, and even John Adams into high office.
Some of Hamilton’s biographers have attributed his strained relationship with Adams to jealousy. They claim that Hamilton considered himself a more worthy protégé of Washington. Whatever the case may be, Hamilton could have been more explicit, as Madison was in Federalist 10, about what to expect when enlightened statesmen are not at the helm. Moreover, Hamilton could have given more attention, as Jefferson did, to the education of political leaders and citizens. Hamilton seems to have assumed that the supply of natural aristocrats would continue to be as sufficient as it was in the founding period. Incorporating greater historical scope into his political theory would have alerted him to a potential problem with loose constructionism. This criticism does not diminish the validity of a theory of constitutionalism that relies on the discretion of political leaders, but it suggests that more must be done to bring to light the potential dangers of such an approach and to conceive of ways that those dangers might be mitigated. Hamilton’s answer to the problem of judicial encroachments on legislative power, articulated in Federalist 81, has proven insufficient. Impeachment is not a prudent check on judges who construe the power of judicial review so broadly that it depreciates or violates the separation of powers and the rule of law. Hamilton’s simple solution to judicial tyranny places members of Congress in the difficult position of removing from office judges who have decided a case on grounds other than the law. The inclination, if not the temptation, would be to remove judges from the bench when they decided cases in a way that did not meet the political or ideological preferences of Congress or the people. This would, no doubt, destroy the independence of the court and encourage overreaction to what is now merely the common practice of ideological politics.
On the whole, Hamilton’s contribution to American political thought is significant. He ranks as an equal to those, like Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams, who have received more sympathetic treatment from historians and political theorists. His political theory is especially interesting because it grapples with what were in the eighteenth century and continue today to be enduring questions of political order. How much power should government have? How should constitutions be interpreted? What is the relationship between the national government and constituent states? What kind of character is necessary for constitutional government to promote the ends of politics? Hamilton’s answers to these questions were not always as theoretically penetrating as they might have been if he had been more detached from the immediate struggles of politics. Yet, his consideration of important political and theoretical problems was marked by a clarity and earnestness often absent from political thinking. Perhaps Hamilton’s greatest contribution was his morally realistic philosophical anthropology, which served as the foundation for his theory of constitutionalism, his theory of political administration, his political economy, and his theory of international relations. Hamilton brought the sobriety of moral realism to every aspect of his political conduct and thinking. He avoided utopian and romantic conceptions of politics at a time when Jacobinism and the American Revolution were inciting pernicious idealism. Especially when buttressed by the ever-steady influence of George Washington, Hamilton’s imagination led him to conceive of constitutional politics in a way that was concrete and historically rich. He did much to give American constitutionalism its sound theoretical footing.
Where Hamilton tended to be at his theoretical and political weakest was in regard to one aspect of federalism and the cultural supports for constitutionalism. He was somewhat blind to the dangers of a national government that were too strong to be checked by the states. Although he was not in favor of an interventionist foreign policy, the national government that he helped build would, once in the hands of more progressive leaders, minimize the power of the states to the point that, in both foreign and domestic affairs, the national government could exceed its constitutional limits without much resistance. The point of this observation is not to blame Hamilton for the constitutional indiscretions of subsequent generations of American leaders, but to identify a weakness in his political theory that failed to recognize the full implications of centralizing power. What is most striking about Hamilton’s political theory is the relationship between his general philosophical anthropology and his specific views of government and economy. His underlying conception of human nature is dualistic. Human beings possess mixed inclinations of good and evil; human motives are a blending of higher and lower desires. Consequently, one finds a common thread running through Hamilton’s political ideas: that the mixture of good and evil in human nature requires mixed political and economic institutions. American constitutional government should not be a pure regime. It needs to be a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The republic is a mixture of national and state sovereignty, and within each of those sovereign entities power is separated among branches and levels of government that exist in tension with one another, in order to create restraints on power. In economics, Hamilton advocated the mixing of private and public influences and the mixing of agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and commerce. The idea of giving one monolithic interest or industry anything akin to a monopoly was anathema to Hamilton’s quest for moderation and balance. The mixing and balancing of power and interest was not intended to give higher and lower inclinations equal chances for success; it was expected that individuals of extraordinary character would tip the scales in favor of what was more permanent and less ephemeral and what served the public good. While Hamilton’s sober reading of human nature and politics has been interpreted by some as dark and pessimistic, it provides a realistic assessment of politics and of the challenges that government faces, and in so doing marks the great achievement of American constitutionalism: Civilization depends on a realistic understanding of the human condition and the quality of character that makes constitutional government possible. It is one of Alexander Hamilton’s achievements that he managed to articulate this central insight during the throes of war, constitutional formation, and the challenges of the early republic. One is hard-pressed to find in the founding generation a statesman or thinker who surpassed Hamilton in realism and constitutional insights. For this reason alone, he should be considered one of the leading figures in American political thought.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2012.
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 Robert Hendrickson, Hamilton I, 1757-1789 (New York: Mason/Charter, 1976), 78.
 Clinton Rossiter, Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), 150, 180-182.
 PAH, 8: 107.