J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Shotted Dead Great Hamilton

William Hogeland’s essay “Inventing Alexander Hamilton” in the Boston Review makes interesting reading. It takes strong issue with what a couple of recent books have said about Hamilton’s influence on America.

Many historians agree with Hogeland that Hamilton was highly ambitious, with the energy and political skills to succeed at most of those ambitions. So Hogeland’s picture of a young man on the make rings true:

Hamilton’s correspondence during and after the [1782 Newburgh] crisis reveals a young man working assiduously to cover every bet: he subtly adjusted his solicitation of [George] Washington when it became obvious the great man wouldn’t play; he didn’t scruple to criticize, even partly rat out, his fellow conspirators; and he confessed to Washington certain aspects of his own participation in the conspiracy, while covering up others; in one letter draft he even crossed out a reference to it. A reader of this richly entertaining bob-and-weave can only stand in awe of Hamilton’s conjuring a role as Washington’s congressional informant and confidant from participation in a treasonous conspiracy. He set up his entire career!
On Hamilton’s economic policies, Hogeland seems to start from the the Whiskey Rebellion, on which he’s written a book, and then to trace back the policies that prompted it.
For Hamilton, shoring up and concentrating bondholders’ wealth meant paying that income with funds drawn not from the small bondholding class but from a tax collected from the large class of people who would never own a bond. And he structured the tax around aspects of the distilling process itself, so that big-time distillers (industrialists, members of the bondholding class) would be charged a lower tax while small-time producers (people engaged in a wide variety of work as farmers and artisans, with whiskeymaking often their sole source of cash and credit) would be charged a substantially higher tax, in many cases a crushing one. . . .

Thus did the first federal domestic tax—linchpin to Hamilton’s finance plan, culmination of nationalists’ decade-long efforts to unite the country, first step in making the American economy a global competitor—operate regressively, comprehensively, and deliberately.
As for the value of economic mobility, as Hamilton himself had enjoyed as a fatherless island boy arriving in New York from St Croix in 1772:
It’s more likely that Hamilton believed exceptional, bright boys like him should erupt like meteors across the night sky. Blending creative genius with an almost mad degree of thoroughness and tenacity, he strove to dominate everyone he encountered, a quality that brought enormous success but also marred his life and may have shortened it.

The idea that Hamilton spent his career trying to create conditions for replicating such a rise seems fantastic. One searches his letters and public statements in vain for thoughtful reflection on ordinary families’ economic struggles or respect for their goals and hopes for their children’s betterment. He is unconcerned about using government power to encourage the rise of laborer’s descendants and would not have related upward mobility to democracy—a dirty word to Hamilton.
Yet do those criticisms of Hamilton really refute the recent authors’ suggestion that “today’s America is not Jeffersonian but Hamiltonian—a blend of high finance, central banking, federal strength, industrialization, and global power.” Or do they simply offer more evidence for it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I read this part I thought that yup, indeed we're living in Hamiltonian times:

"To the extent that he thought about it at all, Hamilton wanted people to stop talking nonsense about their own economic aspirations and get ahead his way and his way alone, by becoming efficiently organized laborers and farm workers for the financiers and industrialists. If people wouldn’t do that, he’d make them."