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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hamilton's Choice

This is a mere jeu d’esprit to get myself back into the habit of writing.

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I was bred a scholar, and a scholar’s habits die hard. Among these is my habit of becoming interested in a subject and reading compulsively about it until I have satisfied myself that I have become a lay expert. And of course, since it is also a scholarly habit to distrust other scholars, such reading will preferably consist of primary sources.

My latest intellectual compulsion is the political history of the American Founding and early Republic. I recently finished working my way through the writings of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, despite his many flaws of character, is one of my favourite Founding Fathers. He is also among the least well-known of the major figures. The average American probably knows that it his face which adorns the US ten dollar bill, and perhaps they might even know that he was the one killed in that duel with Aaron Burr (whoever he was). And that is probably about all they know.

This is a shame, since Hamilton has probably left a deeper stamp on the institutions of the United States than any other of the Founders. He was leader of the Federalists, one of the two parties that emerged during Washington’s presidency — the other being the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson (no relation to the existing party of the same name). The Federalists had a strong political program, which was mostly the brainchild of Hamilton. Foremost, they believed in an energetic federal government which they hoped would in time supplant the individual state governments in the consciousness and allegiance of Americans.

Federalists advocated the creation of a national debt, which to modern ears does not sound like a particularly praiseworthy objective. However, the United States was a new country, and its credit was not established on the world stage (nor indeed with its own citizens). As with consumers, so with nations: if you want to borrow money, you’d better have a credit history. But how is such a history to be established? Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, proposed the assumption by the newly-formed federal government of the debts incurred by the individual state governments during and after the Revolutionary war. He also proposed a national bank. Through these two schemes it was hoped that citizens would be more closely tied to the federal government. Through the former, citizens would become the creditors of the government, and through the latter they would become its debtors. Along with a national paper currency, the national bank and debt would ensure that the federal government’s reach would extend into the homes, minds and hearts of the citizenry of the new nation. All of these initiatives were pushed through and survived despite much opposition.

Another hallmark of Federalist thought was a deep distrust of direct democracy. It is somewhat difficult now for us to imagine, but in the eighteenth century the term “democracy” was more likely to be used pejoratively. The system of checks and balances for which the US Constitution is so well-known, were largely of Federalist construction. Republicans, especially Jefferson, were viewed by them as irresponsible demagogues and supporters of mob rule who, if allowed, would bring upon the infant Republic all the evils of the French Revolution with its anarchy and Terror. Back then, if you wished to use a term to denote a political system where government derived its powers from the consent of the governed, the accepted term was “republic”, as it connoted the rule of laws and not of men. “Democracy” on the other hand tended to signify the arbitrary rule of unreflective mob passions. (This, incidentally, is the way I still prefer to use these terms, but I’m the first to admit how out of step I am with the political idols of this age.)

Federalists were also advocates of a strong federal judiciary and Supreme Court. Indeed, it was through the federal legal institutions that the Federalists maintained any influence at all in the new Republic, as by 1800 they had lost control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the presidency to their Republican rivals. In fact, there was only ever one Federalist president of the United States, John Adams, and he only served a single term. (Washington was not officially allied to either party, although his policies tended to favour the Federalists. His cabinet was deeply divided, his Secretary of State being Thomas Jefferson, bitter rival of his Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton.) Although they lost their brief grip on power, the US Constitution would be interpreted throughout the early formative decades by a largely Federalist Supreme Court, led by John Marshall, an Adams appointee.

Hamilton could be a brutally ruthless political tactician. To put this in context, Talleyrand considered him to be the foremost politician of the age, and Talleyrand was about as unscrupulous as they come. Hamilton twice ran backroom campaigns to undermine his own party’s putative presidential nominee, Adams. The first time, in 1796, he was unsuccessful, but he managed to engineer Adams’ defeat in 1800. He did this for the simple reason that he thought Adams — with his vanity, perceived aristocratic bias, and uncontrolled temper — unsuitable presidential material.

However, if you think about it, rather than an example of “moral flexibility”, might not Hamilton’s Machiavellian maneuverings be indicative of moral scruple? After all, he wasn’t vying for the presidency himself, and I’m not really sure he even considered Adams a rival in any sense. He did seem to dislike Adams in that way that you can dislike someone disinterestedly. At least in 1796, Adams had not really done anything to hurt Hamilton’s interests, so Hamilton’s dislike was not personal in that way. It was simply based on an objective assessment of Adams’ character.

I believe that Hamilton put a lot of stock in moral character (even though the details of his own private life were rather sordid and not a model of uprightness). I also believe it is perfectly possible that he simply didn’t want the wrong candidate, of whatever party, to do irreparable damage to the office of the presidency itself. This is an especially pertinent consideration in a nation whose institutions were quite new and relatively fragile. Both of these motivations, regard for character and concern for the integrity of office, are evident in his actions during the contested election of 1800.

Without getting into the complicated details, after successfully thwarting Adams’ re-election bid, Hamilton’s Federalists found themselves faced with a dilemma. Two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were tied in Electoral College votes. Repeated run-off balloting could not break the impasse. Of the two candidates, Burr had a reputation for self-serving ambition and was the least committed to the Republican cause, and therefore would be most susceptible to the blandishments of Federalists in return for their support. In other words, the Federalists were in the position of being possible kingmakers, and Burr was the most probable candidate with whom they could do a deal.

It was a very serious situation. The nation’s Constitution was only a dozen years old and already seemed to be fatally flawed. There was talk of military intervention to decide the issue. Civil war loomed. And, as historian Bruce Ackerman has put it, there had already been more than a whiff of the banana republic surrounding this election.

For example, earlier, when there were minor irregularities in the return from Georgia, a quick-thinking President pro tempore of the Senate — the person responsible for overseeing the counting — allowed the return. This effectively eliminated all other candidates except Jefferson and Burr. It was unfortunate that the Constitution gave the role of President Pro-Tem of the Senate to the Vice President, since the Vice President in this case was Jefferson himself.

It should be noted that there was no doubt about the way Georgia electors intended to vote. It was merely a procedural irregularity in the form and sealing of the certification. Jefferson was not necessarily stuffing the ballot box. The point is, as Ackerman correctly notes, the Constitution should never have put him in that situation in the first place. If he had disallowed the return, besides hurting his own interests, he would clearly have been ignoring the will of the Georgia electors.

In any case, given that the new nation’s institutions were so weak and in danger of failure, it was understandable that Hamilton would worry about the moral qualities of whoever assumed the presidency, since this could decide whether the institution would have a future. A man unworthy of the office could ensure that he presided over the dissolution of the Republic.

There is no doubt that Hamilton considered Burr unworthy. For one thing, he had the reputation of being a panderer to the mob. As Hamilton put it in a letter of January 16, 1801 to James Bayard, a Federalist Representative from Delaware, “No man has trafficked more than he in the floating passions of the multitude.” Remember that the Federalists were not keen on democracy, and there seemed to be a touch of the demagogue about Burr.

There was also the fact that Burr seemed to have no fixed principles. It was the very fact that he was a man that the Federalists could do a deal with that made him unsuitable to do a deal with. As Hamilton put it,

The truth is that Burr is a man of a very subtile imagination, and a mind of this make is rarely free from ingenious whimsies. Yet I admit that he has no fixed theory & that his peculiar notions will easily give way to his interest. But is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none? I believe not. No general principles will hardly work much better than erroneous ones.

Although Jefferson was Hamilton’s great party rival and ideological nemesis, there were reasons for preferring him over Burr. As he told Bayard, Jefferson was not “zealous enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest.” He might be too democratical for Federalist tastes, but at least he was not impulsive, and his interest in his own political reputation would keep him in line. In addition to this, “there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.” The same could not be said about Burr.

Besides questions of character and the desire to leave the fragile Republic in capable hands, there were also more political, less high-minded, considerations in favour of supporting Jefferson. If he got the job and made a cock-up of it, no blame for the mess could be placed on the Federalists themselves. With a little patience, they could be positioned to resist bad policies and perhaps win the office next time around, with a proper candidate of their own choosing rather than with a cheap compromise one like Burr. The survival of the Republic might very well depend on a credible and effective opposition, and the Federalists would be less able to assume this role of they were seen to be implicated in the election of the government to which they were opposed:

If the Antifœderalists who prevailed in the election are left to take their own man [i.e. Jefferson], they remain responsible, and the Fœderalists remain free united and without stain, in a situation to resist with effect pernicious measures. If the Fœderalists substitute Burr, they adopt him and become answerable for him…. And if he acts ill, we must share in the blame and disgrace.

It seems that Hamilton’s argument had a persuasive effect on Bayard, because on February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot, Bayard switched his vote from Burr to blank, thereby allowing Jefferson to win.

Burr did not take kindly to Hamilton’s meddling, nor to the imputation of lack of moral character. Three years later, in Weehawken, New Jersey, he killed Hamilton in that famous duel. That event, and the appearance of Hamilton’s face on the ten dollar bill, gave rise to that clever Saturday Night Live hip hop send-up: “You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we’re dropping Hamiltons.”

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