Hamilton vs. Jefferson, the 21st century version

Walter Russell Mead recently argued that we are seeing a revival of the first debate in our nation’s history: does strengthening the federal government protect or imperil freedom? This different answers to this question underpinned the debate about the ratification of the Constitution and then defined the Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton and his allies, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and his allies. The basic breakdown is to what extent the federal government, in alliance with elite decision-makers, could manage the economy and direct society in a beneficial way. Hamiltonians of the 18th and 19th centuries are often portrayed as conservatives, from Hamilton and his Federalists to Henry Clay and his Whigs, but Mead argues that they are the forebears of modern progressive liberalism. As Mead (see this post) and others have pointed out, the Federalists had their base of support in New England, one of today’s most important bases of progressivism. Mead believes that Hamilton’s belief that “the best educated and most widely experienced people in the United States constituted a natural aristocracy and should play the leading role in our politics” is reflected in progressive liberalism’s reliance on experts to craft policy. The 20th century saw the triumph of Hamiltonianism:

The blue social model, the progressive American system of the 20th century, was the love child of Hamiltonian liberal theory and social democratic aspirations rooted in the Industrial Revolution and the class struggle it spawned.  It used a capitalist state, and capital markets, to advance both classic Hamiltonian objectives and the social goals of the urban working class.  For a good chunk of the twentieth century, the American party system reflected this division: Rockefeller Republicans stressed the liberal and Hamiltonian roots of the system, liberal Democrats stressed the social democratic aspects of its agenda.

It’s impossible to understand modern American conservatism — especially its skepticism of the mainstream media, academia, and the federal government, which were all part of this consensus by the 1960s and 1970s — without understanding  the triumph of what Mead calls Hamiltonianism in American political culture. Read Mead’s post for his analysis of the current situation.

It’s a good analysis, I think, with one weakness. The dichotomy between the two isn’t as helpful in recognizing the continuum between these positions and the real difference in federal power between the late 18th and 19th centuries and today. Someone might have supported government-financed internal transportation improvements in 1830, but that same person would be astonished if you described the Great Society programs. Doubtless, there are connections that can be drawn between Henry Clay’s American System and the Great Society, but there has been a paradigm shift about the federal government’s responsibilities that makes those connections complicated.


One comment

  1. Neat article. Thanks for sharing it, Scott! Mead wraps it all up so nicely and orderly into a very attractive, simple framework. Of course, I’m not an expert on any of the history, I just have an abiding interest in practical moral problems such as governance. By Mead’s account I would pretty firmly be a Jeffersonian.

    Good catch on identifying that weakness. Hamiltonianism (H) and Jeffersonianism (J) has split and morphed over time. Perhaps Hamilton would have become a Jeffersonian if he were alive to receive blame for what Mead assigns to his train of thought! In any case, it is nice to see a train.

    Here are a few other random parts that struck me:

    Mead wrote: “The transfer of financial power from London to New York and the liberation of the financial system from the gold standard allowed American Hamiltonians to reconcile their own preference for sound, internationally convertible money and the interests of capital-hungry entrepreneurs and farmers.

    Is Mead implying that the gold standard is not sound or internationally convertible? Are you familiar with that?

    Mead wrote: “The long Hamiltonian ascendancy in the United States has brought many benefits. It is in my judgment neither possible nor desirable to go back to the weak farmer’s republic that Thomas Jefferson thought he was building in the 1790s. At home and abroad a healthy Hamiltonianism is an essential building block of American prosperity and security.

    I think the key is “healthy”. Security can protect prosperity. It can also squelch it. And, of course, the benefits of Hamiltonianism must be measured with its costs against the costs and benefits of alternatives (e.g. Jeffersonian).

    Mead wrote: “Hamiltonianism at its best is forward-looking and revolutionary. It is not the tool of established interests but a force for innovation.

    I don’t think Mead justified that claim at all, did he? By definition, it is primarily the tool of established interests. Perhaps that “best” is what Hamiltonians tell themselves, but from my perspective, Hamiltonianism is best for emergencies, which is why our fearful and risk-averse culture allows it to be so abused. Innovation tends to suffer under centralization.

    Mead wrote: “Congressman Paul is the one Jeffersonian in the race, and of the four he seems the least likely to be elected in 2012.

    I think Mead breaks down the candidates reasonably well, and I think he’s right about Paul not being elected, but Paul has a lot more support than most people would have guessed. Still, he comes across as radically impractical. He stays away from a lot of the sticky points of his philosophy. e.g. I’ve never heard him address the role of the military in protecting our foreign trade.

    But what’s amazing is that there is even a Jeffersonian in the race, and how far the Republicans have shifted toward Paul and Jefferson because of the Tea Party. The fact that more Americans are identifying the federal government as the source of current problems AND not as an avenue to solve them is huge. In contrast to the South’s Hamiltonianization, the Tea Party seems remarkably principled in their disinterest in federal power, except to limit it. I don’t know how long they can keep it up. Power is so seductive.

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