Alexander Hamilton: The Indispensable Founder

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2006

January 11 is the birthday of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s reputation, more than that of any other of the Founders, has fluctuated according to the political fashions of the day. He has often been portrayed as the “prince of darkness” in a Manichean struggle with Thomas Jefferson for the soul of the American Republic. Thus during the ascendancy of Jeffersonianism in the years before the Civil War, he was held in low esteem. In contrast, with the triumph of neo-Federalism after the Civil War, he was accorded the highest honors in the national pantheon.

Today, his reputation is once more in the ascendant after a period during which he was considered much too “elitist” for our democratic tastes. He has been blessed with two outstanding, recent biographies by Ron Chernow and Richard Brookhiser that demonstrate that the earlier criticism of Hamilton as being insufficiently democratic is flawed, for while he opposed the extreme tendencies of some of his countrymen during the revolutionary period, he was very much dedicated to free and liberal government.

Hamilton once wrote that “I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Thus Hamilton aimed to create institutions that would provide for a free government that was nonetheless capable of protecting the individual liberty of its citizens from both domestic majorities and foreign depredations. The Union, said Hamilton, is “the rock of our political salvation.”

In the wake of the Revolution, Hamilton and the other Founders confronted a dangerous obstacle to the creation of such a government: the “passionate attachment” of the people to absolute liberty—in a word, a tendency toward license. The people all too often believed that their mere will should rule, or in the words of the Boston radical Benjamin Hichborn, that “civil liberty [is] a power in the people at large, at any time, for any purpose, or for no cause, but their own sovereign pleasure, to annihilate both the mode and essence of any former government, and adopt anew one in its stead.” The inevitable result of such an attitude was anarchy, followed in short order by tyranny. For this reason, the Roman republic and the republics of Greece were, for the most part, violent, short-lived affairs.

Hamilton understood that while such a passionate attachment to liberty was necessary to those revolutionary periods characterized by “resort to first principles,” it could not be the basis of good government, without which true liberty is ultimately impossible. This obstacle to good government manifest itself in at least three ways after the American Revolution: lawlessness on the part of majorities in state legislatures that all too often asserted their will by running roughshod over individual rights; the widespread repudiation of debt, both public and private; and in international affairs, a popular attraction to revolutionary France that threatened to put the new republic on a collision course with Great Britain, a fight that a weak United States could ill afford.

Hamilton’s response to the first problem was to strive to make the American people law-abiding by, through his voluminous writings, attaching them to their Constitution and the laws that arose from it. The people had to be made to understand that the legislature was the creature of the Constitution and that the latter could never be subordinated to the former. Though Hamilton expressed reservations about the Constitution, he defended it as the basis of a republic based on the rule of law, not the rule of men.

His response to the second problem was to establish the credit of the United States. Hamilton believed that this was necessary not only because the government required it to survive, but because it served as a means to establishing a virtuous citizenry, without which republican government is impossible. Hamilton hoped that by making Americans see the justice of paying their debts, both public and private, that they would be habituated to virtuous behavior, and ultimately to virtue itself. Hamilton understood that more than national prosperity was at stake. He believed that the government must set the example when it came to paying its debts, both for the sake of its own honor and reputation, and for the sake of its citizens’ character.

Finally, Hamilton understood that although the United States was potentially a great nation, the “embryo of a great empire,” it was weak in terms of military and naval power. If the United States was to survive, the American people needed to recognize the realities of international power. Thus Hamilton sought to moderate the people’s passionate attachment to France and to reconcile them to the international status of Great Britain, which because of its great naval power, could do a great deal of harm to US interests.

In Alexander Hamilton: America, Richard Brookhiser makes the case that, of the Founders, only Washington was greater than Hamilton. Because the United States has become such a successful nation, it is sometime easy to forget that it is great only because of the vision, nobility, and virtue of the Founders, none of whom exceeded Hamilton in the possession of these attributes. Hamilton was the sort of man described by the Athenian stranger in Plato’s Laws: “let us all be lovers of victory when it comes to virtue, but without envy. The man of this sort—always competing with himself but never thwarting others with slander—makes nations great.”

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.