Hamilton’s Blues

Walter Russel Mead has an excellent column on the continuing reverberations of the great Hamilton-Jefferson Divide. 200-plus years later, the argument is still not over.

In Osawatomie and beyond, President Obama will run for re-election as a Hamiltonian and a custodian of the 20th century progressive state.  He will argue that modest and careful reforms, trimming a few excesses here, making some innovative policy shifts there, can keep the old ship afloat in the twenty first century.  Like JFK, he will argue that the best and brightest can develop government policy that will guide the nation to a brighter future through collective action and state investments.

Governor Romney, so far as one can discern, is at his core a Hamiltonian as well, but he has less sympathy than President Obama and the Democrats for the blue synthesis of Hamiltonianism and social democracy.  He stands roughly in a line of Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush who accepted the basic elements of the progressive state.  Former Speaker Gingrich is also a Hamiltonian, but much more than either Romney or Obama he believes that Hamiltonianism needs to be re-imagined for our times.  Congressman Paul is the one Jeffersonian in the race, and of the four he seems the least likely to be elected in 2012.

The conservative backlash against Hamilton has been growing of late. Thomas DiLorenzo’s Hamilton’s Curse all but casts him as the Satan/Judas of the founders. It’s a book worth reading, even if it DiLorenzo’s neo-Confederatism at times becomes counter-productive to his brief.

In point of fact, Jefferson’s vision also has its flaws. Taken to a logical extreme, it posits King Log as the ideal state. Jeffersonianism meant that the nation’s military was moribund throughout the 19th century, leading to diplomatic crises, and then wars, that could  have been avoided if we’d had an army adequate to its mission.

Essentially, we disasterously went to war with Britain in 1812 because we had no navy to protect our shipping, and no army to police the frontier. We went to war with Mexico in 1846 as much because Mexico saw no need to respect its agreements as because of our lust for conquest. And the Civil War could not have happened if we’d had the loyal, professional army we have today. Lincoln was a Hamiltonian because Buchanan was a Jeffersonian.

Yet this argument will pass. However much Jefferson’s spirit emboldens the Tea Party, it is not Jefferson’s model that enlivens our Leviathan state. To bring the beast to heel, we need a good deal of Jefferson’s obstinate libertarianism. It is true to point out that King Log has his faults, but not when King Stork stalks the pond.

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