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It’s All His Fault

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Hamilton’s Curse:

How Jefferson’s Archenemy betrayed the American Revolution and What It Means to America Today

By Thomas J. DiLorenzo
Crown Forum, 2008

If you’re the type who really identifies with Joe the Plumber and are feeling down about November’s election results, I believe I have just the book to help cheer you up! Hamilton’s Curse by Thomas J. DiLorenzo is a singular kind of work, targeting a singular kind of demographic. It’s that special type of book which fails to challenge any of its readers’ preconceived notions about modern America and how liberals are screwing it up. Chock full of truthiness, it provides a kind of mock historical narrative that helps ground an insular world view in something nearly resembling reality.

He lays his foundation solidly upon on the fears of those whom Nixon called the “silent majority,” the “real Americans” adrift in a sea of political and economic heresy. He sets to work, stroking their egos and assuaging their feelings of alienation, assuring them that it’s not their fault – that the government has stacked the deck against them. Apparently, for two centuries a mysteriously powerful cabal of elite Hamiltonian insiders has had every aspect of government under control and have used their influence to enrich themselves and waste taxpayer money on frivolities such as roads, canals, dams and sewage treatment plants all supposedly “for the public good.”

Unfortunately for DiLorenzo (but perhaps fortunately for the rest of us), while at times making interesting arguments, cannot be taken seriously outside of a small contingent of true believers. As John Adams said, “facts are stubborn things,” and despite DiLorenzo’s best effort they refuse to yield to historical half-truths, rampant mischaracterizations and selective interpretations that betray an intellectual insecurity seeking succor in the comfort of absolutes. The work is ill-served by DiLorenzo’s tendency to scramble towards such safe havens, and in attempting to get there he often wanders off point only to find himself lost amidst the hot anger of a rant.

He shows his cards early when he tries to boil down the causes of the Revolution solely to the colonists’ displeasure with Britain’s centralized bureaucracy of tax collectors. This oft-cited fantasy of anti-tax lunatics such as Grover Norquist (and DiLorenzo) is wishful thinking; the American Revolution was not a simple tax rebellion but a larger democratic uprising. The rallying cry was not “No taxation!” but rather, “No taxation without representation!”

Let me catch everybody up before I go any further. DiLorenzo’s vast conspiracy looks something like this: Beginning in 1780, before the Revolution had even ended, then Colonel Hamilton wrote a letter to George Washington advocating a more powerful government. For DiLorenzo this letter is a type of Rubicon-crossing moment:

This statement marked the beginning of his lengthy campaign against America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation… Hamilton’s agitating paid off, as seven years later he got the Constitutional Convention he had long been proposing. Supposedly the convention was intended to amend the Articles of Confederation, but, of course, the Articles would end up being scraped completely. What Hamilton and his political compatriots wanted was a much more highly centralized government with vastly expanded executive branch powers.

At that secretive meeting Hamilton laid bare the blackness of his soul, proposing

a permanent president and senate, with all political power in the national government, as far away as possible from the people, and centered in the executive… Hamilton proposed a kind of “king” who would yield supreme power over all the people, who in turn would have essentially no say in how their government was run.

“Hamilton and his party,” were hell-bent on combining

economic interventionism with their quest for consolidated or monopolistic governmental power. They did not want to allow the independent states to dissent from their high-tariff policies, for example. Protectionist tariffs to allow (mostly northern state) manufacturers to monopolize their industries, isolated from European competition, could not work if some of the states chose a low-tariff policy. Imports would flood into the low-tariff states, and then become dispersed throughout the nation by merchants. This was why a monopolistic, consolidated government, with all power in the nation’s capital, was their main goal.

Luckily, the delegates prevent the adoption of this monarchist scheme, but despite the setback at the Convention, Hamilton pressed on and

devoted himself to “reinterpreting” the “real meaning” of the document so as to subvert it. His purpose was essentially to rewrite the Constitution through lawyerly manipulation of its words to satisfy his main purpose of building “the foundations of a new empire.”

Because Hamilton favored energetic government, he “viewed the Constitution as a grant of powers rather than as a set of limitations.” Together with the Federalist Party’s “lawyer-eaucracy,” Hamilton used “clever manipulation of words” to twist the General Welfare and Commerce clauses so as to approve “virtually all government action without involving the citizens at all,” from pork-barrel spending to economic regulations.

Through this manipulation, according to DiLorenzo, he “invented the myth that the Constitution somehow grants the federal government “implied powers.” Ever since,

the shock troops of the Federalist Party – federally appointed judges – would use Hamilton’s arguments to essentially rewrite history and the Constitution. Thus was “liberal judicial activism” born.

But this isn’t the worst of it; from here the conspiracy takes a truly sinister turn, leading us further down the rabbit hole. It seems that

many of Hamilton’s key political supporters – and friends, business associates, and relatives – were holders of federal bonds (especially war bonds.) More government revenue was needed, Hamilton believed, so that these government bondholders could be paid their principal and interest. In addition, Hamilton believed in issuing even more bonds for the sake of enlarging the public debt. He thought this would tie the wealthy of the country (who would be the primary purchasers of government bonds) to the government, thereby creating a formidable political pressure group in favor of bigger government and higher taxation.

It was this high tax policy that sparked the Whiskey Rebellion which gave Hamilton the opportunity to use the muscle he’d juiced the Federal Government with and accordingly, 13,000 troops were sent to put down the uprising. This 18th century example of shock and awe, according to DiLorenzo,

speaks volumes about why Hamilton was such a vociferous proponent of a standing army. He wanted a standing army of tax collectors. This is how King George III collected stamp taxes and other levies from the American colonists prior to the Revolution.

So through Hamilton’s machinations the Revolution came full circle:

The ability to enforce such taxing and borrowing with a standing army was the most ominous aspect of the new Constitution… A standing army of tax collectors could (and eventually would) destroy states’ right altogether.

Thus was the United States returned to its previous state of abject subjugation under a centralized, mercantilist, corporate government as it had been under British rule. We are through the looking glass here people.

If the book were really about history, it’s safe to say that Hamilton’s Curse could have ended after about 50 pages, at the point where DiLorenzo runs out of things to say. But it doesn’t. Instead, the peroration rambles on, devolving into ever more shallow and repetitive outbursts. The text is stuffed with hair pulling lamentations over the abandonment of pure laissez-faire economics and the subversion of founding principles, embodied in the loss of states’ rights.

As it is, the book’s greatest accomplishment may be having gotten itself classified as history rather than current affairs, allowing it to glean some legitimacy from a subject matter of greater gravitas. Despite being the title character, Alexander Hamilton seems more like a straw man; a buttress for the pseudo-historical edifice DiLorenzo constructs in order to decry modern America. When historical method is actually applied in Hamilton’s Curse it’s merely used as a tool to justify the author’s libertarian insecurities, but despite the help the task before him remains a mighty one. He must somehow convince his readers that amidst decades of wandering the political wilderness the diabolical Hamiltonians managed to run roughshod over majority opposition and though electorally defeated time and again were kept alive by Hamilton’s protégés. Federal jurists like John Marshall or Congressmen like Henry Clay based their careers on the “made up” theory of implied powers and used it to build a tyrannically energetic government for no ostensible reason other than they “preferred a larger and more intrusive state.”

Despite weaving his story together with copious amounts of speculation, DiLorenzo utterly fails to uncover a convincing motive for his antagonist. What’s more, he leaves Hamilton’s goals vague, sometimes sprouting from “dreams of empire,” while at others simply from an innate desire to create “big government.” These fluctuating visions remain fluid enough to travel all the avenues of DiLorenzo’s paranoia. But in this book all roads lead to the same place: outrage at Hamilton’s poisoning of the American well.

Considering the psychic energy DiLorenzo must have exerted in order to construct such a narrow and dogmatic framework, the intensity he brings to fleshing it out isn’t surprising and propels him towards conclusions a less passionate advocate may have though imprudent. For instance he plucks a phrase from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural, “government shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned,” and uses this as justification to tether his favored economic philosophy to Jeffersonianism. The choice to latch on to Jefferson, a genuinely admirable man, is both obvious and perplexing: obvious because anyone attacking Hamilton would want to embrace a contemporary rival but perplexing given DiLorenzo’s economic angle. There is little evidence that Jefferson, despite being a great democratic theoretician, had any real grasp of economics. In fact it’s downright curious that DiLorenzo holds Jefferson up as a model of fiscal responsibility considering how awful his financial instincts were. He was up to his eyeballs in personal debt from years of mismanagement at Monticello, from pursuing cockamamie ideas (at one point he was convinced that building a nail factory staffed by his slaves would reverse his fortunes) and for taking out foolish loans to finance his unsustainable patrician lifestyle.

Coincidentally, while DiLorenzo never hesitates to assail Hamilton for wanting stronger government and economic protectionism, he ignores Jefferson’s achievements in the field. While president, Jefferson issued a financially ruinous trade embargo that was received with more hostility then any whiskey tax, and he went ahead with a massive land purchase, using $15 million he wasn’t authorized to pay out for the Louisiana territory he, theoretically, wasn’t empowered to buy. Such insultingly partisan whitewashing has the unintended consequence of driving someone like me, no great fan of Hamilton under ordinary circumstances, into feeling sorry for the poor guy.

But this is just symptomatic of a larger trend within Hamilton’s Curse. Time and again DiLorenzo proves to be blithely arrogant and thoroughly in love with his own, largely unsupported, opinion.

He’ll baselessly rage against lawyers and activist judges for declawing our Constitution, allowing for the emergence of a “Leviathan state” and ruefully opine that “Hamilton prevails” as if he arrived on the crest of an irresistible tidal wave. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that his narrative omits all the little insights and complexities that gives color to the study of the past and raises it out of bland two-dimensionality. For instance, he fails to acknowledge how hotly Hamilton’s issues (taxes, customs, central banking, etc) were argued. It suits his paranoia to pretend citizens were completely shut out of the system and that the government throughout the Hamiltonian era was a unitary steamroller, but that was not the case; it was fractious, and decisions were still being made by elected representatives accountable to the people.

Again, there were decades of intervening and supposedly more enlightened Jeffersonian administrations, where just as much “energy” was added to the Federal Government as had been by its Federalist predecessors. In addition the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson also circumvented Congress and prosecuted an undeclared war against the Barbary pirates. His successors fared little better with the issuance of the Monroe Doctrine by his friend and fellow Virginian, whose administration also oversaw General Andrew Jackson’s punitive invasion and imperial conquest of Spanish Florida.

For the rest of the book, DiLorenzo bounces around American history cherry picking examples he hopes will back up his theories, inevitably landing at President Andrew Jackson. DiLorenzo is anxious to portray Jackson as somebody who is as virulently pro states’ rights as he is. He particularly hopes to cast Jackson’s battle against the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) in such a light; however, it can be argued that Jackson had only cloaked himself in the rhetoric of states’ right during the Bank affair so he could justify a petty act of personal vengeance with high theory. Even the briefest attempt at a balanced survey of the affair would reveal ample reason to suspect ignoble ulterior motives on Jackson’s part. Not only had the issue of the bank’s re-chartering been raised as an act of political theater during an election year, but its Congressional sponsor was Henry Clay, potentially Jackson’s greatest rival in the upcoming contest. Personal enmity additionally stoked the fire: not only did Jackson think Clay had conspired to deny him the presidency in 1824 but he also considered Clay the architect of the negative campaigning of ’28 Jackson felt had killed his wife. Yet these possibilities are conspicuously absent in Hamilton’s Curse.

For equally manipulative reasons, DiLorenzo omits other circumstances surrounding the incident. For example, in a 19th century equivalent to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre (where he fired the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General for refusing to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox), Jackson forced two Secretaries of Treasury to resign for refusing to execute his order to remove Federal deposits from BUS. The fact that Jackson, master of the Spoils System, met with this degree of opposition from politically sympathetic appointees raises questions about his judgment that DiLorenzo side steps.

The author also conveniently forgets how Old Hickory’s states’ rights sympathies seemed to melt away during the Nullification Crisis, when South Carolina threatened to secede if its “right” to nullify a federal tariff wasn’t honored. Jackson’s response was quite Hamiltonian:

I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, Incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.

DiLorenzo constantly returns to the notion that the states that would comprise the Confederacy were from the beginning a reservoir of wisdom, possessed of a deeper understanding of original constitutional intent, i.e., federalism. Federalism is the underlying organizational keystone of our constitutional order and is an arrangement where sovereignty is legally dispersed between a central authority and various political sub-units. The big government versus small government argument has been raging ever since this balancing act was set in place; Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster assessed what would become the Confederacy’s ideological argument in his famous Second Reply to Haynes speech in the 1830 – in greater depth than Jackson and more eloquently than just about anybody else. Let’s savor a fittingly extended portion of that eloquence, something DiLorenzo obviously hasn’t done:

Is the voice of one state conclusive? [If] In Carolina the tariff is a palpable, deliberate usurpation; Carolina, therefore, may nullify it and refuse to pay the duties. In Pennsylvania it is both constitutional and highly expedient; and there the duties are to be paid. And yet we live under a government of uniform laws … Does not this approach absurdity?

If there be no power to settle such questions, independent of either of the states, is not the whole Union a rope of sand? Are we not thrown back again, precisely, upon the old Confederation?
It is too plain to be argued. Four-and-twenty interpreters [there were 24 states at the time] of constitutional law, each with a power to decide for itself, and none with the authority to bind anybody else, and this constitutional law the only bond of their union! What is such a state of things but a mere connection during pleasure or, to use the phraseology of the times, “during feeling”? And that feeling too, not the feeling of the people, who established the Constitution, but the feeling of the state governments….

Who shall interpret their [the people’s] will, where it may be supposed they have left it doubtful? Sir, they have settled all this in the fullest manner. Sir, the very chief end, the main design, for which the whole Constitution was framed and adopted, was to establish a government that should not be obliged to act through state agency, or depend on state opinion and state discretion.

The people had had quite enough of that kind of government under the [Articles of] Confederation. Under that system, the legal action, the application of law to individuals, belonged exclusively to the states. Congress could only recommend; their acts were not of binding force, till the states had adopted and sanctioned them. Are we in that condition still…? Sir, if we are, then vain will be our attempt or maintain the Constitution under which we sit….

Having constituted the government, and declared its powers, the people have further said that since somebody must decide on the extent of these powers, the government itself shall decide; subject, always, like other popular governments, to its responsibility to the people. And now, Sir, I repeat, how is it that a state legislature acquires any power to interfere? Who, or what, gives them the right to say to the people “We, who are your agents and servants for one purpose will undertake to decide, that your other agents and servants, appointed by you for another purpose, have transcended the authority you gave them!” The reply would be, I think, not impertinent: “Who made you a judge over another’s servants? To their own masters they stand or fall.”

But for DiLorenzo, it was Jefferson and his Southern compatriots (like latter-day Goldwater Republicans) who got it right when they rejected economic direction from a far-off capitol. What he fails to see is that the Southerners had pragmatic, political, and financial interests diametrically opposed to Hamilton’s economic plans; they weren’t simply standing on principle. They benefited from the predominantly agrarian economy, powered by slaves who for them represented a heavy investment. Their opposition was based in the fact that the BUS helped develop manufacturing industries that were better able to flourish when powered by wage labor in the North. When capital consequently began to flow north it brought with it jobs that moved populations, reapportioning representation within the Union, especially in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. When John Adams said “in Virginia every goose is a swan” he identified the root of the problem; the loss of political preeminence was incompatible with Southern vanity. Ironically, these changes caused the South to cling ever more tightly to the institution of slavery (remember under the original constitution each slave counted as 3/5ths of a person), thereby making their potential loss all the greater and hurrying the nation toward civil war.

This reasoning is corroborated by Ron Chernow in his 2004 Hamilton biography:

Slavery was gradually fading away in many parts of the north, but with each passing year it became more deeply embedded in the southern economy as Fisher Ames of Massachusetts complained to a friend of southern indignation, “Language low, indecent, and profane has been used… The Southern gentry have been guided by their hot tempers and stubborn prejudices and pride in regard to Southern importance and negro slavery.

The bipartisan decision to shelve the slavery issue had profound repercussions for Hamilton’s economic measures, for it spared the southern economy from criticism. In the 1790s, America’s critical energies were trained exclusively on the northern economy and the financial and manufacturing system devised by Hamilton. This became immediately apparent in the heated debate over his funding system, which allowed southern slaveholders to proclaim that northern financiers were the evil ones and that slaveholders were the virtuous populists, upright men of the soil. It was testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton’s system as the paramount embodiment of evil. They inveighed against the concentrated wealth of northern merchants when southern slave plantations clearly represented the most heinous form of concentrated wealth. Throughout the 1790s, planters posed as the tribunes of small farmers and denounced the depravity of stocks, bonds, banks, and manufacturing.

DiLorenzo is in too deep to consider any of this or what Jefferson Davis might have meant when he lamented that “if the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a theory.”
Instead, his appraisal of the War Between the States consist of attacking Abraham Lincoln, which the titles of his other books – Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Suppose to Know About Dishonest Abe and The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War – suggest might be a favorite hobby of his. In Hamilton’s Curse he has this to say:

Lincoln…permanently altered the relationship between the federal government and the states, creating the dominant central power that Alexander Hamilton had desired. By 1865 the Jeffersonian tradition of states’ rights – by which the citizens were the masters rather than the servants of their government – had been all but eradicated. American citizens no longer possessed the rights of nullification (of unconstitutional federal laws) and secession and thus could no longer serve as a popular check on the powers of the central state. This, of course, was Alexander Hamilton’s ultimate end.

Eventually, DiLorenzo’s passions end up running away from him and when he lays out his prescription for saving America he makes a regrettable attack upon the 17th amendment (the one which provides for the direct election of senators). He proclaims it the death knell for the original design of the constitution, because he believes it to erode the importance of state legislatures, which had previous enjoyed the right to appoint their state’s federal senators. He highlights this loss of power by citing several archaic examples of how some legislatures would send instructions to those appointees on how to vote in the Senate. DiLorenzo argues that by creating a dynamic where federal senators were now responsible to the masses of each state rather than those representative bodies, the national government strengthened itself at the expense of the state governments. Technically this is true, but up until this point, DiLorenzo has based his notion of state supremacy primarily on the 10th amendment, which places all powers unspecified by the constitution in the hands of either the states or people. His flaw is assuming that states possessed some kind of primacy entitling them to such power. However, it’s just as likely that by democratizing senate elections and giving that power to the people – a constitutionally designated receptacle for such power as well as the true wellspring of sovereignty – the spirit of the Constitution was more accurately reflected. He’s particularly hypocritical when he calls for the 17th amendment’s repeal after having spend the proceeding two hundred pages deriding Hamilton for being anti-democratic. But honestly, by book’s end very little DiLorenzo says is surprising anymore.

Of course it could be that DiLorenzo’s arguments sailed right over my head. He takes pains several times to point out that historians, like journalists (he doesn’t even stoop to consider book reviewers), are both hopelessly liberal and completely ignorant of economics. This dismissal acts as a built-in defense, marginalizing in advance anybody who might disagree with his book. It’s a well-known rhetorical tactic; Hamilton used it often.

Hamilton’s Curse is missing depth, not clarity. I understand perfectly well that DiLorenzo feels everything detestable about modern America had its origin in Alexander Hamilton. Never mind the chasm yawning between his theories and his conclusions; he’s counting on his cocksure certainty to deter inconvenient questions. His are such unwieldy and inadaptable ideas, that if they were beasts in nature, they’d find extinction to be a mercy. But such is our world that so long as people are confused and angered by the inexplicable external forces which act upon us all (and sometimes feel as if they are unjustly arrayed against us personally), harangues such as Hamilton’s Curse, heavy on hyperbole and light on scholarship, will have a ready market.

Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. He dreams of one day hosting his own program on the History Channel.

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