What follows is a long letter I sent to my girlfriend Emily when she inquired about what I meant by the “four folkways” of American culture. This is my basic understanding of the cultural argument of Albion’s Seed, the masterwork of David Hackett Fischer.
I have primarily discussed the role of culture in American history and politics here, without delving into conclusions I reached on the significance of culture (it matters A LOT) the construction of ideas (they’re not JUST constructed but they are largely contingent on previous ideas and current situations) or philosophical musings on the nature of Americanism (true Americanism involves a healthy tension between various competing and contrasting ideals and values.)
Perhaps I will write such an essay.
“so the folkways theory, or the “Albion’s Seed Thesis” (Albion is an old word for England, and then seed as in its descendents) basically argues that there are four distinct and broad American cultural regions rather than one singular American culture, and that those four regions have differing ideals and have competed over the course of centuries, defining the American identity and determining American politics. There are some other cultural regions, but they are less influential and widespread; and most immigrant groups assimilate and take up the characteristics of one of the cultural regions, anyway, or at least bind themselves to it culturally.
Those four cultures were the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of the Mid-Atlantic colonies, the Cavalier Virginia gentlemen of the coastal South, and the Scots-Irish frontiersmen of Appalachia. In addition to these four Americas, there are the Dutch-influenced New Yorkers, the French-influenced Louisianans, and the Caribbean-descended deep Southern planters. Blacks brought their own folkways but, interestngly, have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish and Cavalier cultures, while Hispanics have largely grafted onto the Scots-Irish culture and Asians have largely grafted onto the Puritan cultures. Meanwhile the flood of European immigrants that populated the cities of the East Coast and the Midwestern states largely assimilated into the Puritan (or Yankee) and Quaker (or Midland) cultures.
So let’s say Yankees and their descendants are dark blue, Midlanders are purple, Cavaliers are pink, and Scots-Irish are red.
The whole northern tier of America is blue, from DC up the coast to Maine, inland to Chicago and Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and still blue in the rural belt across the Great Plains and Rockies to Seattle, and blue from Seattle south to San Francisco. Additionally, all the major urban cores have some level of Yankeedom, because the Yankees have largely influenced American elite educational and corporate culture.
The Ohio Valley from Philadelphia out to the Mississippi River is purple, as the descendents of Quaker midlanders, no longer practicing that faith but still influenced by it, fanned out in a straight line moving West. And their descendents in turn settled the Salt Lake City area and the central Great Plains and Rockies, including Colorado.
From DC south to Florida and west to Houston, it’s all pink along a narrow strip on the coast. The lowlands of the South are dominated by the once-powerful planter elite; after the Civil War they were neutered, and after the New Deal they’ve largely been reduced to modern libertarian and corporate movements. But something of theculture still survives on the southern coastal strip, and ironically, in every major American city where there are concentrations of wealth.
And the Scots-Irish territories- Appalachia, Missouri, Texas, the Southwest and Southern Great Plains, and the Southern Rockies- are deep red. So are a bunch of other rural areas, actually, because the Scots-Irish fanned out more widely than any other ethnic group. And so vast stretches of the American hinterlands from central California to west Virginia to Montana to Texas feature their culture.
Now, the only solidly-colored regions are the East Coast heartlands of these cultures, because as they moved West they intermingled- for example, the Southwest is a blend of Scots-Irish folkways and Hispanic folkways, while California is a curious mix of all four types and the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains had a cultural fusion of Midlander Quakers and Scots-Irish. And other dynamics, especially class and the rural/urban divide, come into play very prominently. But generally, there are these divides.
What’s interesting is how this comes into play politically and culturally.
Yankee Puritans primarily favor social reform and activist government- they animated every major refrm movement in American history, and they’ve always been on the side of the Big-Government party (Federalists, Whigs, early Republicans, New Deal Democrats.) There are liberal ones (Franklin Roosevelt) and conservative ones (Theodore Roosevelt.) They largely influenced America’s corporate and educational elite.
Quaker Midlanders are temperamentally more moderate and favor an ethic of industrialism and a a nonviolent, egalitarian ethic. They’re currently the swing states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc) and have historically followed suit with the Yankees, almost but not quite grafting themselves onto them. Figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Abraham Lincoln represent this actually pretty boring tradition. They’ve largely informed the development of American industry and labor.
Cavaliers have always favored a strong, traditionalist, conservative society, an ethic of temperance and self-control and greatness, and minimal government oversight. They’re basically dead now as a regional force, but again, they live on through the libertarian movement and some great gentlemen from the south. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson- reserved, quiet gentlemen of strong character and elitist pretensions- characterize Cavalier society.
Scots-Irish or Jacksonians are also very anti-government, and even more, incredibly individualistic and violence-prone. They are moral traditionalists who prefer an ethic of survivalism. Andrew Jackson was the archetype Scots-Irish, though you can see this movement alive in every populist movement in Americanhistory. They’ve been the pioneers and frontiersmen since the Founding.
You can probably guess where these cultures fall politically these days; the far right is a mix of Scots-Irish and the remains of the Cavaliers, while the far left is a bunch of radical Puritans with some Cavalier finance. The establishment wing of the Democrats is Yankee/Quaker, while the establishment of the Republicans is Scots-Irish/Quaker. And the cultural divides follow regional lines, too- coasts and northeast for the Blue-Purple Democrats, West and South for the Red Republicans.
So the first two things you’re probably wondering are 1) what are you? and 2) what am I?
I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know you politically well enough to say for sure, but my instinct is that you are of the conservative wing of the Yankees, with some rugged folk Scots-Irish in you. Sacramento was settled by the Scots-Irish and, you know this because the area around it votes Republican, it remains a region fiercely proud of its pioneer heritage. But you’re also middle class and somewhat progressive,which adds the Yankee strain.
As for me, you know the dilemma- I don’t have a homeland, so I wasn’t brought up geographically in any of these cultures. My family does have Scots-Irish and Quaker roots, though, my dad being from Ohio and my family being conservative traditionalists. But all my political heroes, or a great many of them, were Whigs- and Whigs were typically Northeastern conservative Yankees. I complain about the activists all the time, but I favor activist government as much as they do. I think I would describe myself as a Southern Whig, then- holding some of the values of the Scots-Irish traditionalists (andhoping to emulate the Cavalier gentlemen) while viewing government the way the Yankees do. And with some Quaker industrialism mixed in.
The big question I have is 1) how have these four cultures evolved 2) how has the presence of non-Anglo migrants altered that dynamic and 3) what does the cultural-politicacl climate of 2016 look like in Fischerian terms. I don’t really know how to answer any of these at the moment.
America is locked in regional-cultural-political conflict between the Scots-Irish and the Yankees, broadly defined, with Cavaliers generally financing the Scots-Irish and the Midlanders generally aligning with the Yankees. The moderate-conservative Whig temperament, I think, would seek to build up a cultural middle ground- probably over Quaker Midlander culture- with a Scots-Irish conservative temperament, and a Yankee willingness to tolerate activist government.”
Here’s my prediction that’s probably wrong, but which I really hope isn’t.
In 2016, I don’t think Jeb Bush is going to get the GOP nomination. (I really hope he does though.) The party base is too angry at Obama to nominate a centrist, and the most reasonable candidate we’ll get is probably Marco Rubio. There’s a real likelihood it’ll be someone more along the lines of Scott Walker, though- hopefully not further to the right than that. God forbid Trump or Cruz.
In a Walker vs Hillary or Rubio vs Hillary race (I’m sorry Sanders fans, but he’s NOT EVEN A DEMOCRAT) I think the GOP would get wobbly. Never thought I’d say this, but I’d probably put my bets on Hillary- I think she’s far more likely to catch centristsand run as a uniting candidate than Walker (even though her current strategy is mobilizing liberals,) and something tells me Rubio just doesn’t have the… buzz, for lack of a better word. Yes, I’m saying a young Hispanic male Republican would lose to an old white female Democrat after 8 years of a mediocre Democrat.
I’d LIKE another President Bush, but I’m currently expecting (as of July 2015) that we’ll have another President Clinton. I don’t think that’s ALL a bad thing, by the way; while I don’t think she’s a strategic thinker, and I don’t think she’s a progressive reformer, and I think she would perpetuate a lot of the old regime rather than giving us genuinely new thinking, I would prefer Hillary over more liberal Democrats, and I think she’s been making some smart statements recently, even moving towards the center. I wouldn’t mind working for her if I pass the Foreign Service Exam.
Anyway, here’s the part where it gets juicy- no party in our modern electoral system has held power for more than twelve years, since Franklin Roosevelt. Especially if Hillary became basically an Obama 2.0, (and I think there is a strong possibility of that happening) I think she would be a one-term President, unless the GOP of 2020 is so delusional that they run a far-right crazy.
But they won’t, because they’ll have another option by then.
Have any of my fellow Huntsmaniacs been watching Jon Huntsman? The former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China is still quite active in public life, though not in elected office- he chairs No Labels (a bipartisan advocacy group that is gaining quite a lot of ground nowadays) and the Atlantic Council (a strong, but not hawkish, foreign policy think-tank.) In these two roles, Huntsman weds his foreign policy expertise and his penchant for centrist bipartisanship, remaining relevant through speaking engagements, occasional op-eds, and the like. He also served as CEO of his family’s Huntsman Corporation, a chemical producer. He’s currently somewhat estranged from the GOP after having made comments suggesting a Third Party would be beneficial back in 2012, but retains a serious fanbase nonetheless.
As if his resume weren’t formidable enough already, there have been whispers that the former Governor might choose to run for the retiring Orrin Hatch’s Utah Senate seat in the 2018 elections. Already a celebrity figure for the moderate movement in the United States, a Senate seat would bring him and his outspoken moderation back into the national spotlight, and back to power. Additionally, a legislative role would round out his resume- lawmaker, executive, and foreign policy expert, even a family businessman, not to mention a leader in one of the country’s foremost political reformist groups and one of its most respected think tanks, and a figurehead for a movement, indeed a whole political temperament. He’d be a shoo-in for the Presidency, especially if partisanship has worsened and relations with China have grown tense 5 years from now.
But wait! you might say. Wouldn’t the GOP be more inclined to nominate a crazy after 12 years of liberal Democrats, and seek red meat?
That’s certainly reasonable, but it doesn’t match the historical evidence. It seems more likely that parties lost in the wilderness for multiple presidential terms actually do a lot of soul-searching and reflection as to why they kept losing, rather than take advantage of stagnation to get as much of their agenda accomplished as possible. Note that George McGovern secured the Democratic nomination in 1972, after only four years of Nixon, and that Barry Goldwater secured the GOP nomination in 1964, after only four years of liberal Democrats (technically two terms, JFK’s and LBJ’s, but timewise it was worth one.) Then note that after the 20-year FDR-Truman dynasty, the GOP nominated Dwight Eisenhower, who was a real icon for political reform and moderation in his days (not unlike Huntsman today.) And after the 12-year Reagan-Bush reign, the Democrats nominated the moderate Bill Clinton, who had chaired the reformist Democratic Leadership Council and was about as moderate as anyone could be in the 1990s. Parties really do seem to moderate some after exclusion; if Hillary wins in 2016, we’ll see if it happens again.
Given the above, Jon Huntsman in 2020 will be the perfect candidate for the GOP next cycle- more government experience and more diverse government experience than other candidates are likely to have, some business experience, a maverick penchant for political reformism, and wide centrist appeal. Who else can fit Governor, Senator (soon, hopefully,) Ambassador, CEO, Civil Society Leader, Think-Tank Chair, AND Movement Symbol onto a single resume? Not only that, but he will likely, like John McCain in 2000, seem to be somewhat outside the mainstream of the GOP, yet still within it (abetted by his possible Senate years.) And even if he loses in 2020, he may just choose to complete his Senate term, and throw his hat back in the ring in 2024.
In my opinion, and by my analysis, this will be on balance a good thing for the country. I’ve written here earlier about the crisis cycles of American history and the charismatic Hamiltonian-Jacksonian leaders who rose up and each time reforged the Republic (below.) (By the way, you should seriously read that article below.)
By my measure, it would seem that the currently-brewing international and domestic crisis point will resemble the Crisis of the Founding, the Crisis of the Union, and the Crisis of the New Deal in its ultimate effects- not just a reformation of, but ultimately a reforging of, the American Republic, to create a Fourth Republic of the United States. Just as the First Republic before 1861 differed sharply from the Second Republic after 1865, and just as a new Third Republic emerged in 1945 that differed from the America of 1929, so it appears we are entering one of those crisis points of our history when true political creativity and magnanimity will be required to move our country into the next era. The ideas for what that next Republic might look like are out there; they just need a voice and a will.
I have a strong feeling that Jon Huntsman will be that voice and will. He has the potential- and probably the propensity- to be a uniting, innovative leader, pursuing new ideas and forging new institutions. His Hamiltonian-Jacksonian credentials are clear- after all, he strongly admires Theodore Roosevelt, probably the greatest of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonians in American history, those who use the activist power of government to create and sustain better new realities for the broad middle class.
Moreover, the periods directly preceding Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, two of the transformational presidents, were chock full of mediocre leaders and halfwit politicians. And the years before George Washington saw a mishmash of uninspiring representatives in the Continental Congress. This is normal. And it won’t last.
As you can see, I have great faith in both my analysis of American political-historical cycles and Jon Huntsman’s purported role in them. Maybe I’m wrong or crazy. Probably both. Soothsaying is a dangerous and usually useless activity
But in any case, it should be clear that Jon Huntsman is planning on getting back into public life in some capacity, and that a period of great reform is needed to rejuvenate American greatness. Should these stars align, the country will be much better off for it. I really, really hope I get to vote for- or work for- Jon Huntsman in 2020.
Reforming and Re-Forging the Republic
Looking around at the present situation, it seems that the United States is approaching one of those great, earthshaking crises that radically transforms the country’s institutions. The fundamental character of the American spirit has not changed, but its present iteration has grown stagnant. We’re standing at the cusp of one of those times when new ideas are needed. The question is where these new ideas will come from.
As with most great questions, those great new ideas can be found in the most splendid repository of wisdom the world has ever known- our own historic past. Two theoretical models of American history can help retrieve this wisdom and apply it to the present day, but first a note on the uses of models.
Theories and models are exactly what they sound like- theories and models. They don’t accurately describe or explain everything, reality being as complex as it is, but they do provide a useful framework for looking at history and preparing policy. History doesn’t actually work the way the two models below describe. But these models can illuminate major trends in history and make them more palatable to understanding, and, perhaps, inform analyses of current trends and judgments for future strategies.
Walter Russell Mead has done great work borrowing from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, and illuminating the various cultural and intellectual persuasions that have mixed to form the great political traditions of American history. He has persuasively argued that these traditions will last far longer than contemporary Blue progressivism or fusionist conservatism can hope to stay. A brief look at the great crises of American history in the context of these persuasions, then, is in order.
First, there is the Puritanical social reformism that has characterized the political and social thought of the North, especially New England, for centuries. We might refer to it as the Wilsonian tradition. Wilsonians can be found in different stripes across various political movements, but their basic convictions remain the same- there is a moral order which society must conform to, and the purpose of government is to both enforce that order and put in place reforms that can bring society closer to it. Legalism has been the preferred means for the first end, and activism the means for the second. Wilsonianism has animated just about every major reformist movement in American history, and when divorced from Christianity it gave rise to the Progressive movement.
Then there is the Quaker commercial activism rooted in the Mid-Atlantic, from Pennsylvania to New York. It might be called the Hamiltonian tradition. The various strains of Hamiltonianism all share the basic belief that the main purpose of government is to promote economic growth in a market-based system. The means Hamiltonians normally defer to include all forms of government activism, from the regulation of markets to the protection of certain industries to investment in key resources. Hamiltonians have always been present in debates about economic development, and have been present in every major party.
There is also a Cavalier traditionalism based in the plantation South, with bastions in the Virginia Tidewater, the Carolinas, and the Deep South. It’s normally referred to as the Jeffersonian tradition. Jeffersonians are primarily concerned with the preservation of local institutions and traditional social norms, and they see government as an agent which mainly erodes these mores. The means Jeffersonians endorse, therefore, is limited government. Jeffersonians of all stripes rise up to defend localities and traditions whenever the winds of modernity deliver great change.
Finally, there is the Scots-Irish populist temperament, emanating from Appalachia. These backwoodsmen and their descendants give life to what might be called the Jacksonian tradition. Jacksonians view the purpose of government as being to preserve and improve the material interests and collective honor of the people as a class. The means is populism- what some might dismiss as demagoguery, but what is more or less a bundle of policies meant to aid individuals and satisfy the collective consciousness. Every established population tends to be Jacksonian to some degree, particularly those with high levels of group consciousness.
Note also that no political thinker in the United States, unless they are a true pariah and a radical, neatly fits into one of these schools of thought- not even the founders of these traditions themselves. Instead, these persuasions are more like the four nucleotide bases of DNA- cytosine, thymine, adenine, and guanine. They are linked up in various combinations and proportions, and each mix results in a distinct political persuasion. For example, the modern conservative movement as it has existed from the 1950s onward is largely Jeffersonian, with a healthy dose of Jacksonianism. Elements of the conservative coalition are Christian Wilsonians, and other elements are pro-business Hamiltonians. But they are all united around the Jacksonian-Jeffersonian synthesis, with Wilsonian and Hamiltonian subgroups. The modern Blue Model progressives, meanwhile, could be described as Hamiltonian- Wilsonians, in their demands that government be used actively for the moral betterment of society. The list could go on, and every significant political movement would be represented by some combination and proportion of these four traditions, up to and including the radical socialists of the early 20th Century (radical Wilsonians) and the white supremacists who checkered much of American history (radical Jeffersonians.)
Looking at the broad sweep of American history, we see these schools of thought organizing themselves into political movements and colliding. At certain crisis points, the dominant factions were able to significantly rewrite the political order and establish new institutions- de facto new republics.
Here we come to the second model- the Crisis Cycle theory, touched upon by many American historians and political theorists but perhaps best articulated by Michael Lind in the first chapter of The Radical Center.
Distilled down to a few paragraphs, the theory is this- all societies change over time, but the modernizing forces of capitalism and liberalism- being, as they are, individualistic, rationalizing, and egalitarian- tend to drive the processes of cultural and political change even faster. This occasionally results in revolutions of various sorts, and American society is no different than Continental European, East Asian, or Middle Eastern society in this respect (though Walter Russell Mead argues in God and Gold that Anglo-American societies are better able to weather these storms than more traditionalist societies.)
Economic restructurings usually happen first, and subvert the economic foundations of prior political orders. When the contradictions and tensions between new economic realities and old political institutions reach a tipping point, there is a political revolution of sorts whose product conforms better to the economic-technological reality of the new world. This happens most dramatically when there is a major shift in the American internal political alignment and external strategic position. Then, a new order for the ages is established.
Meanwhile, the new orders are never perfect, and their imperfections harden and stagnate over time. As these deficiencies make themselves known, they prompt reformist corrective movements to rise and work toward fixing them. And those reformist corrective movements, in turn, tend to plant the seeds of new economic revolutions. The new economic revolutions and restructurings cause even reformed legacy systems to grow old and stagnate, and new political revolutions rise and replace the older systems with time.
Furthermore, in American history, the movements that rose toward the end of the lifespans of great political models tended to be, in Walter Russell Mead’s parlance, Hamiltonian-Jacksonian. That is, they were populist-nationalists. Their deepest premises focused on using energetic government action to bolster and support the mass middle class of the American people. The progressive and libertarian reformist corrective movements tended to heavily feature Wilsonian anti-plutocratic reformism, or Jeffersonian anti-bureaucratic localism. Of course, every statesman and movement in American history was an amalgam of these four schools balanced against each other in some proportion; but the particular arrangements of each change with the times.
With that, let’s look at how the Four Schools Model and the Crisis Cycle Model interact to provide a framework for understanding American political history.
There has been a distinct American nation, as definable by a shared national creed, distinct national characteristics, and the presence of Fischer and Mead’s categories in public discourse, since roughly the turn of the 18th Century. The lives of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington attest to this reality. It is towards the middle of these great men’s lives, then, that the American strategic story really begins.
The Age of Sail had happened sometime before this, and was gradually undermining the royalistic and theocratic instincts of most European powers through the power of mercantile capitalism. Partly as a result of this, the French and Indian War was fought, ultimately leaving the British and their American colonists dominant on the European continent. This was the first significant shift in strategic realities for the colonists- and correspondingly, increasing British control of the formerly quite autonomous colonies had been the first significant political realignment. These were the first Semi-Crises of note for American history.
The Age of Sail, by proving the economic viability of the Atlantic colonies and engendering a sentiment of commercial independence, helped to bring about a political crisis between Britain and the colonies. Though the causes behind the American Revolution were multifaceted, in the long-term sense the whole cause would have been unlikely had the colonies not been able to maintain a degree of economic independence. A great strategic crisis, then, took place between 1775 and 1815- the Wars of Independence. The American Revolution, the Quasi-War with France and the nimble diplomacy that accompanied it, and the War of 1812 all served the strategic end of ensuring America’s independence from European control. At the same time, the colonies faced a grave domestic crisis over the great question of how to distribute power in the newly-independent republic. The Founding Era- the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist period, and the Revolution of 1800- shaped the domestic power structure of the republic and privileged a dominant class of large landowners. The First Republic was forged then, and it would last for decades thereafter.
Of all the legendary leaders of the Wars of Independence and the Founding Era, none towers higher than President George Washington himself. In his policy, he pursued both Hamiltonian and Jacksonian ends- he supported national union and an activist government capable of funding infrastructure and regulating finance, while simultaneously favoring expansion into Western lands beyond the Appalachians to provide land to small farmers. The Hamiltonian-Jacksonian synthesis was evident in his cabinet, too, in Alexander Hamilton and the quite populist Thomas Jefferson. The Jeffersonian strain, which valued civic virtue and local institutions, was present in Washington but not dominant; the Wilsonian reformist strain was there, but silent. When Washington and his advisors worked to shape the institutions of the early First Republic, they did so primarily among Hamiltonian and Jacksonian lines.
Over time, the American political society, dominated as it was by large landowners and veritable aristocrats, began to decay into corruption and class resentments, and began to experience massive gridlock between the agricultural and financial elites. Frustrated small farmers and other marginalized poor whites rose up in the Populist Revolution, a democratic political movement that sought expanded suffrage, greater landownership, and anti-elite economic reforms. These reforms did not transform the First Republic, but they did reform it at a time of near-crisis. Incidentally, they also set the stage for the incoming Industrial Revolution- greater access to property and capital, as well as new demand for mass-produced goods, would help bring about that great transformation. Meanwhile, America’s strategic position was altered but not quite transformed with the Western Movement. American settlement of California during the Gold Rush and of Oregon via the Oregon Trail, and American conquest of the New Mexico territory gave an independent America continental dominance over North America. This contributed to the ongoing sectional crisis that would eventually result in the Crisis of the Union.
Several statesmen, including James K. Polk and Henry Clay, did great things in this time while representing various strains of American thought. But none was so influential and charismatic as President Andrew Jackson, who truly set the tone of the age through his life and work. He was indeed a Jacksonian, fighting for the uplifting of the broad masses of society against what was perceived as a plutocratic landowning and capital-producing elite. And he was a Hamiltonian, supporting national union. But he is chiefly important because he was a Jeffersonian, too, supporting the devolution of power to lower levels and seeking to limit and curb the excesses of the planter-dominated First Republic. Jackson’s reforms would help the republic get by a little longer, but ultimately the Industrial Revolution which began in his time would make a far greater crisis inevitable.
The Industrial Revolution widened the gap between the northern manufacturing states and the southern states dominated by the planter elite. While many causes brought about the Civil War, including the great moral question of slavery and fundamental cultural differences between the North and South, one of the key factors was the shifts in power wrought by economic changes. The 1850s to the 1870s saw one crisis- the Crisis of the Union- with two major components, political and strategic. Strategically, the pre-war conflicts and the Civil War bore the question- would the United States maintain North American hegemony as a single nation? Ultimately, the resolution of the Civil War consummated America’s undivided domination over North American territory, gains won earlier in the Westward Movement. This period of North American hegemony would lead to the next great era in American strategy. Meanwhile, the domestic political component of the Civil War and Reconstruction permanently broke the power of the landowner class, and reconfigured power structures toward a situation that benefited the industrialists of the North. This great realignment forged the Second Republic of the United States.
One leader towers above this epoch, peerless- President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln pursued Hamiltonian ends- namely the preservation of the Union, but also the opening of Western lands to railroads to provide national infrastructure, and the central regulation of finance. At the same time he pursued Jacksonian ends, acting through the Homestead Act to provide free land to farmers and agricultural colleges. Yet Lincoln also had indisputably Wilsonian and Jeffersonian instincts- the alignment of the anti-slavery cause with traditional Puritan moralism, and the fondness for the cultural traditions of the North and willingness to preserve them against the South. But he was first and foremost a nationalist-populist of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian ilk, and with these principles he laid the foundations of the Second Republic.
As time went on, the industrialist class of the Second Republic grew extremely, extremely powerful. The late 19th Century saw the rise of the Robber Barons in industries of all sorts, and they naturally grew to hold immense political power and influence. Against this domination rose regional political movements, including the Progressives in the Northeast and the Populists in the South and West, who demanded reform and a tempering of the power of money. These reforms, including worker protection, consumer protection, environmental protection, and trustbusting, came during the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era reformed but did not overthrow Lincoln’s Second Republic. However, Progressive reforms did lay in place the fundamental building blocks of the Blue Social Model, which would interplay with economics over the next decades and fundamentally transform the industrial capitalist system. While the Progressive Era Semi-Crisis reformed American society at home, the newly-dominant and unified American nation plied the seas in an Age of Empires abroad. Taking colonies of its own during the Spanish-American War and attaining true great-power status in the First World War, the strategic reality of the United States was altered but not quite transformed in this period. It would, however, help to suck the United States into the World Crisis that was yet to come.
There were quite a few great leaders in the period of the Progressive Era and Age of Empires, including William Jennings Bryan, Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, and Elihu Root. But the most important and symbolic of all of them was President Theodore Roosevelt. TR was the most influential and visionary in policy and strategy, and achieved the most significant reforms of the age during his Presidency. He was a Hamiltonian in his views on government’s role in economic development and nationhood, and a Jacksonian in his view that government should help the broad masses of the people. More importantly for his age, he was a Wilsonian reformer, bent on fighting the influence of the financial plutocracy and working to shape America into a fairer, more progressive society. These reforms helped loosen the grip of the oligarchs on the Republic, and they provided the blueprint for the Blue Model which was to come later. But ultimately Teddy Roosevelt did not save Lincoln’s Republic from its death- he only prolonged its life by a few decades.
The industrialist-capitalist system Lincoln had made possible continued to totter under its own weight, even with the progressive reforms Theodore Roosevelt had made. And around the world, the industrialist-capitalist system tottered, too. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union developed their own collectivist responses to the contradictions of capitalism and blue capitalism, and the clash between these powers and the United States during the Second World War and the Cold War amounted to a World Crisis that fundamentally elevated America’s strategic position to that of the indispensable superpower. Meanwhile, stateside, progressive reforms crept up the policy ladder until the great crash of 1929, after which progressive reforms were pursued excitedly and the statesmen in power crafted what could be called the Blue Social Model. Progressive blue capitalism helped to undermine the old industrial capitalist system, and ultimately replaced it in the 1930s as the economic organizing mechanism of American society. This put in power a new class of bureaucrats and technocratic planners, the “Best and Brightest” as John F. Kennedy would later call them. It amounted to the foundation of the Third Republic of the United States, based on the Blue Social Model and the New Deal Consensus.
The Third Republic of the United States, particularly for the first half of its existence, is notable because it produced giant after giant on the political stage- Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon were among the most prominent. But each of these great statesmen followed in the footsteps of a legend who came before them- President Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was, like Lincoln and Washington before him, a Hamiltonian-Jacksonian at his base. The Hamiltonian goals and means of national power, federal activism, central regulation of finance, and federal union all featured highly on his policy agenda. Much of that agenda, too, was directed towards improving the lot of the broad American middle class- the Housing Act, Social Security, the federal work programs, and more. FDR had a Wilsonian reformist streak, too (one which was stronger than that of his cousin Teddy) and much less of a Jeffersonian streak, though he respected the local cultures of his constituents and often invoked Jefferson, going so far as to build a memorial to the third President. But fundamentally, FDR, too, was a nationalist-populist, and he designed the Third Republic of the United States along nationalist-populist lines.
The bureaucrat-dominated political system of the New Deal Consensus and Blue Social Model had a tendency to be so stable, it was stultifying. And, like the agrarian system of Washington and the industrial system of Lincoln, FDR’s bureaucratic system tended to ignore the concerns of those at the bottom end of the income spectrum. Combined with the cultural revolution underway in the 60s and 70s, this political underrepresentation was enough to inspire culturally conservative, economically populist Jacksonian America to cast its lots with the Conservative Revolution of the 70s and 80s. The lurch to the right of the Republicans and the shift to the center of the Democrats provided a Jeffersonian corrective to the bureaucratic excesses of the Blue Social Model, without overthrowing and dismantling the fundamental institutions put in place by the New Deal. Administration was conservatively reformed, and many industries were deregulated. This economically open environment paved the way for the Information Revolution, which would use computer technology then under development, take it to market, and eventually transform the world. Abroad, American hegemony- or at least lack of significant hostile threats- impelled a strategic culture informed by what has been called a Unipolar Moment. American statesmen were more inclined to be bold and brash in American foreign policy, from Reagan’s squeezing of the Soviet Union to Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq to Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans and Africa to Bush Jr.’s Global War on Terror. Again, America’s position in the world changed, but not in so fundamental a way as it had changed in 1945.
There were several major figures representative of this period of American history, including Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, John McCain, and Bill Clinton. But the grandfather figure towering over this era was none other than President Ronald Reagan. Reagan had broad appeal to Jacksonians due to his simplicity and his populist rhetoric, but his chief importance in American history was as a Jeffersonian. He sought policies that protected the traditional cultures and institutions of middle America, and policies that would decentralize governance to levels at which it was better done. He also curbed some of the exuberant excesses of the New Deal, without carving out the New Deal’s fundamental precepts. So Reagan did not transform the Third Republic- but he did reform it, and has gone down as a transformative President since.
In 2015, it is apparent that the Blue Social Model and the New Deal Consensus are gasping their last breaths, while the Reagan reforms were not sufficient to provide a new governing blueprint on their own. Neo-Reagan policies were tried under President Bush, while Neo-FDR policies were attempted under President Obama. Neither worked, and it is only slowly becoming clear to our political and donor class that new thinking is going to be required to reforge the American Dream in its next iteration. The Information Age has been truly revolutionary in its effects. Abroad, the international system breaks down, and revisionist states defy American power in their own realms. But armies and missiles are not our only problems abroad- technology and economics have converged to decentralize power away from the nation-state level to degrees not known since the Medieval Ages, and threats from terrorism, international organized crime, and other shadowy forces loom as dark as those from Iran, China, and Russia. A New Axial Age emerges internationally, where revisionist empires prowl and states are hollowed out by forces within. On the homefront, a New Reform Age appears to be nearing dawn, as plutocratic and bureaucratic forces suck the lifeblood out of the American economy and society begins to take notice. If present trends and past events are any guide, it would appear that a charismatic, even legendary, president may enter the Oval Office in the next decade or so, and craft the Fourth American Republic with the support of the information technology oligarchs of Silicon Valley. This new charismatic President, we would hope, would be another Hamiltonian-Jacksonian thinker, and build the Fourth Republic with those tools, while crafting a grand strategy suitable to our global situation.
Taken on its own, this interpretation of American history would appear to be very deterministic. But it doesn’t have to be. It merely organizes history in a perceivable pattern and makes recommendations based on those observations. For example, due to the fact that the latest economic revolution, the Information Revolution, is still in its early phases, we can expect that some great realignment in American domestic politics is nigh, along with a strategic repositioning. But no iron law of history requires this, and it may be that neither event occurs and no great leader arises, thus disproving the theory.
Nonetheless, the theory provides a window for looking at disparate events and, in the author’s opinion, is roughly accurate enough to form the general contours of a policy agenda for the future. Given that grave national crisis beckons, it would be wise for American statesmen to formulate a new grand strategy to adapt to our present strategic reality. Meanwhile, they should resurrect the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian habits of mind that crafted three great orders in the past, and the Jeffersonian-Wilsonian habits of mind that worked to reform them, and apply this new pave-the-way liberalism to the challenges of the 21st Century.
Dawn of the Fourth Republic
And thus we arrive at the present situation. It’s been a few decades since we’ve had a great president, and it’s nearing a century since we’ve had a legendary president. The tides of war are brewing abroad while the sirens of decay sound at home. The nation is as divided as it was in 1861, as sapped by plutocratic power as it was in 1901, as much faced with international crisis as it was in 1941, and as beset by bureaucratic stagnation as it was in 1981. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. The stage is set for a great movement to rise and a great leader to command it and bring America to a new destiny.
The question is, in the coming crisis, will this new transformative leader craft a system which, like those of 1789 and 1865 and 1945, will overreach and eventually grow stagnant and collapse under its own weight? Or will sufficient Wilsonian reformist and Jeffersonian localist checks and countermeasures preclude the absolute consolidation of power in bureaucratic and plutocratic elites?
Although Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were the truly transformative statesmen who ushered in new eras, and we should thus look to their example moving forward, it would probably be better to look to the nationalism and populism- and localism and reformism- of Theodore Roosevelt, when seeking to determine what balance of political persuasions the next great president will need to embody and practice. Roosevelt was certainly of the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian school of nationalist populists, as were the three legendary presidents, but he also had a proud streak of Wilsonian reformism in him, and a healthy respect for Jeffersonian localism and liberty. In terms of character and policy, he arguably might have been the greatest president in American history, had fate not denied him a cataclysmic crisis of the union to navigate.
Will we have a President like Theodore Roosevelt, who, in the ongoing plutocratic and bureaucratic domestic malaise and the incoming world crisis, can hit that sweet spot of Jacksonian populism and Hamiltonian nationalism, and who will simultaneously have some Jeffersonian instincts to finalize the extinction of the progressive Blue Social Model, while pursuing Wilsonian righteousness and reform to overturn the suffocating financial plutocracy?
The shifting sands of American politics have some underlying constants that have maintained their existence throughout the history of our body politic. At certain times of great crisis, these stars have aligned and a leader emblematic of them has assumed the reins of power and fundamentally transformed American society. As we approach the next of these great crises- in 2021, perhaps?- we will need a level of political and strategic creativity not known for several generations, and a leader capable of integrating various American political traditions into a better, more effective end result. Perhaps Jim Webb or Jon Huntsman will be that leader; perhaps not. But a leader who embodies the Hamiltonian-Jacksonian policies of Theodore Roosevelt, similarly tempered by Wilsonian reformism and Jeffersonian localism, will be on the horizon soon. We have yet to see them.
In the meantime, here’s to the swift arrival of the Fourth Republic of the United States.
LinkTank, a networking and events service based in Washington D.C., recently issued a call for advice for DC interns. Here’s what I emailed them; it reflects my personal experience and choices in my time interning at The American Interest, and is not as helpful for people who don’t slug in every day or live at home with their families. Or for people who aren’t eccentric. Nonetheless, hopefully it’s worth something.
Read a lot, find who writes what you like, find their contact info, and ask them to sit down with you for coffee.
Do all the extra work, go all the extra miles.
Go to as many events around the city as possible. You’ll meet interesting people, hear interesting (and boring) things, and get into the groove of the city.
Three rules for success in our business- always be writing, always be reading, and always be meeting people.
Bear in mind that DC interns are more attractive on average than interns in other places, even LA…
Have a favorite customized coffee, a coffee joke to go with it, and a favorite coffee shop to be a regular in. Then get to know all the baristas (regardless of age or sex, you males out there…)
It’s actually easier to meet higher-ups in a meaningful way than you think it is.
Go to a hearing with Senator John McCain if you can find one. Particularly a confirmation hearing. Just do it. You’ll experience American history.
Read a lot of thoughtful magazines and journals; some of the best include The American Interest, Democracy, National Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and the like.
Find the House of Cards theme on Youtube and listen to it on loop when you’re suiting up in the morning. It makes you feel badass.
Say good morning to your favorite buildings or statues when you walk or commute to work- the Pentagon, the Treasury, Nathan Hale, General Pershing, etc.
Don’t give money to beggars on the street. Save it for the street musicians- they’re earning it. And whenever there’s a brass band out, stay for at least three songs.
If you meet someone who’s doing something interesting, always ask them if you can sit down with them for coffee. They might give you interesting connections and reflections.
Visit as many offices of organizations you’re interested in as possible, more opportunities might arise.
The green CH-53 Sikorsky choppers with white tops are the Presidential choppers, but the President is only in them if there are three flying in formation.
GET AN UMBRELLA.
Take at least one trip to Theodore Roosevelt Island and stay there a while- reflect on the quotes there while you walk through the woods.
When you’re walking through the city, always be aware of how important the things that happen here are, and know that you are part of the process.
I have copied below a chapter from my forthcoming manifesto on the political philosophy and policies of Hamiltonians and Progressive Republicans. I’m not even sure if I’m going to publish it or even finish it at this point- my understanding has changed somewhat since I first put my fingers to the keyboard to write it, and a cluster of other responsibilities is taking precedence in my writing.
Therefore I’d just like to publish the currently most-important chapter of the draft- the statement of principles. It still needs a lot of work and editing; it could be more concise, as many of the ideas overlap, and I need to clarify many of the ideas. Some ideas can be removed, and others must be added. I also need to figure out how to weave it into a coherent system.
That said, in the event that I never finish my manifesto, I think it’s important that I at least have a skeleton of the most crucial chapter saved in one place, so I may look at it for reference. Thus, this post-
Chapter 2- Statement of Principles
What follows is a list of the philosophical and political principles that inform Progressive Republicanism and Hamiltonianism, and breathe life into the otherwise stale policy proposals that make up the latter part of this book. Not all Hamiltonians and Progressive Republicans have historically shared these particular points of view- there was and is immense diversity in this political tradition, from the borderline Progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt to the elitist pretensions of Alexander Hamilton. But certain things have generally been true of a majority of Hamiltonians, and more importantly, these principles are principles that modern-day Hamiltonians ought to take seriously. I have organized these principles into three broad categories- Progressive Conservatism, National Capitalism, and Nationalist Subsidiarity. These represent views on society, economy, and governance, respectively.
- Progressive Conservatism
INTRO FOR PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATISM
Encourage Good Citizenship– Hamiltonian policies must all be based upon the question “What sort of citizen would we like to encourage?” If a policy has the practical result of creating dependent, despondent, vampirical non-starters, or of encouraging sneaky, opportunistic, vampirical plutocrats, it cannot be a good policy. If, contrarily, the policy has the effect of creating self-reliant, respectful and respectable, patriotic citizens who would give for their country and would die for their country, a good policy it is indeed.
Progressivism Tempered by Conservatism– While the ultimate progressive aims of Hamiltonian government seek to serve the people as a whole and preserve and expand the scope of individual rights under liberty, and improve the life of every American so far as government has the power to remove constraints to equality of opportunity, the progressive Hamiltonian is fundamentally conservative in their view of unchanging human nature, human imperfection, the organic nature of the state and society, the fallacy of pure reason, and the criticality of tradition and custom. The Hamiltonian is populist in that he acts in the broad interest of the American people, giving ear to the people’s voice and the wisdom of the ages; yet he is elitist in that he believes that a moral elite that is in at least some ways technocratic must conduct governance. But the Hamiltonian is NOT a demagogue, pandering to the passions and whims of the populace, nor is he either a reactionary, utopian, or plutocratic elitist, smothering the popular voice with his will.
Paramounce of Struggle– Hamiltonianism holds that ignoble ease and prosperous decadence threaten the virtues of individuals and nations alike, and that constant striving- even in times of peace, as well as in times of peril- is the only sure safeguard against the sirens of decay. Therefore, Hamiltonian government promotes activity and enterprise among its citizens, activity and enterprise in itself, and constantly sets goals and reforms to be strived for. Aspirations, endemic to the human breast, ought to be encouraged and supported. The American Dream can make for virtuous citizens. A Hamiltonian government therefore sets tangible goals toward which the entirety of the American nation might strive, in the frontier tradition of Manifest Destiny. Most recently, President Kennedy encouraged Americans to devote their energies to going to the Moon. Another such goal- perhaps an American settlement on Mars- can work wonders for our national vigor.
Equality of Opportunity and Social Mobility– Hamiltonian government must make the complete equality of official opportunity its keystone, allowing none to advance by means of wealth or status or blood, but only by means of merit. This does not mean that Hamiltonian government must change the conditions which all men are born to, but it does mean that Hamiltonian government must wage war on corruption and privilege, encourage meritocracy, and accept into the American pantheon of greatness all those whose spirit and endeavors call them to it. All who can make it are allowed in.
Unified National Identity– Hamiltonianism is concerned with identity solely in regards to American citizenship and individual character, and it expects the highest endeavor in both of these fields. Hamiltonianism appreciates differences of race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, gender, sexual orientation, place of origin, and all other measures of diversity in background and identity, but it does not hold individuals to be valuable or particularly deserving extra respect for reasons of background alone. The identity which Hamiltonian nationalism cares about is that identity which can be chosen, and that is Americanism and individual greatness. All other identities, while respected and included and welcomed, are secondary in honor.
Pursue Intangibles- Hamiltonian public policy seeks to better the nation through the pursuit of the four intangibles of public credit, individual credit, public trust, and individual character. By building up these immeasurables, the forces of society will be energized with necessary vigor. Public Credit should be pursued to give the nation a general penchant for frugality and industry; Individual Credit should be pursued to help make individuals economically autonomous; Public Trust should be pursued to grease the wheels and oil the cogs of society; Individual Character should be pursued for the happiness of individuals and the health of the republic. It is by pursuing intangibles, the truest of truths, and attaining their immeasurable realization, that the true public interest can be secured.
- National Capitalism
INTRO FOR NATIONAL CAPITALISM
Fiscal Prudence for the Public Credit– While Hamiltonian government is vivacious and vigorous, it must also be effective and prudent. Programs with proven viability are encouraged while inefficient and pernicious programs are disbanded. Most critically, in order to maintain America’s public credit, emphasis is placed on ensuring that every dollar spent is spent wisely. Hamiltonian government focuses on productive investment rather than on consumptive spending.
American School of Economics- The Hamiltonian is a certain breed of capitalist, one who respects capitalism not for its own sake but for the sake of the dynamism and prosperity of the nation itself. Rather than being a pure laissez-faire free-trader, the Hamiltonian is an economic nationalist, favoring whatever economic policies are most conducive to the strengthening of American industries and the enhancing of American competitiveness. The general policies of the American School of Economics include centralized regulation of finance and national financial infrastructure, massive investment in research and technology to fuel the process of creative destruction, the government’s acting as a customer and protector for nascent critical industries, government support for an effective education system that can train innovators and entrepreneurs, and massive investment in continually-renewed national infrastructure.
Encouraging Economic Independence- The Hamiltonian is cognizant of the occasionally pernicious effects of capitalism and seeks their redress through government action. Hamiltonians support the fundamental tenets of the welfare state while being suspicious of government’s ability to carry out the dreams of expanded welfare progressivism. But more crucial than basic welfare policies are those policies that incentivize Americans to be hard-working and entrepreneurial family-builders, including various tax credits and loosening of restrictions on small business, to allow the poor as many opportunities to lift themselves into a middle-class lifestyle as possible.. Other such policies include encouraging the ownership of capital among the general population and cultivating habits of saving rather than consumer spending. A sound and dynamic economy is crucial to a stable and vibrant society.
Grow the Middle Class– While Hamiltonianism must first be directed towards cultivating the character and vigor of the most naturally talented American citizens, it must also do whatever is possible to ensure that the ordinary man can live a middle-class life, and thus be more capable of living the middle-class values of self-reliance, respect and respectability, and patriotism. While no man is entitled to anything he does not work for, every American ought to have the opportunity to pursue and secure a healthy middle-class lifestyle by the power of their labor, and it is a grave injustice if any hardworking American is condemned to poverty and stagnation due to forces greater than their power and beyond their control. It is the duty of the American statesman to put middle-class economics into practice- to sustain a climate of broad-based economic growth in various sectors, which should ensure a broad distribution of wealth, and to drive down the cost of living so that Americans may better enjoy the fruits of their labor. And these statesmen must ensure that the barriers for the poor to enter this middle class are as low as possible. The interests of the upper class and the underclass come secondary to the interests of this broader middle class; they are the backbone of a free and dynamic society, the natural constituency of Progressive Republican-Hamiltonian government.
Public Options in a Market System- In terms of the services a Hamiltonian government provides for its citizens, including transportation infrastructure, education, pensions, healthcare, advisory services, insurance, and other things, there must be a wealth of options at a variety of prices for citizens in the general public to choose from. They must not be forced to conform to a particular set of services- they must be able to choose between services on a competitive market, based not upon coercion but upon choice. This opens up room for maximum efficiency and maximum happiness and comfort for those individuals choosing services. These are worthy ends for the state to pursue in its services to its people.
Smart Policy for Entrepreneurial Freedom- On all issues pertaining to economics, so far as is possible, the government should strive to ensure the maximum possible amount of freedom for entrepreneurs and strivers. This means achieving the right balance of consumer, environmental, and competition regulations, with a bias towards keeping the market free while keeping consumers, the environment, and the competition healthy. Any trends towards monopoly (save in special cases, like government-sanctioned and just monopolies) must be vigorously fought, as must be all cases of unfair suppression of competition. And any trends towards overregulation and overtaxation must be fought with equal vigor. The government is the central engine of economic growth, but entrepreneurs and business are the instruments by which that growth is realized and actually carried out. Policy must be adapted accordingly.
- Nationalist Subsidiarity
INTRO FOR NATIONALIST SUBSIDIARITY
Autonomous Government– a Hamiltonian government is not the impartial arbiter between factions, nor the tool of any particular faction or coalition of factions. The Hamiltonian government must always be the instrument of itself, directed towards building national greatness and expanding opportunities for individual initiative.
Activist Government for the Public Interest- Hamiltonianism sees the government as the enhancer rather than the inhibitor of national prosperity and social order, and supports various governmental programs, tempered by conservative sentiment, to better American society.
New Nationalist Subsidiarity- The philosophy of Hamiltonianism is that the most crucial political unit to be tended is the American nation, but that that tending is best done at the level of every problem and issue. Not everything can be managed centrally, but everything can be managed in the name of the American interest. Therefore, Hamiltonianism supports greater centralization in certain cases, like national defense and banking regulation, while supporting greater devolution of power in other areas, like education and infrastructural policy. All is done in the name of federalism- that is, both for the local political units, and for the nation. The nation is paramount and must remain united, even at the expense of sectional interests and identities. But administration must be done at the best level, which is oftentimes the local level.
The Material Aims of Government– Hamiltonianism is explicitly concerned with the preservation of American security, order, and prosperity. These elements of sovereignty are the chief material aims of the Hamiltonian government, and their promotion is secondary only to the promotion of national greatness and individual initiative. In fact, the five end goals- national greatness, individual initiative, security, order, and prosperity- are all intricately linked together and can be striven for simultaneously, though will have their obvious contradictions which must be navigated by prudent rules.
The True Aims of Government– individual greatness and national greatness are the ends to which a Hamiltonian government must strive. It must do this by the means of vigorous, uniting nationalist projects, and the cultivation of a system where opportunities for strivers and builders are flourishing. This cannot be done at the federal level alone; a Hamiltonian governing philosophy requires the participation of federal, state, and local governments, as well as the voluntary cooperation of private enterprise and civil society. A truly unified nation and a field open to ambitious strivers to seize opportunity is the task to which the nation must direct its efforts.
So much for a brief statement on Hamiltonianism. I hope the nature of Hamiltonian governance is now clear. But I have not yet articulated a coherent list of goals. America has already achieved a broad array of her former goals- create a prosperous nation, attain true equality before the law, become dominant in the Western Hemisphere, create a functioning republican government, among others- but now is the time to articulate new goals and advance towards them. Hamiltonianism, that goal-driven governing philosophy, cannot exist without such aims. We would be wise to consider them.
Therefore I have composed this list of policy ideas for consideration. This is by no means a comprehensive list, as I have only covered those issues on which I have read extensively. Healthcare, for example, is a crucial issue affecting the American people, but I do not understand it nearly well enough to offer my thoughts on healthcare policy. I have freely borrowed from various outlets and authors for many of these ideas, and cite them where applicable.
 ‘Taking On the Three Deficits,’ The Breakthrough Institute
When he was a boy growing up in the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton witnessed a monstrous hurricane and, much to the benefit of posterity, recorded in poetic prose the sensations, passions, and realizations which soon thereafter pervaded his conscience.
I wish I had the discipline and talent to write such prose; when I was about as old as Hamilton was when he wrote this, maybe a few years older, I had a traumatic experience on the Potomac River with my brothers, as our 35-foot sailboat was buffeted by a massive thunderstorm. Reading the Hurricane Letter, I realize Hamilton captures here all the feelings and sensations I had on that particular night.
Many thanks to the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society for republishing the text in full.
One of Alexander Hamilton’s most recognized writings today is a letter that he wrote to his father after surviving a destructive hurricane that hit St. Croix on August 30, 1772.
The letter was afterwards printed in the Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3rd. Describing his experience, Hamilton writes: “My reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy occasion, are set forth in the following self-discourse.”
“Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken—in Omnip[o]tence I trusted.
He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage—even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed—and his perfections have I adored. He will snatch me from ruin. He will exalt me to the fellowship of Angels and Seraphs, and to the fullness of never ending joys.
But alas! how different, how deplorable, how gloomy the prospect! Death comes rushing on in triumph veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness. His unrelenting scythe, pointed, and ready for the stroke. On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: Calamity on his left threatening famine disease and distress of all kinds. And Oh! thou wretch, look still a little further; see the gulph of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge—the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself? Thou canst not call upon thy God; thy life has been a continual warfare with him.
Hark—ruin and confusion on every side. ’Tis thy turn next; but one short moment, even now, Oh Lord help. Jesus be merciful!
Thus did I reflect, and thus at every gust of the wind, did I conclude, ’till it pleased the Almighty to allay it. Nor did my emotions proceed either from the suggestions of too much natural fear, or a conscience over-burthened with crimes of an uncommon cast. I thank God, this was not the case. The scenes of horror exhibited around us, naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives. It were a lamentable insensibility indeed, not to have had such feelings, and I think inconsistent with human nature.
Our distressed, helpless condition taught us humility and contempt of ourselves. The horrors of the night, the prospect of an immediate, cruel death—or, as one may say, of being crushed by the Almighty in his anger—filled us with terror. And every thing that had tended to weaken our interest with him, upbraided us in the strongest colours, with our baseness and folly. That which, in a calm unruffled temper, we call a natural cause, seemed then like the correction of the Deity. Our imagination represented him as an incensed master, executing vengeance on the crimes of his servants. The father and benefactor were forgot, and in that view, a consciousness of our guilt filled us with despair.
But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer. The Lightning ceases. The winds are appeased. The warring elements are reconciled and all things promise peace. The darkness is dispell’d and drooping nature revives at the approaching dawn. Look back Oh! my soul, look back and tremble. Rejoice at thy deliverance, and humble thyself in the presence of thy deliverer.
Yet hold, Oh vain mortal! Check thy ill timed joy. Art thou so selfish to exult because thy lot is happy in a season of universal woe? Hast thou no feelings for the miseries of thy fellow-creatures? And art thou incapable of the soft pangs of sympathetic sorrow? Look around thee and shudder at the view. See desolation and ruin where’er thou turnest thine eye! See thy fellow-creatures pale and lifeless; their bodies mangled, their souls snatched into eternity, unexpecting. Alas! perhaps unprepared! Hark the bitter groans of distress. See sickness and infirmities exposed to the inclemencies of wind and water! See tender infancy pinched with hunger and hanging on the mothers knee for food! See the unhappy mothers anxiety. Her poverty denies relief, her breast heaves with pangs of maternal pity, her heart is bursting, the tears gush down her cheeks. Oh sights of woe! Oh distress unspeakable! My heart bleeds, but I have no power to solace! O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them. Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withold your compassion. What are you[r] sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely. Succour the miserable and lay up a treasure in Heaven.”
This was a paper for a political philosophy course. It will probably not receive a good grade in that course.
In our democratic age, when the principles of liberalism have won out in every field against the presumed forces of darkness, yet across the world are called into question, it becomes the duty of a free people to examine themselves, their institutions, and their heritage, and discern what it is that they value. In America, rather than answering “Justice” or “Order” or “Equality,” we tend to answer “Liberty” without truly understanding what that word means.
John Stuart Mill’s definition is about the best of any. Mill argues that Happiness is the absolute moral good, the one thing which all people strive for on their own volition, and that Liberty was the removal of constraints to each individual’s pursuit of happiness (provided that in their pursuits of happiness they did not intrude upon the happiness of others, within reason.) Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
Furthermore, this emphasis on happiness- or pleasure, as other Utilitarians have tended to call it- is sufficiently broad to include essentially any sort of activity or quality that brings pleasure to the soul. It is not a base and hedonistic doctrine, focusing solely on the pursuit of physical pleasure; it makes allowance for all those refinements of mind and spirit that most individuals would argue are the true keys to happiness. It even allows for happiness to include the indirect happiness individuals find when in service of the welfare and happiness of others.
Thus, all institutions that impede upon happiness and its pursuit ought to be reformed so as to make that pursuit easier and more viable, according to Mill. If individuals are to be free to do what makes them happy- to use Father Michael Kelly’s favorite phrase “to become the best possible versions of themselves;” then it is necessary that restraints upon their freedom to do so be minimized, and thus that Liberty be institutionalized. All of this in the name of happiness.
The political implications of this assertion are fairly clear- an enlightened government and society is one which reduces so far as possible the barriers to individuals pursuing happiness as they see fit, while making such investments as to promote the general happiness and welfare of all people. This includes general education and a promotion of wide material prosperity, while including reforms that relax stiff and rigid social institutions which would otherwise impede upon individual liberty.
This notion of Liberty, or something similar to it, is what most Americans would argue is the defining contribution of their country to the world. And most Americans would argue that their forefathers fought to preserve this Liberty in the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the First and Second World Wars. And most will generally laud the sacrifices of those who fought and died in those wars.
But this reveals a certain paradox. The sacrifices of those who fought and died for Liberty did nothing to enhance the happiness of those individuals doing the fighting and dying; in fact it took away their Liberty, if anything. Yet their sacrifices are lauded as a moral good, for they were willing to forsake Happiness and die for their countrymen. We can safely assume that those lauding the sacrifice of patriots are not merely endorsing Benthamite Utilitarianism, which suggests that costs and benefits ought to be calculated nearly mathematically and which wholly disregards the rights of the individual, subverting them to the well-being of the collective. No, those who laud the sacrifice of patriots seem to think that there is something intrinsically good and noble about those patriots choosing to forsake their own happiness for the good of others, even if it extinguishes their own happiness and rights. If these individuals were forced to make such sacrifices, rather than doing so on their own volition, it would be seen as tyrannical rather than as noble. So, in the American conscience, it would seem that there is an intrinsic appreciation and reverence for individuals who make the choice to forsake their own happiness in service of a cause greater than themselves.
Of course, this is problematic because it directly counteracts Mill’s notion, and Americans’ notion, that the pursuit of Happiness under Liberty is the greatest social good and the only ultimate and absolute good. If this is so, why is the sacrifice of everything for it, so that others may enjoy it, at all considered a noble endeavor? Clearly there must be another moral imperative, superior or at least equal to Happiness, that stands above or beside that Utilitarian virtue in the souls of all human beings.
I would posit, then, that a corresponding virtue of self-sacrifice- Duty- holds all the moral weight that Liberty holds. And in fact, Duty is perhaps more necessary than Liberty, for it lies at the foundation of all social order. If social contract theory is true, or at least is a true parable, individuals trade some of their liberties and rights to governments and take on duties and responsibilities of obedience to certain laws and norms of the polity. If a far more likely scenario is true- Machiavelli’s dictum that every reasonably just and peaceful order is founded upon past injustices- then in the struggles to establish and preserve that peace, there clearly must have been individuals willing to sacrifice their liberties, lives, and consciences for a cause greater than themselves. Virgil does an excellent job depicting this in the Aeneid, and the lessons remain relevant to this day, echoing in every speech to combat veterans ever made in America.
Duty is a troublesome thing to define, but basically can be defined as this- the commitment an individual takes on their own free will to a cause greater than themselves, which diminishes their liberty and may or may not contribute to or diminish from their happiness, but contributes to some broader social good. Duty includes a wide array of practices, from obedience to traditions and social norms to martial valor and sacrifice to familial love and paternal and maternal care for offspring. It is the foundation of the phenomenon of social capital, those social bonds which contribute to the smoother functioning of society and the general happiness of all its members brought about by the cultivation of a climate of unity. And, as mentioned before, Duty- and the traditions and institutions it supposes- is often antithetical to the Liberty and Happiness of the individual so valued by Mill and the earlier thinkers of the Enlightenment.
What to make of this paradox, then? Here we have two antithetical principles- Liberty and Duty- that both do measurable good for society and for individuals, yet exist in constant tension and cannot be neatly reconciled. How, then, to value both in society?
The only answer is Prudence. Prudence is that political wisdom, articulated and preserved over the ages in Burkean fashion, that seeks the best ends rather than the best intentions, understanding the limits of reason and the fallibility of human nature. Through Prudence and through Prudence alone can the contradictory demands of Liberty and Duty be balanced out in tension with each other, and indeed, when they are, it is seen that they do much to complement each other.
Liberty cannot exist without Duty. As discussed earlier, Duty provides the foundations for an orderly society, either through social obligation or through actual sacrifice, which set the terms and norms of a civilization; without such norms there can be no true Liberty, as the unabashed pursuit of self-interest and allowance of personal judgment to reign devolves quickly into a Hobbesian nightmare in which the life and liberty of all individuals is stolen away by means of force. There must be some common ground, some common obligations and set standards, which will provide a certain amount of order and a shared conception of justice; and obedience to, or at least deference to, these norms is sustained by dutifulness on the part of all members of a society. Individuals with no sense of Duty or responsibility are rightly seen as misfits.
Duty cannot exist without Liberty. As institutions are inherently conservative, resisting change, they first grow corrupt, then tyrannical; then they decay. And should all individuals completely subvert their own self-interest to broader social goals, there would be no innovation, no dialogue, no healthy dissent, no progressive betterment and improvement of those things in society which can most use improving. Moreover, if Duty is enforced, it becomes slavery- it only retains its noble sheen when arrived upon by choice. For when Duty is chosen it is more an act of love than an act of coercion or mere stupidity. Individuals must have Liberty if they are to choose Duty.
We see, then, the necessity of Prudence to balance these two out and keep them in complementary tension together. Duty without Liberty becomes the slave religion of the Spartans; Liberty without Duty produces a nation of hedonists and a Hobbesian nightmare of sorts.
Broader social goals must be articulated- I would suggest the National Greatness of the Republic, and the Individual Greatness of Individuals. These two goals, those of Aeneas and Odysseus, respectively, respectively can be attained by Duty and Liberty, and must be striven for at the same time. A nation that did not pursue Duty would be decadent; a nation that did not pursue Liberty would be despotic. The pursuit of these broader social goals and the keen balancing of the citizens’ virtues of Liberty and Duty are the task of Prudence to advance, that sublime political wisdom that seeks the best results. Duty and sacrifice are the fuel of Liberty, and Liberty provides the planting grounds from which Duty springs forth.
Liberty, Duty, and Prudence- these are the three great virtues that must be mastered by citizen and statesman alike to secure the success of any republican experiment, particularly our own. Liberty provides the stuff of innovation, preserves the hard-won rights of individuals, and allows all citizens to pursue their own happiness as they see fit, and become the best possible versions of themselves. Duty maintains the bonds of social capital which are the tendons in the organism of society, preserves those traditions and customs which define any society, and ennobles the common citizen to pursue heroic valor, and the chance to give themselves to a cause far greater than self. Prudence balances these two conflicting virtues and helps them to complement each other, without letting either destroy the other. It works to harness the productive energy they generate in the name of worthy social goals.
Walter Russell Mead has argued that the intellectual and political genius of the English-speaking peoples has been their failure to institutionalize a single commanding principle of thought from which all would flow down, instead tolerating an intellectual and political climate where competing centers of power and ideas balanced each other out and engendered a creative tension which didn’t proclaim to solve all problems or answer all questions, but did provide a pragmatic progressive social evolution that best secured the rights of individuals and the greatness of nations. This mixed and uncertain thought appears unsophisticated when compared with the perfectionist tracts of Continental political thought, from the supremacy of God of the Catholic states to the supremacy of Reason of the French Revolution to the supremacy of Blood and Soil among the various German empires to the supremacy of the state of Soviet Russia. These perfectionisms all became absolutisms which intended to make the world over again in a rational image wrought by God or Reason or the Volk or the Objective Laws of History. And they grew tyrannical, then corrupt, then decadent; and then they fell.
The comparative stability of the Anglosphere is something of a paradox in itself- for American and British societies have been changing at the same quick rates of Continental and other societies, but they have experienced relative regime continuity in comparison. They have not been racked by nearly so many bloody revolutions and civil wars as the other powers have.
Mead attributes this combined stability and innovativeness to the penchant of the English-speaking peoples to hold multiple seemingly contradictory views simultaneously and spread the power and authority of institutions around, paying total fealty to no church, state, or party. This bias for dividing power and creating and conserving a diversity of institutions, so evident in the thought of Hamilton and Madison and Burke, and some of their non-Anglo influences like Hume and Montesquieu, has been the real mark of the Anglo-American political tradition- not liberty alone.
The ideal of a tense three-way balance between Liberty, Duty, and Prudence as the core political virtues of any Republic fits nicely with this narrative of Anglo-American success through the balancing and conserving and reforming of institutions, to make for a constant state of reforming timeless principles. It is decentralized, immune to the decadence and corruption that comes with hegemony, while still dominant enough to endure across the ages.
The American people would be wise to consider again the values that make their Republic tick. But rather than the traditional dichotomies of freedom and equality or tradition and progress, it would be well worth Americans’ time to ponder the dichotomy of Liberty and Duty as republican virtues, linked and led by Prudence. Such moral thinking is crucial for the endurance of a civil society.