The Political Principles of Alexander Hamilton

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Note: The first chapter of Clinton Rossiter’s book “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution” (from which this piece is excerpted) is very much worth reading, as it contains an extended analysis and survey of the various aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s intellectual and professional personality. Rossiter covers:

Hamilton the public financier 

Hamilton the public administrator 

Hamilton the realist diplomat

Hamilton the industrialist

Hamilton the military organizer and soldier

 Hamilton the orator and lawyer

 Hamilton the constitutionalist

 Hamilton the political scientist

 Hamilton the American

In essence, Alexander Hamilton mastered all the arts of modern government, and built institutions and traditions of American governance that have stood the test of time. After Weehawken, never again has a single man so brilliantly mastered so many fields and put this mastery to the service of his country, and at so crucial a moment in history; never again, perhaps, will another.  

The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution.” 

…Engaged as we seem to be in an effort to save our dominant liberal tradition from the defects of its own virtues, and also to extend its range to new social and economic problems, we are rummaging in the past for political thinkers who can help us perform this critical task…

[Hamilton’s] political principles were not as “correct” for the United States, in his time or in ours, as were those of Jefferson and Madison. No one who has studied and cherished the American political tradition would identify Hamilton as its First Source, and thus look to him for expression of the basic ideals of American democracy. He was too skeptical a judge of men and too harsh a censor of democracy ever to be allowed to stand alone as our teacher. Yet he did speak brilliantly to a number of questions that most of his contemporaries preferred to ignore, and his answers have never seemed more relevant than at this very moment. They are relevant not only because they teach us to deal more imaginatively with the hard problems of a high civilization, but because they are as fully convertible to the uses of committed democrats of the twentieth century as are the principles of his constitutional law. The lessons we learn from Hamilton the political thinker will reinforce and energize the liberal tradition, not sap or corrupt it. And the best of those lessons would seem to be:

Men are driven to strive and achieve by their “passions,” of which the most politically significant are the desire for esteem, the anticipation of gain, and the love of power.

Men also wish to preserve and advance their “interests,” which are the physical and psychological fruits, real or merely hoped for, of their strivings.

It is next to useless to preach to men about their duty as citizens to control their passions and rise above their interests.

There is, however, a variety of political techniques through which passions can be steered into channels of healthy creativity and interests can be secured against the assaults of fear and envy.

The test of a sound and viable government is its ability to use old techniques and invent new ones that can harness the passions of men and enlist their interests in the service of the common ends of society.

Encompassing the mass of private interests, yet rising above them to live a life of its own, is the interest of all men in the pursuit of these ends- the general welfare, the common felicity, the public good.

No society can survive and prosper unless its citizens understand the commands of the public good and can generally, whether lured by carrots or threatened by sticks, be made to obey them.

No society can survive and prosper unless it has ways to nurture “choice spirits,” men of uncommon virtue and talent, and to place them in positions of responsible authority.

As the opinions of the people are the decisive force n the political process, so the confidence of the people is the principal support of government.

Confidence is inspired chiefly by an honorable, dignified, efficient administration of public affairs.

It is also inspired, up to a point, by the sounds and appearances of such an administration.

The worst of social ills are disorder, violence, instability, and unpredictability- in a phrase, “the hydra Anarchy.”

The worst of political ills is a weak government unable to cope with the convulsions of anarchy, because the next step beyond anarchy is not chaos but despotism.

The most likely candidates for the role of despots are demagogues.

In a disordered world, there is more to be feared from a dearth of political power than from an overdose of it.

The cutting edge of power is energy- the use of power imaginatively and forcefully in the public interest- which is the indispensable quality of good government.

The executive is the chief source of political energy.

An energetic government is as necessary to the success of democratic government as it is to any other kind.

The happiness of men in a civilized society depends to a critical extent upon the capacity of government, not merely to keep order and protect them in the enjoyment of their rights and property, but actively to promote social, economic, and cultural growth.

Banks, factories, and armies are as important for the freedom and progress of civilized men as schools and churches. The authors of constitutions for those who aspire to be such men will make room in their planning for these instruments of society.

This is not, be it remembered, the whole of Hamilton’s political thought, for he had many other things to say on many other subjects. Nor is the whole of his thought, I repeat, a political philosophy for American democracy. But this is a catalogue of opinions and judgments of which he was the first and most explicit exponent among the Founding Fathers- in several instances the only exponent- and Americans may go to it confidently for instruction in the problems and possibilities of twentieth-century statecraft. Hamilton the political scientist, like Hamilton the constitutionalist, is both the teacher and the property of the whole nation. He speaks to the Right but also to the Left, and speaks perhaps most intelligently to those who mill about in the middle and seek for ways to save both America and American democracy. He is a useful man to know because he tells us harsh truths that we are not told by Jefferson, useful because democracy needs skeptics as well as enthusiasts to acclaim. Hamilton the political thinker was a skeptic who was honest, acute, and specific about his doubts and fears, and such a thinker as he has a message of unique perception for this generation of Americans. As Eliphalet Nott warned in 1804, if this government of ours, the “illustrious fabric” on which Hamilton’s “genius” was “impressed” should ever fall, “his prophetic declarations will be found inscribed on its ruins.”

In conclusion, let us look again at the whole Hamilton, whose relevance for our times goes well beyond his teachings as constitutional lawyer and political scientist. It is not alone our indulgent Constitution and energetic government that should remind us daily that he lived and achieved and prophesied, nor even our mixed, balanced, productive, regulated, and occasionally guided economy. It is, rather, the very existence of America as a nation that spreads its sway over most of a continent and its influence over much of the world. We have achieved the power and glory he foretold in his most hopeful hours because we have become a far more perfect Union than all his enemies and even most of his friends wanted us to be…

… Accustomed as we now must become to thinking in terms of a progressive industrial society served by an energetic national government under the liberating Constitution of a sovereign Union, we are bound to pay homage to the man who first set this image before the American people.

-Clinton Rossiter, “Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution”

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