Origins and Synthesis of a 21st Century Hamiltonianism
Over at the recently-retired The Hamiltonian Republican blog, there’s been a lively debate over the nature of Hamiltonianism and what it means, how it is manifested, in 21st Century America. Those of us who still consider ourselves Hamiltonian Republicans will likely be continuing our debates and discussions on this subject over at the forthcoming The Millennial Republican blog. But for the sake of my own personal understanding of the subject, I’ll organize my thoughts here at ABiasedPerspective, and use the conclusions of this piece as a reference point in future articles.
So- what is a Hamiltonian Republican? In my view, there are three ways to define this tradition- and it is a tradition rather than an ideology or even a movement. The ways to define this tradition, though, should necessarily emphasize thinkers and statesmen, figures and movements, rather than principles, policy stances, or objectives. The principles, policy stances, and objectives should flow from an understanding of the thinkers and statesmen in the tradition- the other way ‘round would be reinterpreting the figures in the tradition, wrongly, as having held certain principles, policy stances, and objectives which they perhaps did not hold in reality.
The useful thing about defining Hamiltonianism and Hamiltonian Republicanism in a traditional, covenantal sense rather than in an ideological sense is that one thereby removes the temptation to construct an all-encompassing ideology or program that would necessarily grow rigid and unstable with time. By instead basing the system on a study of the lives, legacies, characters, intellects, and habits of mind of great individual thinkers and the movements they led, one can necessarily be more pragmatic and flexible in interpreting their ideas and applying them to the present day. One has the added benefit of having a wide panoply of historical figures to consult, as Machiavelli did, on issues and objectives that they, in a way, pursued in their own times.
Now, to some degree, any modern Hamiltonianism will be both an ideology and a reflection of personal prejudices and biases, and I am under no illusions that I am somehow the steward and gatekeeper of a lost mode of thought accessible only to myself. However, by emphasizing the traditional element of Hamiltonianism, I hope to be as true to the great men of old as possible, and honor their legacies by carrying them forth into the present age and our future glory.
THE THREE TRADITIONS OF HAMILTONIANISM
Back to the three ways to define the tradition.
THE APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION OF HAMILTONIANISM
First, there is what I call the “Apostolic Succession.” This is the most fruitful way because it is the only way encompassing the entirety of American history. It follows those political thinkers across American history who, generally speaking, supported an activist federal government, national consolidation under the Union, and a strong, industrially-based economy. Michael Lind details this tradition, which I adapt from him, in his great book “Hamilton’s Republic.”
There were pre-revolutionary colonial antecedents to the Hamiltonian tradition, but I don’t know enough about them to argue for them here. The American Revolution itself had its share of radicals and pragmatists, but I think it’s fair to say that John Adams and George Washington, perhaps Ben Franklin as well, and other statesmen and generals of that conflict represented the budding hope of a united national project in the postwar period. Upon the close of that conflict in 1783, and the failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, a new breed of Constitutionalist-Nationalists arose in support of the new Constitution of 1787. These, of course, included Alexander Hamilton himself, who would go on to loom large on the national scene for the next decade or so. The Federalist Era- the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, and the “prime ministership” of Alexander Hamilton- was a crucial era in which the Hamiltonian ethos of economic nationalism, unionism, federal activism, and foreign policy restraint was formed, in opposition to the Jeffersonian and Madisonian ethos of localism and idealism.
But Jefferson and Madison, upon assuming the Presidency successively, each became far more Hamiltonian in practice than they would’ve liked to admit. The left wing of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, led by young upstarts like Henry Clay, would eventually grow into the National Republican and Whig parties, which throughout the Antebellum would carry forth the Hamiltonian Federalist programs of national consolidation, economic activism, and foreign policy restraint in a more democratic guise.
I must confess that I am in many ways a stranger to the America between the presidency of Andrew Jackson and that of Abraham Lincoln, and then again a stranger to the America between the death of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and yet again a stranger to the America between the stroke of Woodrow Wilson and the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt. I have much study to do to correct my ignorance of large swathes of national history. That said, I will trace Hamiltonianism through these strange lands of time so far as is possible.
The Whigs, after the decline of the National Republicans, carried forth the Hamiltonian vision. Moreover, as the secession crisis beckoned, they fought to make compromises in the interests of the preservation of the union. After their implosion and the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, the Whigs’ ideas were carried forth in the Republican Party of John C. Fremont and Abraham Lincoln- and Abraham Lincoln, of course, would smash the pseudo-Jeffersonian slave lords in the crisis of the Civil War.
The Civil War in many ways allowed for the institutionalization of Hamiltonian ideas and principles into the American experiment. America would thenceforth be a united industrial union, characterized by a government willing to use its power. For most of the post-Civil War era, it was relatively laissez-faire on this regard, but with industrial conditions worsening by the turn of the century, ascendant President Theodore Roosevelt would spend the better part of a decade and a half reorienting American government and politics towards the activism that would characterize the later 20th Century.
After Roosevelt and the Progressive Republicans gave way to Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Democrats- semi-Hamiltonian progressives who used Hamiltonian means in the First World War- there was something of a lull in the tradition throughout the 1920s. But the election of Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, to the presidency, and his embarking on a vast program of economic development in industry and welfare, effectively caused the Hamiltonian tradition to jump parties. Throughout the New Deal and the Second World War, Hamiltonianism applied to midcentury conditions totally transformed the union and the American way of life. By war’s end, Republicans in their party’s centrist wing would adapt some of the principles of the New Deal Democrats, creating a new “Vital Center” in American politics.
The Vital Center of the Republican Party, in turn, would birth the great “Modern Republican” statesmen, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and to some degree, George H.W. Bush, the last of the GI Generation statesmen. The post-New Deal Democrats, meanwhile, would carry on the left wing of Hamiltonianism through the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. And the last generation of Hamiltonians- the first generation of Neoconservatives, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and others- would ultimately rise to serve the Modern Republicans in the interests of reforming the reforms of the post-New Deal Democrats.
Between the elections of 1964 and 1972, lunatic social liberalism or reaction and various forms of fiscal conservatism overtook the main factions of either party, and by my measure, the end of the Gerald Ford Presidency in 1976 represented the last gasp of this age-old temperament as a dominating institutional force. There have been Hamiltonian statesmen since 1976, mostly in the foreign policy community, but overall their influence has waned and they have all but disappeared as the institutional forces in American politics they once were.
So there’s the Apostolic Succession of Hamiltonianism, replete with thinkers and statesmen and movements to commune with for insights on today’s problems. There are two other ways.
THE MIDCENTURY SYNTHESIS OF HAMILTONIANISM
Second is the Midcentury Synthesis- an observation and investigation, and ultimate dialectic fusion, of the thinking of four main groups of thinkers: the New Conservatives, the Old Neoconservatives, the Modern Republicans, and miscellaneous conservatively-tempered thinkers. A sophisticated study of the thoughts of these four groups sheds light on the issues of today, as the issues they studied are only a half-century removed from our own problems, sometimes less.
The New Conservatives were a group of poets and historians in the 1950s who opposed Bill Buckley’s Fusionist conservatism. They included such thinkers as Robert Nisbet, the poet Peter Viereck, and the historian-cum-political scientist Clinton Rossiter (all of whose available works are fascinating, erudite, and insightful.) Their primary contribution was the promotion of a Burkean “conservative liberalism” in an age of utopian liberalism and conservative-libertarian “Jacobinism.” Their temperament ought to inform Hamiltonians today.
The Old Neoconservatives can inform the policy side of things, particularly on domestic policy. Their left wing, encompassing such diverse and eclectic thinkers as Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and James Q. Wilson, generally brought a conservative Burkean temperament alongside a liberal Rooseveltian activism. Like Benjamin Disraeli, they were “Tory Men with Whig Measures.” Their work on welfare and regulatory-bureaucratic reform, on political economy, and on most issues of government provides an excellent model by which to promote social solidarity while making the administrative state more effective and efficient. (It is important to distinguish the Old Neoconservatives from the New Neoconservatives.)
Then there are the Modern Republicans- Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and to some degree George H.W. Bush, as well as midcentury figures like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton. They can offer guidance on the style of politics Hamiltonians would pursue- one of collaboration yet firm standing against extremes on either side, and an insistence on perpetual reform of established institutions. They can also offer much on the foreign policy front, as Ike, Nixon, and Bush are classically regarded as some of the most successful foreign policy statesmen in American history.
Finally, there’s a smattering of eclectic thinkers on various subjects, scattered across party lines and affiliated with various groups. The main ones I think of are Henry Kissinger, with his tragic view of history and realistic strategic temperament; James Burnham, whose neo-Marxist class analysis is second to none; Samuel P. Huntington, whose institutional analyses factoring in culture, history, and other elements surpass the thought of many other 20th Century political scientists; and Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian of Christian Realism and true moderation.
The synthesis of the thought and legacy of the New Conservatives, the Old Neoconservatives, the Modern Republicans, and these various other thinkers is the second tradition by which one can define contemporary Hamiltonianism and Hamiltonian Republicanism.
CONTEMPORARY SEMI-HAMILTONIAN THINKERS
Finally, there is the third way- the prospect of using contemporary thinkers and writers on politics who think along similar lines. In my view, the two great Hamiltonians today are Michael Lind- father of the modern use of the term itself- and Ross Douthat, the young New York Times columnist. A second tier might include the foreign affairs realist Robert D. Kaplan, the Reformicon or semi-Reformicon columnists Reihan Salam, Sam Tanenhaus, and David Frum, and the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice. These figures each, in their own way, apply certain methods of Hamiltonian thought to contemporary problems and debates. I might also add that the new journal American Affairs very brilliantly attempts to cover similar culturally conservative/economically nationalist ground, and Reformicons and the journal The American Interest sometimes cover it as well.
The main trick is to find those nationalists with a conservative temperament on cultural issues and a liberal temperament on fiscal and government issues. This itself encompasses a wide variety of thinkers, as any tradition must- but it is narrow enough to be distinguishable from either the Democratic or Republican establishments, and certainly from the left and right extremes.
It is also very distinguishable from Buckleyism or Fusionism, the standard consensus of conservatism these days, in that it is fiscally liberal and socially conservative in ways that National Review-style conservatism simply is not. I wrote the other day that aspiring Hamiltonian thinkers must hold their noses and work for the various fusionist factions- libertarians, neoconservatives- if they are to gain any kind of influence over the party, but it yet remains critical to understand the differences between the two movements, one decadent and the other nascent.
Anyhow, this is my interpretation of what Hamiltonianism means in the 21st Century. This is my view of what a new center-right movement ought to look like, and what a responsible Republican Party should promote. I’m not looking to build a new ideological coalition, propaganda machine, or mass movement so much as I am hoping that new generations of center-right elites- politicians, operators, intellectuals, funders, etc.- begin to look at things in ways more amenable to the Hamiltonian way.
The Alexander Hamilton Society, while perhaps not being explicitly Hamiltonian the way I’ve articulated here, nonetheless is doing something good in encouraging young center-right leaders to take on the label “Hamiltonian.” That may well be a start, but we need to go further. American Affairs can help, too, on that front.
This piece has explored the traditional, intellectual, and historical backgrounds to Hamiltonianism. It has explicitly avoided policy proposals and commentary on current issues, though I’ll probably turn to writing more of that in due time at The Millennial Republican. What it means to be a Hamiltonian Republican in the U.S. Department of State, or in the U.S. Congress, or in the California State Legislature, might be entirely different things, or similar things. I need to do some serious thought on application- Michael Lind and Ross Douthat will likely be my primary guides on that front.
So we’ll see. This should be interesting intellectual exploration, moving forward.