- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

Of all the Founders of the American Republic, the reputation of Alexander Hamilton has fluctuated the most according to the political fashions of the day. During his own lifetime, Hamilton had both committed defenders and passionate detractors. His reputation declined during the antebellum period, but with the triumph of neo-Federalism after the Civil War, he was accorded the highest honors in the national pantheon.
Today, his reputation is ambiguous. Liberals consider him too "elitist," a mouthpiece for the "rich and well-born" (despite his own humble origins), and a militarist. Conservatives often dismiss him as an anti-free trade protectionist and the forefather of deficit spending and the administrative state. But all agree that his contributions to American republicanism are unsurpassed.
One would think that at least the most important writings of such an important Founder would be accessible to the public. But with the exception of his contributions to the Federalist and perhaps his major reports as secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton's writings have been available only to scholars. His papers, published by Columbia University Press, run to some 27 thick volumes. In 1985, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., published the "Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton," edited by Morton Frisch, which has long been out of print.
This deficiency has now been corrected by the Library of America with its publication of "Hamilton: Writings," an accessible and fairly complete collection of Hamilton's writings. The book is another fine offering by the Library of America. It is skillfully edited by Joanne Freeman, an assistant professor of history at Yale. Arranged chronologically, the selections help paint a useful portrait of a brilliant, if flawed Founder, whom Hamilton's biographer Richard Brookhiser has called the greatest man of the Revolutionary era excepting only George Washington.
"Hamilton: Writings" illuminates Hamilton's major contributions to the establishment of a free, secure, and prosperous American Republic. These contributions were primarily in three areas: citizenship and the meaning of republican government, including interpretation of the Constitution; political economy and public finance; and national defense.
Hamilton, like Jefferson and most of the others of the founding generation, saw the Revolution as an act of reason designed to secure the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." However, a revolution is inherently lawless. Men must "dissolve [existing] political bands" before they can establish a new form of government more congenial to rights and liberty.
But revolutionary fervor is inappropriate for living in a stable political society, even one that is intended to protect individual rights. Hamilton understood that a passion for liberty was necessary if the cause of American independence was to succeed, but that ultimately it had to be moderated.
Ultimately, however, individual rights can be preserved only when there exists in society a strong sense of law-abidingness. Thus Hamilton was appalled at the call for "permanent revolution" that characterized Thomas Jefferson's rhetoric. He believed that Jefferson's complacent and bookish reaction to Shay's Rebellion and the French Revolution "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing …" and "the Tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants" was a recipe for disaster, an approach that would ensure "frequent tumults" instead of good government.
The answer was to make Americans law-abiding by attaching them to their Constitution, which, although it is their own creation, binds them by its constraints while in force.
Much of Hamilton's enterprise can be seen as the prudential attempt to make a revolutionary people law-abiding. He acted on the basis of the principle that it is necessary to make an ancient establishment of a new government, to attach the people to its laws in order to preserve stable government, without which rights cannot be protected.Thus he sought by speech and deed to moderate the passions of the people and attach them to first, their state constitutions and then to the Federal Constitution.
These projects included his legal defense of New York Loyalists against the Trespass Act along with his Phocion Letters on the same topic, his activities as secretary of the Treasury to teach Americans the necessity of paying their debts, and his efforts as a member of Washington's cabinet to subordinate gratitude to France and attachment to its revolution to the dictates of international law.
"Hamilton: Writings" provides a fine selection of his support and enterprise on behalf of making republican government possible by making American citizens law-abiding. Hamilton's next great contribution to the establishment of a free and prosperous America was the creation of a liberal system of political economy. Selections in "Hamilton: Writings," reveal the extent to which Hamilton is truly the father of American capitalism.
In 1790, the United States faced what seemed to be insuperable barriers to financial stability. The new nation owed vast sums to both its own citizens and foreign creditors. It was behind in its payment of both principal and interest, and lacked the means to raise the necessary revenues. As a result, the credit of the United States was held in low esteem, which meant that in the future no one would be willing to loan money to the United States unless there was added a substantial "risk premium."
The new nation was on the horns of a dilemma: Loans are forthcoming only to those whose credit standing is good, yet the United States had not yet demonstrated either the will or the ability to take the steps necessary to establish good credit.
It was not until Hamilton, in his role of secretary of the Treasury, put into place his program of political economy that the U.S. economy began to "take off." By establishing American credit, which provided an incentive for wealthy individuals and prosperous nations alike to take an interest in American economic success, Hamilton laid the foundation for a modern capitalist regime that has made "America" and "prosperity" synonymous.
But Hamilton's plan also operated on a moral level as well. Hamilton envisioned the United States as a polity in which citizens of differing aptitudes could achieve happiness. The United States would offer them the opportunity to achieve the highest qualities that their characters would allow.
Hamilton saw the equality that America promised in its highest sense: the distribution of rewards in accordance with true virtue rather than being based on conventional distinctions such as birth or wealth. Indeed, this was what Hamilton meant by liberty: the opportunity to earn rewards in accordance with one's virtue. To do this, it was necessary to create a nation that rewarded merit and ambition. This is the essence of liberal capitalism.
In his "Report on Manufactures," Hamilton argued that a diverse economy develops society. "The spirit of enterprise … must be less in a nation of mere cultivators, than in a nation of cultivators and merchants; less in a nation of cultivators and merchants than in a nation of cultivators, artificers, and merchants … Every new scene which is opened to the busy nature of man to rouse and exert itself, is the addition of a new energy to the general stock of effort."
Finally, Hamilton played a major role in establishing a system of national security that would not threaten liberty.
His critics notwithstanding, Hamilton was a soldier-statesman who deserved to be trusted with the sword of his country. Rejecting the utopian vision of Jefferson and many of his allies, Hamilton understood that war was a fact of international life, and that the survival of the infant republic depended on developing and maintaining the potential to make war. He was, in other words, a strategist before the word was coined.
But Hamilton was not a militaristic state builder along the lines of Frederick the Great or Bismarck. He was an 18th-century liberal and therefore always understood the necessity of remaining within the bounds established by the Constitution. "Let us not establish a tyranny," he wrote in 1798. "Energy is a very different thing from violence." Nonetheless he recognized that war is the great destroyer of free government and that liberty is endangered by too little as well as too much power. His goal was to establish a republican regime both fit for war and safe for liberty.
Thus Hamilton's fundamental political objectives were to enable the American Republic to avoid war when possible, to wage it effectively when necessary, and to preserve both political and civil liberty in time of war.
"Hamilton: Writings" cannot help but make a welcome contribution to our understanding of this brilliant, influential, and controversial figure. Indeed, it may be one of the finest collections that the Library of America has published. It may have taken a long time (the Library's first volume was published in 1982, and Jefferson's writings were published in 1984), but it has proven to be worth the wait.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He wrote the chapter on Hamilton in the recent Heritage Foundation book, "The Founders' Almanac."

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