Hamilton’s New Constitution

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A nation of land owning young men might very well make for independence, but also it might very well make for stagnation. What Alexander Hamilton wanted most from life was not stagnation but mobility. Born in 1755 on the West Indian Island of Nevis, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scot who abandoned the mother and the boy when he was 10 years of age.

Young Hamilton’s quickness and vividness made so great an impression on a local Presbyterian missionary, Hugh Knox, that he sent the boy to New York City for education. Hamilton entered King’s College, now of course Columbia University. Hamilton took the lead in student protest against Birtain in 1775, and was commisioned in 1776 as captain of an artillery company. He saw action in one Continental defeat after another, and suffered with the army through one humilating delay of supply after another caused by the quarreling among the States’ Continental Congress. He ended the war as one of George Wahington’s aides, and was permitted to practice law in New York in 1782.

The Lessons of War

The war taught Hamilton a number of lessons, the first of which was not to put too much trust in the virtue of people. It is not safe to trust the virtue of any people, Hamilton discovered, since the same stock of passions which generates a hatred of oppresion, can just as easily lead people to a contempt and disregard of all authority. It is not virue, said Hamilton, but power what motivates people. Men always loved power, Hamilton wrote. That might not be ideal, and, in fact, that might not be a compliment to Republicans.

The question in the Republic was not about identifying and protecting virtue, or about identifying and protecting that livelihood which automatically promotes virtue, but rather about identifying and blunting power.

Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton inherited no wealth and no land. Quite the opposite. His rise to fame began in commerce as a clerc, and continued that way as a New York City lawyer. Not surprisingly, he dimissed the Classical Republican’s paranoia about commerce, cities and manufacuring out of hand. The prosperity of commerce, Hamiton said, is not perceived and acknowledged to be the most useful, as well as the most productive source of national wealth.

The often agitated question, said Hamilton, between agriculture and commerce, has from indubitable experience received the decision which has silenced the rivalships. The decision of experience has proven, to the satisfaction of their friends, that their interests, the interest of agriculture and commerce, are intimatelly blended and interwoven. So, what if commerce did not produce virtue. Let’s face it, Hamilton said, neither really did agriculture.

The solution was not to be found in suppresing one or the other, but in harnessing them both to become a great national team. The trick, of course, was in the harnessing, because that implied a harnesser. The one thing which was clear was that the Confederation Government was incapable of harnessing together anything. On the other hand, a government strong enough to harness together agriculture and commerce appaled with Jeffersonians. That not only meant putting agriculture and commerce on the same plane, but it would require preciselly the kind and level of taxes which would corrupt the virtuous farmer.

However, to Hamilton, the mechanic and manufacturing arts furnished the materials of mercantile enterprise and industry. That, in turn, would arm the American Republic as a whole with the kind of economic power which would permit it to resist the encroachments of the English and the Spanish. For that reason, Hamilton belongs pretty firmly in the Liberal Republican current. And also for that reason, Jefferson and Hamilton became the ying and yang of the revolutionary generation.

If men were angels...

Between Jefferson and Hamilton stood James Madison. Born in 1751, Madison graduated from Princeton in 1771. Madison served in the Virginia legislature, and from 1780 to 1783 in the Continental Congress. Most of his early efforts were aimed at serving Virginia state interests, and he always remained uneasy at the prospect of a powerful national government. His hope was for a government of Classical Republican virtue. He was frank about his desire for a Constitution whose first aim would be to obtain rulers men who possess wisdom to discern and virtue to pursue the common good of society.

But Madison had learned enough at the hands of his Calvinist mentors at Presbyterian Princeton. He learned not to put too much trust in spontaneous appearence of virtue in politics. If men were angels, Madison remarked, no government would be necessary. But men were not angels, even if they were farmers. Next in importance to recruiting the virtuous to serve as rulers, a Constitution was needed to take the precautions for keeping them virtuous while they continue to hold the public trust. There is, Madison admitted, a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumpensction and mistrust.

Nowhere was the need for that mistrust more evident on display than in the Confederation Congres, where the States obstructed the taxes of even the most modest import duties and defeated treaties with foreign powers on little more than whims. Without being a Liberal Republican at heart, Madison had a Liberal Republican’s head; that head told him in the 1780’s that something drastic needed to be done about the articles of the Confederation, or else the American union would dissolve and it would not matter how virtuous American farmers might actually be.

Madison and Hamilton got their chance in 1786, when a convention called to settle disputes over river rights between Virginia and Maryland broke down and forced the commissioners, including, Madison and Hamilton, to blame the brake down on the articles of Confederation, and to call for a convention of the States to rewrite them. The convention, however, when it met in Philadelphia in May of 1787, took the bit in its teeth, and instead of rewriting the articles, junked them completely, in favor of writing an entirely new Constitution that transformed the articles of independent states into a federalized union.

The Constitution of 1787 is a remarkable political document for many reasons. The most important issue at stake was establishing a strong workable union that could arbitrate state conflicts and give a sense on united national identity to the republic. What was noticebly abscent, however, was any appeal in the document to the Classical Republican virtues. Instead, the Constitution of 1787 was a document filled with a series of extremely skeptical compromises whose chief purpose was to deal with the effects of power, not to offer sermons on virtue. They meant to create mechanisms that will place one kind of power in the new republic against another.

The government, for instance, was divided into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Each of which was set to watchdog the other. Within the legislative branch, power was divided between a house of representatives, elected by the people; and a senate, choosen by the state legislatures. While the chief executive officer, the president, was elected through a two stage process. First by a general election and then by an electoral college.

As Madison explaines, liberty was best served by contriving the interior structure of the government, so that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their propper places.

So, where virtue might fail to make people cooperate, self-interest would not. If the self-interest of the various parts, not only of the government, but of the republic as a whole, were set carefully against each other, then the interest devoted to promoting itself would prevent any single one of them from obtaining control over the others.

The New Government

There was an echo with this in the Constitution’s provisions for the economic life of the republic. Or rather, the almost complete absence of any provisions for regulating the economic life of the republic. The new Constitution did not, in fact, articulate any economic policies or preferences. It merely reserved to the new federal legislature, the Congress, the power to regulate comerce with other nations, levee taxes and tariffs, pass bankrupcy laws and borrow money. More importantly, it clearly restrained the states from establishing their own economic policies.

So far, in fact, was the Constitution from prescribing any particular form of public virtue, that it managed not only to say nothing about how the economy should be build, it managed to avoid even making any reference to God or to Christianity, unlike Jefferson’s declaration. If Jefferson had been a member of the Philadelphia Convention, he quite conceivably could had made a great deal of grief for Hamilton and Madison on all of these points. But Jefferson was not there. Jefferson was serving as American minister to France. And Hamilton and Madison both mounted an effective mediate campaign on behalf of the new constitution through a series of 85 brief articles they serialized in the New York Papers, which subsequently would be known as the Federalist Papers.

By June of 1788, the Constitution had been ratified by the necessary number of states and become the new law of the land. When Madison finally wrote to Jefferson in October of 1787 to describe the new Constitution, Jefferson was predictably anenthusiastic. I like much the general idea, Jefferson replied in December. But he was not a friend of a very energetic government. Well, energetic government was precisely what he was now to witness in action.