The current economic crisis is the inevitable consequence of what I call Hamilton’s Curse in my new book of that name. It is the legacy of Alexander Hamilton and his political, economic, and constitutional philosophy. As George Will once wrote, Americans are fond of quoting Jefferson, but we live in Hamilton’s country.
The great debate between Hamilton and Jefferson over the purpose of government, which animates American politics to this day, was very much about economic policy. Hamilton was a compulsive statist who wanted to bring the corrupt British mercantilist system — the very system the American Revolution was fought to escape from — to America. He fought fiercely for his program of corporate welfare, protectionist tariffs, public debt, pervasive taxation, and a central bank run by politicians and their appointees out of the nation’s capital.
Jefferson and his followers opposed him every step of the way because they understood that Hamilton’s agenda was totally destructive of liberty. And unlike Hamilton, they took Adam Smith’s warnings against economic interventionism seriously.
Hamilton complained to George Washington that “we need a government of more energy” and expressed disgust over “an excessive concern for liberty in public men” like Jefferson. Hamilton “had perhaps the highest respect for government of any important American political thinker who ever lived,” wrote Hamilton biographer Clinton Rossiter.
Hamilton and his political compatriots, the Federalists, understood that a mercantilist empire is a very bad thing if you are on the paying end, as the colonists were. But if you are on the receiving end, that’s altogether different. It’s good to be the king, as Mel Brooks would say.
Hamilton was neither the inventor of capitalism in America nor “the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America,” as biographer Ron Chernow ludicrously asserts. He was the instigator of “crony capitalism,” or government primarily for the benefit of the well-connected business class. Far from advocating capitalism, Hamilton was “befogged in the mists of mercantilism” according to the great late nineteenth century sociologist William Graham Sumner.
The Curse of Government Debt
In a lengthy “report” to Congress on the topic of the public debt Hamilton said that “a national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a public blessing.” He would spend the rest of his life politicking for excessive government spending — and debt. The reason Hamilton gave for favoring a large public debt was not to finance any particular project, or to stabilize financial markets, but to combine the interests of the affluent people of the country — particularly business people — to the government. As the owners of government bonds, he reasoned, they would forever support his agenda of higher taxes and bigger government. (He condemned Jefferson’s first inaugural address and its minimal government message as “the symptom of a pygmy mind.”) No wonder one historian entitled his book on Hamilton “American Machiavelli.”
Wall Street financiers naturally took an immediate liking to Hamilton’s idea, and became the financial cornerstone of the Federalist Party (and later, the Whigs and Republicans). When Hamilton engineered the nationalization of the states’ debt as treasury secretary — something that was totally unnecessary since many states like Virginia had nearly paid off their war debts — the plan was to cash out much of the old debt at face value. This immediately became public knowledge in New York City, but the news spread ever so slowly to the rest of the country.
Consequently, Hamilton’s friends and supporters from New York City and New England went on a mad scramble down the eastern seaboard, purchasing bonds from hapless war veterans (who had been paid in bonds) for as little as two percent of par value. Huge fortunes were made by these slick New York speculators. Robert Morris pocketed a nifty $18 million. John Quincy Adams wrote to his father that the wealthiest Federalist lawyer in Massachusetts made a huge fortune with this caper. Hamilton participated in this parade of plunder himself, but claimed that the profits he made were for his brother-in-law.
The link between Wall Street and the federal government was cemented into place later on, when investment banks took on the responsibility of marketing the government’s bonds, which of course they still do to this day. Thus, Wall Street investment bankers became inveterate lobbyists for any and all tax increases (on the rest of the population, anyway) to assure that their own principal and interest would be paid, and that they could promise their clients — the purchasers of government bonds — that the bonds were a good investment. They were corrupt from the very beginning.
When Hamilton and George Washington led some 15,000 conscripts into Pennsylvania to enforce the whiskey tax, the purpose was not only to collect the tax and reassure bondholders, but also to send a message to any future tax resisters. The volunteer officers who led the conscripts were mostly “from the ranks of the creditor aristocracy in the seaboard cities,” wrote Claude Bowers in Jefferson and Hamilton. (The rebellion succeeded, nevertheless. George Washington pardoned all of the tax protesters despite Hamilton’s hysterical opposition and his desire to hang all of them.)
James Madison remarked that this episode revealed Hamilton’s agenda of…………
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