Friday, June 26, 2015Of course not. Nobody serious, including Ron Chernow, thinks that he was. Look, I can appreciate William Hogeland's frustration with the Jefferson-Hamilton debate, and totally agree that we can't project our modern political divisions onto the founding generation. On the other hand, America is a Founding-obsessed country and we have to accept that fact. It might be annoying to scholars, but U.S. politicians and activists are going to continue to identify themselves with major historical figures in order to legitimate their policies. This is particularly important for liberals, who want to change things.
Hogeland is correct that Hamilton's involvement in the Newburgh conspiracy was stupid. And there is plenty of evidence that Hamilton wasn't much of a small-d democrat. However, when one looks at the total package of policies that Hamilton argued for, and his overall vision for American society, we see a capitalist, socially mobile, industrial society based on free labor; a country with a strong military and robust national powers. By comparison Jefferson's vision of a rural society of yeoman farmers and a weak state doesn't look all that attractive, especially when you consider Jefferson's complicity with slavery. So the question isn't really whether Hamilton was what we would call a liberal or not, but whether he was a modern. And by all reasonable accounts he most certainly was.
On another note, Hogeland trots out the tired idea that the nationalists were out to crush populist reforms. Oh boy, here we go with Beardian analysis of the critical period again. Here Hogeland is falling for the very mistake he criticizes others for - trying to slot previous generations into contemporary contexts. It's important to recognize that in evaluating historical figures & events we understand the set of problems they faced as they understood them. The nationalists were concerned that the republic was going to collapse into class conflict within states and territorial rivalries between states. This was a perfectly reasonable fear. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Shays rebellion was a major factor at the Convention & during the ratification (this is disputed by historians). To smear the nationalists as anti-democratic presumes that 1) democracy as we know it was much of a norm (it wasn't - the U.S. in 1789 was one of the most democratic regimes on earth), and 2) their evaluation of the "populist" legislation directed at capital was motivated by class interest. However, the problem with Shays Rebellion (and what scared the hell out of the country's leaders) wasn't the policies that the insurgents were proposing so much as the fact that they led an armed rebellion on a state capital and the national and state governments were impotent. The critique of republics was a tendency towards instability and disorder, which could ultimately lead to tyranny. The founders were worried that if they didn't make reforms the republic would collapse into a bunch of petty tyrannies. And they were probably right to do so.