Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alexander Hamilton was not what Noah Berlatsky says he was

This piece, "Alexander Hamilton Was an Authoritarian Jerk," by Noah Berlatsky, caught my eye, after it was tweeted by Russ Smith (formerly Mugger of New York Press). Excerpt from Berlatsky:
Back in high school, my AP History teacher presented American government as one long argument between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, federal centralization and unity; on the other, decentralization and liberty. Two great thinkers, founding our national discourse. 
What my history teacher didn't tell us was that Hamilton was a paranoid, war-mongering loon. In the late 1790s, when Britain and France were locked in war, the Federalist President John Adams was desperately trying to maintain neutrality and not drag the US into a massive conflict for which it was not prepared. But Hamilton was thrilled at the prospect of war. In part, this was because he hated the French Revolution, and its attack on central authority and monarchy. But it was also because he figured he could use the war to attack the pro-French Republicans led by Jefferson, a man who he later denounced as "an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics." Placed at the head of an army raised to repel a possible French invasion, Hamilton got it into his head that Virginia was arming against the central government, and almost marched on the state. Dissuaded from starting a Civil War, he turned instead to infringement of civil liberties. After some initial hesitation, he supported the notorious 1798 Alien and Sedition acts to limit immigration and punish dissent. Then, when Adams managed to secure peace with France, Hamilton was so upset that he wrote a 50 page diatribe denouncing Adams and concluding that the President had lost "the respect of friends and foes" alike. 
So, in sum, Hamilton was bitterly partisan, eager to engage in avoidable wars, and prone to using the machinery of government to stifle dissent and persecute his enemies, real and imagined. He sounds remarkably like Dick Cheney.
I mildly suggested on Twitter that this piece could benefit from some additional analysis.
And Smith kindly put me in touch with the author, Berlatsky, who tweeted back:
I then promised to provide some needed perspective. Before proceeding, I will note that some of my earlier writings on Hamilton are here, here and here. Now getting to the Berlatsky piece:

1.There's a curious selectivity in the references to Adams. Note that he gets credit for "desperately trying to maintain neutrality" but then, when the Alien and Sedition Acts come up, there's no mention that it was President Adams who signed them. It also would have been worth noting that Hamilton's opinion of those laws has long been a subject of historical debate, and that the facts of that matter are hard to ascertain because Adams made an effort--after Hamilton's death--to shift some responsibility for the laws from himself to Hamilton (whom he dubiously claimed to have pressed him to pass such laws).

2. Berlatsky suggests that Hamilton's hostility to the French Revolution was because of "its attack on central authority and monarchy." I would think that Hamilton, who fought against monarchy in the American Revolution and spelled out principles of a constitutional republic in the Federalist Papers, had an aversion to the French Revolution because it was a new form of authoritarianism that lopped off numerous people's heads (and led to a centralization of power similar to that of the previous monarchy).

3. Hamilton had a rather wide-ranging career, which Berlatsky's piece does not even remotely do a fair job of encapsulating. As I have spent a lot of time as a financial writer, I take a particular interest in Hamilton's crucial role in establishing the American financial system, but I will also note his important role as a lawyer in establishing freedom of the press.

4. The supposed relevance of Dick Cheney to Hamilton is never made substantial enough in Berlatsky's piece to merit a response.

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