By Hunter Wallace
In an effort to avoid confirmation bias, I read Thomas DiLorenzo’s Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution–and What It Means for Americans Today, which is a full-throated defense of Jeffersonianism combined with a scathing attack on Hamiltonianism based on Austrian economics.
DiLorenzo’s book on Alexander Hamilton seemed like a good place to start looking for a second opinion. If for no other reason, I will recommend it to those of you who have been following my research project here. DiLorenzo blames Hamilton for everything from the national debt to crony capitalism to the income tax to the loss of states’ rights.
Caveat emptor: after reading this book, I will have to reexamine DiLorenzo’s previous two books on Lincoln. There are so many misrepresentations and half truths in Hamilton’s Curse that it would take days to catalogue them all here.
The most egregious misrepresentation is pitting the “Jeffersonians” against the “Hamiltonians.” There is a lot of truth to this characterization, but DiLorenzo is guilty of some major omissions. Above all else we hear a lot from the early Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who clashed with Hamilton in the Washington administration, but not so much about how their views changed in later years.
Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. When Hamilton died, the US did not have a protective tariff. Jefferson was president. He was succeeded by James Madison and James Monroe. The Federalist Party never elected another president after John Adams. The charter of the hated Bank of the United States had been allowed to expire in 1811. The reader is left wondering: if Hamilton died such an early death, the diabolical Federalist Party collapsed, and the Jeffersonians had triumphed over their arch-rivals, then how was the Jeffersonian policy agenda defeated?
Amazingly, DiLorenzo blames Henry Clay (aka “Harry of the West”) who ran for president five times, and was defeated all five times. Clay was defeated by Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk who blocked the “American System.” Even though the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Second Bank of the United States in McCulloch v. Maryland, Jackson famously succeeded in killing it. DiLorenzo claims the Supreme Court was captured by Hamiltonian Federalists like John Marshall and Joseph Story, but decades of Jeffersonian dominance eventually led to the Taney court which is famous for the Dred Scott decision.
The truth is that Hamiltonianism triumphed because the Jeffersonians enacted Hamilton’s program:
– Consider Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase which greatly expanded the American Empire. Much of it was paid for by Hamilton’s revenue tariff.
– DiLorenzo credits the Jeffersonians with paying down the national debt. He never explains that the hated tariff generated the revenue which allowed Andrew Jackson to do this.
– DiLorenzo laughably casts the Hamiltonians as warmongers and expansionists. Does this describe the War of 1812, Jackson’s forays into Spanish Florida, the Seminole Wars, the annexation of Texas, or especially the Mexican War which was opposed by Clay and Lincoln?
– Who created the Second Bank of the United States? It was James Madison and the Jeffersonian Congress after the federal government had to be bailed out by the rich during the War of 1812.
– Who implemented Hamilton’s mercantilist trade policies? Again, it was James Madison and the Jeffersonian Congress who passed the Tariff of 1816. No one one pushed harder for a protectionist trade policy than John C. Calhoun in his nationalist phase.
DiLorenzo glosses over the sea change among the Jeffersonians that was brought about by the devastating War of 1812. It was Jefferson who unwittingly first enacted an ISI program with the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. Jefferson and Madison went through a conversion to Hamiltonian economic nationalism after the British invaded the United States and burned Washington to the ground during the War of 1812. During the “Era of Good Feelings,” a broad national consensus supported Hamilton’s program of a central bank, protective tariffs, and internal improvements.
Unfortunately, we don’t meet the reformed Jefferson of 1816 in Hamilton’s Curse:
“You tell me I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures. There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within the thirty years which has since elapsed, how circumstances have changed! … He, therefore who is now against domestic manufacture, must be for reducing either to dependence on that foreign nation [Britain], or to be clothed in skins, and to live like wild beasts in dens and caverns. I am not one of these; experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort; and if those who quote me as of a different opinion, will keep pace with me in purchasing nothing foreign where an equivalent of domestic fabric can be obtained, without regard to difference of price, it will not be our fault if we do not soon have a supply at home equal to our demand, and wrest that weapon of distress from the hand which had wielded it.”
In his elderly years, the reformed Jefferson denounced those who cited his Notes on the State of Virginia “as a stalking horse, to cover their disloyal propensities to keep us in eternal vassalage to a foreign and unfriendly people.” Through fear and hatred of England, Jefferson had come to see the light on free-trade.
Here’s the Jefferson of 1815 arguing with French economist Jean-Baptiste Say about the protective tariff:
“The prohibitive duties we lay on articles of foreign manufacture which prudence requires us to establish at home, with the patriotic determination of every good citizen to use no foreign article which can be made within ourselves, without regard to difference of price, secures us against a relapse into foreign dependency.”
Here’s the James Madison of 1828 defending the protective tariff:
“1. The Theory of “Let us alone,” supposes that all nations concur in a perfect freedom of commercial intercourse. Were this the case, they would, in a commercial view, be but one nation, as much as the several districts composing a particular nation; and the theory would be as applicable to the former, as to the latter. But this golden age of free trade has not yet arrived: nor is there a single nation that has set the example. No nation can, indeed, safely do so, until a reciprocity at least be ensured to it. Take for a proof, the familiar case of the navigation employed in a foreign commerce. If a nation adhering to the rule of never interposing a countervailing protection of its vessels, admits foreign vessels into its ports free of duty, whilst its own vessels are subject to a duty in foreign ports, the ruinous effect is so obvious, that the warmest advocate for the theory in question, must shrink from a universal application of it. …”
Where is the Calhoun who supported protective tariffs and internal improvements? Where is the Jefferson and Madison who supported internal improvements, but believed it required a constitutional amendment? Where is the Madison who vigorously opposed Calhoun in the nullification crisis? Where is the Jackson who threatened to hang Calhoun and signed the Force Bill to coerce South Carolina? Where is the Clay who opposed Manifest Destiny?
Turning to the Confederacy, where is the Jefferson Davis who supported the Gadsden Purchase in order to acquire a southern route for the transcontinental railroad? Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee both fought in James K. Polk’s imperialist war against Mexico. And where is the Jefferson Davis who as the president of the Confederacy nationalized railroads, created state-owned industries, passed an income tax, and conscripted soldiers? Even though the Confederate Constitution banned internal improvements and protective tariffs, the Confederate government in practice was more “Hamiltonian” than the Union!
There’s so much more in this vein. In the 20th century, the free-trader Cordell Hull was the father of the income tax. Wilson and FDR replaced the revenues generated by the protective tariff with revenues from the income tax. In Hamilton’s Curse, DiLorenzo never mentions the fact that the United States has been the world champion of free-trade since 1945, or that Hamilton never supported the income tax.
It is an even greater stretch of the imagination to blame Hamilton for the Seventeenth Amendment and the modern welfare state. American progressives were inspired by Bismarck’s Germany which pioneered the welfare state while Germany and other European nations pioneered child labor laws and other types of “big government” regulations like the minimum wage – DiLorenzo fumes over this type of interference with “freedom of contract.” As for the Federal Reserve, the US federal government was embarrassed after the House of Morgan played the role of a European central bank in the Panic of 1907. And how many financial panics did the US suffer from between the demise of the Second Bank of the United States and the creation of the Fed?
This is an extremely disingenuous book. DiLorenzo, for example, sympathizes with Southern and Western farmers who didn’t want to be crucified on William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” while, paradoxically, advocating the gold standard which was adopted during the Grant administration – the “Crime of ’73” which the Populists railed against. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton had been instrumental in establishing bimetallism in the United States.
Instead of libertarian economists rewriting American history, maybe history ought to be left to historians?