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alexander hamilton conservativeAlexander Hamilton is a controversial figure on the modern Right. Conservatives of a more libertarian vent tend to view Hamilton with suspicion if not outright hostility, viewing him as the American Founder most responsible for popularizing an expansive approach to the Constitution that would eventually lead to the increasing power of the federal government over the affairs of the States and the economy of the nation. Other conservatives, perhaps best typified by David Brooks, view Hamilton as a proponent of—to use Brooks’ phrase—“national greatness” conservatism. Hamilton’s embrace of energetic government made him not a threat to the proper development of America but was instead a necessary condition that made American expansion and prosperity possible. As George Will once noted, we live in Hamilton’s country and his monuments are all around us. 

The dispute over Hamilton’s place within the conservative tribe is a reflection of the unorthodox nature of Hamilton’s approach to politics and law. Yet, Hamilton’s work was essentially conservative in its nature, even if many within current conservative circles are profoundly uncomfortable with much of Hamilton’s legacy. The conservative nature of Hamilton’s work is made evident by the study made of his life and influence by the late Princeton historian Clinton Rossiter. Rossiter’s book Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution remains one of the best in-depth study’s of Hamilton’s approach to political and constitutional theory.

While Hamilton’s politics were often unique (as Rossiter puts it, “if Hamilton was a conservative, he was the only one of his kind”), within Hamilton’s work a genuinely conservative approach to politics and questions of ordered liberty is present.  As Rossiter points out:

He subscribed to a secular version of the doctrine of Original Sin, put a high value on law, order, and obedience, assumed the existence of classes and put his measured trust in the class at the top, spoke with feeling of the role of religious sentiment in man and organized religion in society, and voiced the standard conservative approval of prudence.

Hamilton despised ideologues, condemned the “rage for innovation,” and declared himself more willing to “incur the negative inconveniences of delay than the positive mischiefs of injudicious expedients.” Always on his guard against the preachers of an “ideal perfection,” certain that he would never see “a perfect work form imperfect man,” he was prepared to leave much to chanced, and thus presumably to the works of prescription, in the social process. He was never so eloquent as when he declaimed on the favorite conservative theme of the mixed character of all man’s blessings.  “The truth is,” he wrote to Robert Morris in 1781, “in human affairs, there is no good, pure and unmixed.” “‘T’is the lot of every thing human,” he lectured Rufus King in 1791, “to mingle a portion of evil with the good.”

Unlike Jefferson, who was captivated by the French Revolution, Hamilton understood immediately that the French Revolution was nothing but a blood-drenched attack on the very idea of civilized order. As Rossiter notes, “[h]e reads exactly like Burke or Adams in his attacks on ‘The Great MONSTER’ for its impiety, cruelty, and licentiousness, for its spawning of an anarchy that lead straight to despotism, for its zeal for change and assaults on property for its imposition of ‘the tyranny of Jacobism, which confounds and levels every thing.'”

While there is little doubt that Hamilton would be uncomfortable with portions of the ideological rhetoric employed on the modern Right, conservatism (to rely on an observation by Russell Kirk) is not at its core an ideological commitment. It is a commitment to tradition, prescription, custom and prudence, along with an abiding conviction in the principles of religion and natural justice. Compare Hamilton’s views, as explained by Rossiter above, with Kirk’s own enunciation of the fundamental conservative approach to questions of political and legal order. There is little, if any daylight, between Hamilton and Kirk. Kirk’s own appreciation of Hamilton’s contribution to conservatism is on display in his Portable Conservative Reader, containing as it does excerpts from Hamilton’s writings (and interestingly enough, no excepts from Jefferson’s works).

Again, this is not to say that Hamilton would be entirely at home with the modern Republican Party—Rossiter points out in his study of Hamilton (printed in 1964 during the rise of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP) that “Hamilton was not a model for the average conservative to imitate.” Hamilton believed strongly in an active government, constrained by constitutional limits but free to aid in the development of the country through internal improvements and the support of American industry, as Rossiter points out.  On a host of issues—his refusal to defer to the privileged place in the young republic held by the Southern planter-slaveholder aristocracy, and his commitment to the industrialization of the American economy, to name two—Hamilton could embrace a radical position as well. Like Burke or Lincoln, Hamilton is difficult to place in terms of our ideological categories—to quote Rossiter here, Hamilton has the “ability to defy classification.” But like Burke and Lincoln, Hamilton’s fundamental political principles, his instincts, were conservative.

At a time when our country faces increasing political polarization and a continuing economic crisis, a greater appreciation of the elements of conservatism that transcend the ideological tenor of the moment should lead those on the Right to inspect Hamilton’s views and insights with a careful eye.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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Published: Feb 14, 2014
Author
Mark DeForrest
Mark DeForrest lives in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches legal research & writing at Gonzaga University School of Law. A lifelong resident of Washington State, he grew up on a small farm north of Seattle before heading to eastern Washington to attend law school.
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2 replies to this post
  1. While I agree with the conclusion of this essay, I wonder if even that would help. One reason American politics is now so polarized, and the right so ideological, is because of a profound anxiety that Americans have fundamentaly changed in character, and the Founding is now as alien to them as ancient Athens. Under such circumstances, not even an appeal to Hamilton would work. Present progressivism is just that alien. The right, like Cato, can do nothing but jump on their swords.

  2. Just a couple of corrections/additions to an otherwise useful introduction to Hamilton’s place in the conservative imagination. Clinton Rossiter, although he did get a doctorate from Princeton, was not a Princeton historian, but a devoted member of the political science faculty at Cornell for almost his entire career. He was part of a, loosely, Burkean group of “new conservatives” who were marginalized (with some exceptions) by the National Review in the late 1950s. The best study of Hamilton, without question, is the biography by Forrest McDonald (Alexander Hamilton: A Biography, Norton,1959), which sorts out the questions raised above.

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