Book Review: How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America

NB: Cross-posted from the Cranky Conservative.

“Show, don’t tell” is a staple rule of writing. Though normally applied to narrative fiction, it ought to be a tenet of non-fiction, as it is crucial to provide substantiating evidence to prove a claim. Unfortunately, Brion McClanahan defies this cardinal rule throughout How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, turning what could have been a valuable contribution to the internal debate on the right into an anti-Hamilton screed.

McClanahan’s thesis is that America’s founding principles were betrayed right out of the gate, and the arch antagonist is none other than the celebrated Alexander Hamilton. Hamiltonian nationalism, and the economic program it inspired, were unconstitutional usurpations of the original vision of an agrarian republic dominated by state and local interests. Hamilton’s constitutional interpretations were defiantly at odds with the bulk of his compatriots. What’s more, Hamilton outright lied during the ratification debates, underselling his nationalist vision to lull his fellow citizens into a fall sense of security, before unleashing his full-throated, state usurping program on an unsuspecting public.

Did I mention Alexander Hamilton lied? This is an oft repeated accusation in a book that at times reads liked a souped-up blog post, unleashing ad hominem attacks on the villains in McClanahan’s play-act, of which Hamilton is joined by three others: Supreme Court justices John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Hugo Black, who all solidified Hamilton’s betrayal through their extra-constitutional rulings.

McClanahan’s brief is pithy and concise. The narrative portions of the book are generally accurate (minus a few whoppers, such as labeling Stephen Knott a “liberal” historian), and distill the essences of the history and cases in a breezy manner. I could have used McClanahan while trudging through dull, dry constitutional law briefs in graduate school. Unfortunately, this pithiness comes at the expense of ever offering documentary evidence to substantiate his claims.

The fundamental flaw is McClanahan’s refusal to take Hamilton at face value, unless Hamilton’s words happen to provide support to McClanahan’s portrayal of him as a wild-eyed nationalist. Therefore, Hamilton’s famous constitutional convention speech where he proposed the elimination of the states and the establishment of a monarchy is the lodestar by which we are to judge all future Hamiltonian policy, but the Federalist Papers and other writings of Hamilton – to the extent McClanahan even deals with them – are dismissed as “lies” and evidence that Hamilton was trying to sell the public a “bill of goods.”

There is certainly plenty of fodder for an able historian to make a convincing case that Hamilton hid his ambitions from the new nation, and that he had a much more expansive view of federal power than most of his contemporaries. But McClanahan is not that historian, as he seems content to hurl accusations without exploring Hamilton’s words in greater detail. If one were presenting Alexander Hamilton as the great antihero of the American drama, it seems it would behoove that writer to dive deeply into Hamilton’s writings. And there is no shortage of writings to dive through – the man was, after all, non-stop. Yet in a book dedicated to the thesis that Hamiltonianism is the enemy philosophy of authentic America, there is frighteningly little in the way of detailed analysis of all but a shockingly small sample of Hamilton’s words.

For example, McClanahan expends an awful lot of energy trying to make the case that Alexander Hamilton’s speeches at the New York ratifying convention were contradictory to what he said a year earlier at the constitutional convention. He builds up John Lansing as the man who exposed Hamilton to be a liar, but after spending several pages on the exchange and celebrating Lansing’s obliteration of Hamilton, the actual words he quotes hardly live up to the billing. Basically, both men engaged in a petty squabble that had no real resolution, and relating this story does nothing to advance the thesis of the book.

Sometimes the evidence he offers seems to prove the opposite point he’s trying to make. In discussing the assumption debate, he makes hay of the fact that the constitutional convention dropped the assumption of state debts from the working draft of the constitution, the implication being that this signified its unconstitutionality. He then relates a conversation Madison and Hamilton had during the convention, where Madison and Hamilton seemingly agree “that it would be more advisable to make [assumption] a measure of administration than an article of the Constitution.” McClanahan contends that this is proof that even Hamilton conceded that assumption was unconstitutional, but this exchange would imply the opposite: that Hamilton didn’t think there needed to be an outright provision for assumption in order for it to be constitutional.

Even if McClanahan couldn’t effectively make the case that Hamilton somehow hoodwinked the American public, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s wrong. Well, he is, but he’s certainly not the first author to make the argument. And any honest biographer of Hamilton will concede that he could be, well, lawyerly at times. But the charge doesn’t stick not just because McClanahan isn’t up to the challenge, but because the charge ultimately rings hollow.

Hamilton wrote approximately 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers. Hamilton wrote the bulk of the early papers, and these covered the deficiencies in the confederacy. Similar themes run throughout these articles: the perils of direct democracy, the need for a stronger central government, the benefits of a more energetic government. Hamilton did not suddenly take the mask off after ratification, revealing his true nature. He pretty much wore his beliefs out there on his sleeve. In fact, take a look at Number 23:

The principal purposes to be answered by union are these — the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries.

He then adds:

This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.

Hamilton has just laid out his entire platform in two paragraphs. He has delineated the areas over which the federal government ought to have ultimate authority. Then he adds what was to become the basis for his constitutional justification for most of economic program. And it also sure sounds an awful lot like Marshall’s language in McCulloch v. Maryland. Perhaps McClanahan is offering the ultimate compliment to Hamilton: he masterfully duped Americans by openly expressing his beliefs in plain sight. What genius.

What’s more, even when McClanahan is standing on slightly firmer ground, as he does with regards to Hamilton and the National Bank, he contradicts himself. McClanahan accuses Hamilton of – what else – lying about the constitutional convention’s views on a National Bank in a written message to George Washington trying to convince the president not to veto the bank bill. McClanahan argues that the absence of any positive call for such a bank in the constitution is proof that the institution was unconstitutional. In fact, a proposal to establish such a bank had been rejected by the convention. Arguably, McClanahan has a point here. But then he accuses of Hamilton of effectively playing Jedi mind tricks on Washington, refusing to address this point (raised by Madison). But Hamilton surely remembered that George Washington was the presiding officer of the constitutional convention. It’s hard to contend that Hamilton was trying to put one over on Washington, unless Hamilton had heretofore undiscovered knowledge that Washington was suffering from dementia.

As mentioned above, the book at times feels like a glorified blog post or Buzzfeed article. McClanahan forcefully attacks those with whom he disagrees – they’re liars, or they’re “silver tongued,” or otherwise engaged in “fantasy” or spreading “fairy tales.” Meanwhile, the heroes –  Thomas Jefferson and many of his fellow Virginians – are said to have “destroyed” their opponents. Indeed, his tendency to offer up quotes from Hamilton, Story, and Marshall as “proof” of their nefarious purposes without bothering to make any attempt at arguing why what he has quoted is as self-evidently bad as he alleges, calls to mind Jon Stewart smirking at the camera after playing a (selectively edited) clip of some Fox News talking head. The audience is supposed to just accept as given that what they’ve just heard is manifestly idiotic.

Oddly enough he has perhaps turned the old writing axiom on his head, for he “shows” through narrative discussion, but he does not “tell” us how what he has just shown is interconnected or how it proves his larger point.

Well he does tell us – he tells us what he’s just related is a “fairy tale” and a “fantasy,” words he would use to describe Hugo Black’s majority decision in Engel v. Vitale, the case which gave life to the incorporation doctrine. Even when standing on much firmer historical ground, as he is with Black, and with mountains of dubious constitutional opinions handed down by the famed jurist, he breezes through his chapter on Black in just a few pages, content to cite a couple of his decisions while repeating everything he just said about Hamilton, Marshall, and Story. This is not exactly compelling stuff.

Even if McClanahan were more adapt at proving his case, his thesis fails for a more philosophical reason: it’s just not true. He makes the fundamental error – and in this he is far from alone – in equating Hamilton’s desire for a more energetic government as a clarion call for the establishment of a leviathan state. It is undeniably true that Hamilton desired energy and efficiency in government, and he created national programs to establish the credit and economic viability of the young nation. But Hamilton’s call for energy and dispatch were related to a few specific and discrete areas over which he thought it most appropriate for the federal government to have primary responsibility, as articulated in Federalist 23.

Energy should not be confused with largeness.  Hamilton proposed that the government be energetic and efficient in the things that it is supposed to do; however, the functions of the government are limited by constitutional constraints. The government created by the Framers does not have a particularly large mandate to interfere in all manner of affairs. But where the constitution does permit action, Hamilton wanted that government to have the ability to carry out its duties swiftly and effectively. In short, Hamilton desired a limited but effective government.

And while McClanahan points the finger of blame at Hamilton, he posits that America would be made great again if it just went back to its Jeffersonian roots. This is the same Jefferson who aped Rousseau as much as, if not more than, John Locke. The Jefferson who casually called for the tree of liberty to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants, who embraced the French Revolution long after its sell-by date, who disclaimed against perpetual constitutions and thought they should be re-written every twenty years.

This is perhaps not the appropriate space to get into an extended debate about the relative merits of Hamilton and Jefferson vis a vis a minimalist, conservative state. Yet this is an essential conversation to have in right-wing circles, especially in the age of Trump. McClanahan represents a school of thought, populated by the likes of Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, and Thomas DiLorenzo, who fetishize Thomas Jefferson and the agrarian, small government republic he supposedly represented. Yet this simplistic reading of history, wherein Thomas Jefferson represents small, local-dominated government, and Hamilton is the evil champion of nationalism and big government completely overlooks the much deeper philosophies of these respective men. A more through reading of both men, and their acolytes for that matter, would suggest that the cause of small government and liberty has a better champion in Hamilton.

What’s more, strict constitutional construction is a method of interpretation rejected by no less a light than Antonin Scalia. Taking Hamilton on his own terms, his method of construction was necessary if the constitution were to survive more than a generation. The constitution is not a legal code outlining every possible permutation of legislation. Did Hamilton’s textualism potentially open the door to the loose construction that dominated the federal judiciary in the 20th century? Perhaps. But there is also no small leap from interpreting the “necessary and proper” clause as permitting the creation of a National Bank to “penumbras and emanations” granting a right to privacy and abortion. If anything, Jeffersonian strict construction, guided by the principle that the constitution ought to change every twenty years anyway, is a much more precarious construct, especially from a conservative point of view. Strict construction quickly ossifies the constitution, to the point it becomes an irrelevant governing document. If one were bent on destroying a written constitution, Jefferson-styled construction is a sure-fire winner.

Again, this a much deeper conversation that the right must have. I will commend Brion McClanahan for at least engaging in this topic and offering a different perspective, one that is certainly shared by a committed contingent on the right. Alas it is also a debate that merits greater consideration than McClanahan has given it.

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  1. Poor Alexander Hamilton, the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers. He was defamed by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in life, and had his life cut short before he could correct the record. The popular play about him gives a totally false representation of the man. None of this is too surprising. He was always a man ill suited for his time. He could see the industrialization of the US and the growth of the Federal government decades before almost any one else. He derived from his experiences in the Revolution, as did Washington, the evils of a too weak Federal government. His was a voice for the long term, and short term exigencies were always his downfall. Not half the politician that Jefferson was, he had a knack for making needless enemies. His personal scandal helped ensure that his enemies would ever have potent ammunition against him. A Greek tragedy of a life in many ways.

  2. A while back, I read the book “Washington and Hamilton” by Knott and Williams.

    It seems that Hamilton was big on American nationalism and a durable republic which would guaranty its citizens’ liberties.

    Hamilton worked for America as a/one nation. America needed a national bank to establish currency and put public credit on solid footing. He advocated a strong Congress to control the states: unification and nationalism. He set the means for acquiring revenue (tariffs, later land sales) and regulating trade. He was for deliberation and consent vs. accident and force.

    As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton proposed a diversified economy (he was accused of conspiring against southern sates and slavery). He would encourage manufacturing for independence in manufacturing/possessing the necessities of war. He saw the need to stabilize the fiscal mess – federal assumption of states’ war debts. The national bank would promote economic growth and development and bind the wealthy classes to the Federal government. The NB allowed the Federal government to conduct its four powers: collect taxes, borrow, regulate trade, and raise/support armies/fleets. Protective tariffs would foster economic and political independence.

    Many see Jackson’s veto of the Second bank of the US as the first Democrat resort to class envy/warfare. Likely, Jefferson, using Madison and Monroe as surrogates, in vicious attacks on Hamilton was the first

    It seems as if McClanahan and von Mises people use the perfect as the enemy of the good.

    I can’t agree that Hamilton betrayed the republican ideal. He opposed the Jeffersonian/agrarian ideal.

    Hamilton’s programs likely saved the Constitution/Republic. Without removing the states from bankruptcy (over Revolutionary War debt) and setting up a Federal system of finance, the whole thing could have collapsed. Seems as if, unlike McClanahan and von Mises, Hamilton knew no nation could repeal the laws of economics and finance.

  3. That’s a good summary of what Hamilton was trying to do, T. Shaw. We have to understand the context Hamilton was living in. It’s easy to look back and assume America was destined to be a great commercial republic, but that was not at all certain in 1789. Hamilton’s vision and his great skill had much to do with America blossoming into a great nation and an economic superpower.

  4. and Hamilton is the evil champion of nationalism and big government completely overlooks the much deeper philosophies of these respective men. A more through reading of both men, and their acolytes for that matter, would suggest that the cause of small government and liberty has a better champion in Hamilton.

    In 1928, the objects of federal expenditure were as follows:

    37% Debt service and retirement
    16% Military
    15% Postal service
    10% Veterans benefits
    5% Federal employee pensions
    16% Miscellany

    Federal spending (to which is added here postal turnover) amounted to 4.3% of domestic product at that time.

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