The Battle Over Hamilton’s Legacy

by Stuart Shapiro

In many ways current debates are not all that different than the ones 200 years ago.  Then the rival philosophies were embodied in the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Of course, we can’t always agree which side today is Hamiltonian and which is Jeffersonian.  A new book by Michael Lind argues that progressives are the heirs to Hamilton and that most progress can be credited to Hamiltonians.  From the review by David Leonhardt:

Hamiltonian development built the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the land-grant universities and the Interstate highway system. In the process, the United States became a giant, interconnected market, a place where companies like Standard Oil, General Motors, John Deere and Sears Roebuck could thrive. The government — and the American military in particular — also played the most important role in financing innovation at its early stages. The industries that produced the jet engine, the radio (and, by extension, the television), radar, penicillin, synthetic rubber and semiconductors all stemmed from ­government-financed research or procurement. The Defense Department literally built the Internet.

Leonhardt goes on to criticize the book for understating the role of Jeffersonians.  David Brooks takes a different approach.  He argues that conservatives are the heirs to Hamilton.

But this Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned. The abandonment came in three phases. First, the progressive era. The progressives were right to increase regulations to protect workers and consumers. But the late progressives had excessive faith in the power of government planners to rationalize national life. This was antithetical to the Hamiltonian tradition, which was much more skeptical about how much we can know and much more respectful toward the complexity of the world.

I consider myself a Hamiltonian and of the three views (Lind, Leonhardt, and Hamilton) come closest to Leonhardt in thinking that while Hamilton’s vision has predominated, we shouldn’t understate the Jeffersonian contribution.  Still it is useful to see that we have been having these debates for a long time.

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