Political philosophies, if one looks at history, have been formulated to achieve one of two mutually exclusive goals: either the perpetuation of political power or the establishment of political rights. If a nation’s government has been formulated on the political philosophy whose goal is the former, that government exists to rule, exists as an end in itself. The powers of such a government are intentionally vague; consequently, its laws are ambiguous and, ultimately, oblique–as were the laws of the government of Nazi Germany (Shirer 105-8 passim).
The better to rule, of course.
If, on the other hand, a nation’s government has been established on the political philosophy whose goal is the latter, liberty becomes an end in itself; and, in accordance with that end, such a political system seeks to perpetuate, not the power of government, but the rights of the governed. Under such a government, political power is precisely enumerated so that “all powers not delegated to [such a government] are reserved to the [individual]” (Cunningham 51).
In other words, this political philosophy recognizes that “[a] private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government…may do nothing except that which is legally permitted” (Rand 109). In this way political power is subordinated to individual rights, i.e., might is subordinated to right (Ibid).
Therein lies the essential difference between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson–Hamilton sought the former goal: power; Jefferson, the latter: rights.
Hamilton sought the perpetuation and expansion of the power of the United States government. “He was in love with the…idea of creating a vigorous, expanding nation” by creating a dynamic and expanding federal government (Malone 21-2). Put more frankly, Hamilton “lusted for personal as well as national power” (Mitchell 206-7). For Hamilton, that was natural. After all, he declared–in his response to both the New Jersey and Virginia Plans set before the Constitutional Convention of 1787–“Men love power.” Certainly that is so. But some men love liberty more.
Thomas Jefferson was such a man. Thus he became “a true and pure symbol of the rights of man….” (Ibid) At every turn, where Hamilton sought to expand the power of the United States government, Jefferson sought to expand liberty. Where Hamilton sought a “loose construction” of the Constitution, Jefferson opposed him by pointing out the precisely enumerated powers permitted the government under the Constitution, reasoning correctly “that the Constitution must be rigidly interpreted” (Cunningham 51).
Hamilton sought to stretch the meaning of the Constitution as far as possible, lending to the government vague, oblique powers that Hamilton called, “implied.” Under the guise of “loose constructionism,” Hamilton sought personal power by means of the expansion of national power. As Treasury Secretary, Mr. Hamilton, in support of his bill for the establishment of a national bank—which his department would oversee—sought to justify this expansion of power by means of obfuscating the definition of “sovereign powers.”
A Government is in its nature sovereign, and includes by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite, and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power; and which are not precluded by restrictions & exceptions specified in the constitution; or not immoral, or not contrary to the essential ends of a political society” [Italics in original quote] (Cunningham 55).
In other words, according to Hamilton, the government may do anything to achieve its ends except that which is specifically forbidden “by restrictions and exceptions in the constitution.”
Seems Hamilton could be as strict a constructionist as Mr. Jefferson. The difference is that Jefferson’s constructionism strictly limited the power of the government in the name of liberty. Hamilton’s strictly limited the rights of the individual in the name of government sovereignty. He did so by granting to the government that which only individuals could possess: rights – the “right to employ all the means requisite, and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power.” In so doing Hamilton made the United States government an end in itself.
Hamilton’s project to “vigorously” expand the power of the government–through a national bank, through government support of economic development by means of bounties,” i.e., subsidies, i.e., socialism, etc.–properly “displayed him at his best as an economic planner” (Cunningham 68). Indeed, John Maynard Keynes (as well as any modern 20th Century statist from Lenin to Stalin, FDR to Johnson, Hoover to Bush) would have been proud.
Unfortunately, instead of pointing out that, as there was a separation of church and state in America, there ought to be also a separation of money and state in America–and for the same reasons–Thomas Jefferson’s response was to offer, as an alternative, an agrarian society, whose members “labour (sic) in the earth…[and are] the chosen people of God….” (Cunningham 67).
Thus, Jefferson, despite his principled and committed support of the rights of man, failed to grasp that political freedom is not possible without economic freedom; and that a government economic planner is as deadly a tyrant as any monarch (or dictator).
However, despite his errors, Jefferson sought to limit government power by explicitly defining its sovereignty. Hamilton sought to strictly limit the limits on government power by implicitly, i.e., vaguely and obliquely, defining its sovereignty. If most today seem to have no conception of what is a constitutionally limited (by rights), democratic republic, one may thank, at least in part, Alexander Hamilton. To the extent that people do know, one must thank Thomas Jefferson.
WORKS CITED LIST
- Cunningham, Noble E. Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Confrontations That Shaped a Nation. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
- Malone, Dumas. “Jefferson and the Rights of Man,” vol. 2 of Jefferson and His Time. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-81.
- Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
- Rand, Ayn. “The Nature of Government” The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library, 1961.
- Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: MJF Books, 1959.