In most cases, books on the founding fathers are packed with reverence and adulation. American historians generally find something uniquely admirable about their subject, going to great lengths to justify that individual’s political positions and philosophy. While value can be gleaned by reading some of these works, authors often fall short by acting as an apologist for their subject, or by omitting important information. With the advent of a highly popular Broadway musical based on a founding father, it seems even more likely that popular historians will be prone to veneration.
Not so when it comes to the latest from Brion McClanahan, American historian and author of several prominent books. In How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, McClanahan brings to light important but overlooked episodes in Hamilton’s life that are virtually never covered in academia, nurturing a fresh and new narrative about one of America’s most infamous founders. The result is a logical and unambiguous bludgeon to modern Hamiltonians.
Ironically enough, McClanahan starts his work by giving credit where he feels it is due to Hamilton. He recounts Hamilton’s classic American “rags to riches” story as he rose from a poor bastard (literally) in the British West Indies to an American patriot fighting in the War of Independence. He goes as far as to compliment the man’s wit, guile, and perseverance. Even still, McClanahan makes a compelling case for Hamilton as the catalyst for most of the shortcomings in American government, then and now.
The single most significant – yet nearly unknown – topic addressed in this work illustrates Hamilton’s antithetical and inconsistent views on the United States Constitution between 1787 and 1791. On June 18 of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, Hamilton infamously proposed a highly nationalistic form of government, where the executive was something of an elected monarch that served for life, where all of the states were essentially consolidated into one political unit, and where the executive appointed the senators and state governors. Hamilton’s proposal was so unpopular in Philadelphia that it was practically ignored, and Hamilton himself admitted that the plan was “very remote” from the rest of the delegates.
However, at the Poughkeepsie convention in New York – which considered the Constitution independent of the other states – Hamilton had decided that the new framework was worth fighting for. On the convention floor, he promised that the primacy of the states was an essential feature of the new model:
“The state governments are essentially necessary to the form and spirit of the general system…While the constitution continues to be read, and its principles known, the states must, by every rational man, be considered as essential component parts of the union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is wholly inadmissible.”
The “natural strength and resources of the state governments,” Hamilton said, would “give them an important supremacy over the general government.” Hamilton went as far as to explicitly declare, at various points, that the new general government could exercise only powers that were expressly delegated, and assured skeptical opponents that states remained supreme in their proper and retained sphere of power. He doubled down on this pledge by promising that laws contrary to the constitution, which did not meet the litmus test of enumeration, would be null and void.
McClanahan brilliantly recounts how Hamilton was caught off guard at Poughkeepsie by one of New York’s top enemies of the Constitution, John Lansing. Lansing warned the skeptical masses that Hamilton’s words seemed duplicitous, noting that he had favored a highly centralized, nationalist government in the Philadelphia Convention. By bringing attention to this important event – that receives almost no coverage in works about Hamilton – McClanahan shines a new light in an old attic, exposing Hamilton’s political deception in a way that has never been done before.
Shortly after being appointed to head the treasury department under George Washington, Hamilton engaged in devious political maneuvers that clearly violated both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. His first act of trickery came through his advocacy for the Funding Act of 1790, which allowed the general government to assume the outstanding state debts into a single national debt. McClanahan illustrates the controversy by mentioning another circumstance that has rarely before been uncovered by historians – Hamilton knew this act was unconstitutional. During the Philadelphia Convention, James Madison and Hamilton even had a direct discussion on the subject. Both men – who were among the most ardent nationalists of the time – came to an agreement not to so much as make a proposal for a state debt assumption power, believing the idea to be too politically controversial. Even so, by 1790 Hamilton had completely reversed course.
After taking his first steps into constitutional abnegation, Hamilton took a full leap in 1791 when he pushed Congress to adopt the First National Bank of the United States. When pressed to produce a constitutional argument to support their contrary positions, Hamilton admitted that the Constitution did not grant such a power, but argued that the bank was authorized and justified under the Necessary and Proper Clause. This opinion became the foundation of the “implied powers doctrine,” the fallacious idea that the clause allowed for the execution of a vast reservoir of unlisted, unenumerated powers. Two years after the Constitution was ratified by the states, this was the first time such a notion had ever been articulated.
Outside of the debt assumption and national bank, McClanahan describes Hamilton’s unmistakable impact on the development of the executive office. This can be seen in the Neutrality Proclamation, the Jay Treaty, and the Whiskey Rebellion. Much to Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin, Hamilton always possessed the ear of Washington, who took his side on almost every political matter. This fact undoubtedly transformed the executive into a more powerful figure than the ratifying states had envisioned, leading to an even greater departure from the Constitution’s original intent.
By any estimation, Hamilton’s constitutional musings and economic outlook also negatively influenced those who would come after him. Fortunate as we are, McClanahan devotes much focus in the work to the destructive deeds of Hamilton’s political disciples. When the Federalists were removed from power through the Jeffersonian “Revolution of 1800,” Hamilton’s political vision seemed threatened by the new regime. However, John Adams was craftily able to nominate John Marshall, ardent Federalist and one of the most influential figures in the history of American government, to carry on the Hamiltonian banner.
Marshall did much to rubber-stamp Hamilton’s political outlook through seminal court cases, such as the 1819 case of McCulloch vs. Maryland, in which he argued that a Hamiltonian central bank was constitutional, that the Constitution was ratified by “one American people” in the aggregate rather than by the states, and that the Necessary and Proper Clause allowed for powers other than those “for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers,” as the Constitution clearly states. From cursory view of the historical record, these positions were entirely erroneous. But they were also Hamiltonian.
When Joseph Story published his famous Commentaries on the Constitution in 1833, he further codified and solidified the Hamiltonian constitutional vision. Just as Marshall had done in 1819, Story argued that it was the American people in the aggregate – not the states – that ratified the Constitution. By adopting such a view, and improperly characterizing the history of ratification in such a way, Story undermined the essential importance of the states in the federal system. After the American electorate deliberately ejected the Federalists from power in elected positions, it was through Marshall and Story that Hamilton had his way nonetheless – through the federal courts.
McClanahan even delves into Hamilton’s influence during the last century, when the federal courts carved out a more powerful role for themselves through the incorporation doctrine – elevating them in stature and allowing them to “police” the states by striking down laws they don’t personally like. Former Chief Justice Hugo Black, for instance, did much to transform the federal judiciary – which was supposed to adjudicate only a small number of specified cases – into a national oligarchy whose edicts bind hundreds of people.
This expansion of federal power, even in the judiciary, has created a national, consolidated, centralized government where federalism – the chief hallmark of America’s constitutional system – has been all but vanquished. This was the very thing most of the founding generation feared the most – but it was actualized nevertheless under the inspiration of Hamilton’s governmental machinations. According to the author, Hamilton and his followers “did more damage to the American government than any other group in the history of the United States.” After reading this work, this contention is highly persuasive.
With Tom DiLorenzo’s excellent attack on Hamilton’s misdeeds, I thought every avenue of criticism against Hamilton had been exhausted. However, McClanahan’s work adds information not covered in that work, and sheds more light on Hamilton’s philosophical acolytes. For the first time ever in a single volume, McClanahan exposes the sheer magnitude of negative influence that Hamilton had on American government. Because of McClanahan’s seminal new work, even the pomp and pageantry of a recent Broadway musical cannot supplant the truth about Alexander Hamilton.