I don’t think anybody is surprised when politicians flip-flop.

George H.W. Bush with his “no new taxes” pledge provides a great modern example. But Alexander Hamilton arguably gave us the most damaging, if not the biggest, flip-flop ever when he did a complete 180 on constitutional interpretation in order to justify his national bank.

Like most supporters of the Constitution, Hamilton promised that the new federal government would only be able to exercise powers expressly enumerated in the Constitution. But during his push for the First Bank of the United States, he suddenly discovered “implied powers.” Had he mentioned this idea during the ratification debates, the Constitution would never have been adopted.

The debate over the National Bank was about more than chartering a bank. At its core, it was an argument about the extent of federal power.

James Madison called out Hamilton and other supporters of the national bank in a speech on the House floor, highlighting their departure from the constitutional system as it was understood when the document was ratified.

“With all this evidence of the sense in which the Constitution was understood and adopted, will it not be said, if the bill should pass, that its adoption was brought about by one set of arguments and that it is now administered under the influence of another set; and this reproach will have the keener sting, because it is applicable to so many individuals concerned in both the adoption and administration.”

Ultimately, Hamilton got his bank and his arguments supporting it became the basis for loose constitutional construction that flipped the structure of the U.S. government on its head. Instead of a federal government exercising powers “few and defined,” Hamiltonian constitutionalism with its implied powers gave us a general government with powers “numerous and indefinite”

While Hamilton’s arguments may have won the day, they betrayed the Constitution.

And we’re living with the consequences to this day.

Sadly, people follow Hamilton’s example every single day. They chip away at what few limits on federal power remain in order to advance this or that policy agenda. And then they whine and complain when somebody they don’t like is in office and uses those same powers.

Limits only work when they are applied consistently. Hamilton knew this. He always wanted a strong national government. All he had to do to get his wish was tear down the constitutional fence around government power.

We’re wrapping up final edits on an e-book tentatively titled the Federal Reserve vs. the Constitution. It will give you a much deeper analysis of the national bank debate. It will be available later this month for TAC members first, with ebook and print editions for the general public to follow in the coming months. (Members’ site here) | (JOIN TAC here)

Mike Maharrey

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