Americans typically think of the Founding Fathers as a group of people who were largely in agreement with each other. Even the term “founding fathers” has the connotation of men working towards a common goal. In this version of history, the founders end up being largely interchangeable.
In Hamilton’s Curse, economist and historian Thomas DiLorenzo destroys this myth by contrasting the political theories and legacies of to “founding fathers,” Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
From the Declaration of Independence forward, Jefferson was a staunch advocate of the limited government, states’ rights tradition that has always been associated with him. It was these ideas that were expressed in the Declaration and, although Jefferson was not involved in its writing, they were again expressed in the Constitution.
Hamilton, by contrast, was an avid nationalist who advocated for an American king during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Early in the book DiLorenzo notes how, after failing to get a highly nationalized government written into the Constitution, he sought alternative ways to bring about the British style of government that he desired for the United States.
To accomplish this, he advocated for ratification of the Constitution, which he later interpreted to give power to the national government more broadly than was understood by the state ratifiers. Indeed, many of Hamilton’s “interpretations” were directly in conflict with what he had told the states the Constitution would mean.
If I may add a piece of my own commentary, people may argue that, since Hamilton was one of the most prominent salesmen of the Constitution, his later arguments for an expansive reading of that document uphold the idea of a “living, breathing Constitution” opinion as correct. However, for holders of this opinion the best case scenario is that Hamilton was a very confused thinker who was capable of arguing passionately for a cause and then completely changing his mind in a very short period of time. The worst case scenario is that the intellectual godfather of their movement intentionally lied to the ratifiers of the Constitution about how he and his cronies would interpret their own power.
Many writers have noted that if Hamilton’s real opinions on the Constitution were known, it would never have been ratified. In either case, supporters of this position are on shaky ground if they use Hamilton’s post-convention opinions as their basis.
Despite Hamilton’s best efforts, Jefferson’s philosophy prevailed in federal elections. Although the federal government, especially the Supreme Court which was led by Hamilton disciples John Marshall and Joseph Story, attempted to expand its own power, DiLorenzo documents the various ways that the states were able to keep it in check. The states’ resistance to the Second Bank of the United States is an especially colorful account.
DiLorenzo documents how, beginning in 1865, the relationship between the federal government and the states was altered and how federal politicians used this change to grow the government well beyond its constitutional boundaries. The most egregious examples of this include the corporate welfare programs of the second half of the 19th Century and the creation of new national banks.
The final ideological triumph of Hamilton over Jefferson came in 1913 with the enactment of the income tax, the change in how Senators were elected and the creation of the Federal Reserve. In the author’s account, these were the knockout blows to Jeffersonianism as they removed the last institutional vestiges of federalism. The end of the book calls for a return to Jefferson’s philosophy as the only way for the people to recapture their liberties.
While there are other books that analyze these specific topics in more detail, Hamilton’s Curse is a good introduction into the competing political philosophies that have shaped the country. DiLorenzo is correct in noting that Hamilton’s ultimate victory has been a curse on the American people.