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SENTRY JOURNAL » Uncategorized » Hamilton’s Gamble, Jefferson’s Fear, Our Challenge

Hamilton’s Gamble, Jefferson’s Fear, Our Challenge

Alexander Hamilton is one of America’s first improbable success stories.  He was born out of wedlock in the West Indies which was still under British control.  Because the Church of England didn’t recognize the relationship between his mother and father, they wouldn’t allow him to attend the church’s school and forced him into tutoring.  His situation only got worse when his father abandoned the family and his mother’s ex-husband seized her estate.  He and his brother were eventually adopted by a cousin, Peter Lyon, who later committed suicide.  He was once again adopted, time separate from his brother, by a merchant named Thomas Stevens. 

Hamilton became a clerk in order to make ends meet and took an interest in reading and writing.  Eventually he wrote an essay detailing the account of a hurricane that hit the area.  The Royal-Danish American Gazette published the essay which impressed the community leaders of his area.  Together they raised funds in order to have Hamilton educated in America.  Of course, we all know that Hamilton became one of the most influential people in American history, helping form and advise on the creation and expansion of our federal government.

Hamilton was many things, but nothing more notable than being President Washington’s closest and most trusted advisor.  If Washington was the head of the United States, Hamilton was the neck.  There were few interests and proposals of Hamilton that Washington didn’t promote or embrace.  Of course, the most prominent issue at that time was centered on the size and role of the new federal government.  Hamilton promoted his ideas on this issue through his newly established party – the Federalists.

Federalism was an important factor in early America.  Almost all agreed that the federal government needed to be strong in foreign affairs, but Hamilton took that a step further arguing that the federal government needed to give legitimacy to the nation’s finances.  He argued that we needed to create a national bank in order to pay off the states’ debts accumulated over the span of the Revolutionary War.  He met strong opposition from James Madison who had previously established the Republican Party. 

The Republicans held to strict Constitutional principles and favored strong state governments.  They feared that centralized government was a road to monarchy or at best an aristocratic tyranny.  They were particularly alarmed with the idea of a federal government assuming the debts of the states.  Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, for instance, had paid off the majority of its accumulated debt and felt that taxation on Virginians in order to pay off a combined debt was unfair.  Further, they felt the whole premise was unconstitutional.   The limited power of the federal government spelled out in the Constitution says nothing of creating banks or combining debts.

Madison and Jefferson lead a Republican campaign against the constitutionality of Hamilton’s proposals.  They both pulled quite a bit of weight in constitutional matters.  Madison was considered the “Father of the Constitution” and Jefferson was considered one of the most influential minds behind its creation, but Hamilton had some pull of his own.  The Federalists held the majority of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, and perhaps more importantly, the news papers.   Hamilton’s greatest weapon was his pen and he put it to great use.

Hamilton argued that the federal government could create a bank to absorb the state debts through the “Necessary and Proper” clause.  “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States or in any Department or Officer thereof,” (Constitution Article I, Section VIII).  He deemed the absorption of these debts as being necessary and proper in order to carry out other powers of the federal government in the Constitution.  He further argued that there was nothing limiting the fed from this process.  Jefferson and Madison argued that this interpretation was too broad and could give an endless amount of power to those who could so easily justify it.  Further, they cite the enumerated powers and interpret the authority of the “Necessary and Proper” clause as authorizing expansion in only that which is tangentially-related to the enumerated powers.

In the end, Hamilton won and both a national bank and precedent were formed.  There is little doubt that Hamilton’s Federalists helped to establish a strong centralized government that helped us defend ourselves against strong outside forces and financial difficulties.  Few were fond of the confederation that struggled to stay coherent and aligned.  Federalism was the answer and thus the federation was created through the Constitution. 

Federalism came with a price though.  The expansion that Jefferson feared has come true; the states’ powers have been reduced and too many have followed Hamilton’s lead in broad interpretations of the Constitution.  Today, Arizona is fighting their federal government to protect their borders, states are suing the fed because they’re being forced into a national health care, fiscally irresponsible states like California are getting federal dollars at the expense of those more responsible, and almost all of this is being justified by the broad interpretation of the “commerce clause”.  It’s all so Hamiltonian. 

That’s the danger of government; it creates unintended consequences through policy.  Hamilton didn’t want a monarchy and he didn’t want a tyrannical federal government, but he was willing to creep toward that end for the purpose of what he felt was a greater good.  Allow me to rebut Hamilton over two hundred years later with the benefit of hindsight; the greater good is limited government.

I’m sure even Hamilton couldn’t have imagined the expansiveness of our current federal government.  In fact, I can’t get my mind wrapped around it.  It didn’t get this big over night. It took small, discreet steps to reach this point.  Each step was justified by some problem; many of which were created by some other form of government or bureaucracy. 

It has become too common place to react to any problem with centralized answers.  Well intended people, like Hamilton, sit on both sides of the isle in Congress, ready to follow his lead in order to preserve our government in “necessary and proper” ways.  It is time we react as Jeffersonians and demand our states take back the power afforded to them in our Constitution and regulate the federal government’s powers as “few and defined”.


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  • Mike December 27, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    Interesting as can be. You sure wouldn’t have learned this in H.S. or the history books I grew up with a long time ago. Almost 50 years ago. Thank you.
    “Semper Fi”

  • Steve Dennis December 27, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    Great post! Hamilton’s story is intiguing to say the least. He came from nowhere to become an influential founder. But if I was ranking my favorite founders I would put Hamilton towards the bottom, simply because of his views on the federal government. It is true that he was the main author–along with Madison–of the Federalist Papers, but somewhere along the line he abondoned his limited government beliefs and worked to expand the government, causing a rift between him amd Madison.
    Hamilton was an influential founder but his policies laid the foundation for a larger government and while he could not possible have foreseen where that would take us he still bears the burden for leading us down this path.
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    • RightHandMan
      RightHandMan December 27, 2010 at 6:55 PM

      Thanks Steve. Hamilton wasn’t the biggest fan of the final draft of the Constitution, but he supported it once it was complete and wrote the Federalist Papers in order to propagate it. Of course, Jefferson was the same way. He didn’t want to support it without a Bill of Rights. The difference is that Jefferson got his change through a ratified process.

  • […] Hamilton’s Gamble, Jefferson’s Fear, Our Challenge […]

  • Jim Gourdie December 27, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    Excellent essay. you are right, we didn’t get to where we are over night. It has been a creeping paralysis that has gradually taken over our way governing. Unless we can undo the in time, the original constitution will be meaningless.
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  • John Carey December 27, 2010 at 10:27 PM

    Great post RHM. We have been battling the proponents for big government for a long time now. It appears over the course of this nation’s life they have achieved a number of successes and now we are paying for it.

  • Teresa December 27, 2010 at 10:48 PM

    Great post! I know I didn’t learn this in H.S. Thank you so much for the history lesson, RHM. Unfortunately, Hamilton couldn’t foresee that over time his contributions would allow for the massive expansion of our federal government. Yes, limited government is the answer.
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  • Doomed December 28, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    There are many things that the Federal government provides that are a good for this nation.

    I remember when I argued against Abraham Lincoln as being a great president and I was met with a chorus of BOOOOS….that brought the house down.

    I stand by my assertion….the country wanted war….it was poised for war….the left and the right hated each other and rather then bring the sides together and find common ground….Abraham Lincoln led us into war.

    How is that a great president? But as is often said…the winners get to write history.

    Since before but certainly after the civil war the FEDS have been on a power grab that is mind boggling. It has escalated at the speed of sound since FDR took office and it will culminate with the collapse of this nation under massive regulations that were never intended to cause our collapse but nevertheless will cause it just the same.

    We must stop the madness and return to fiscal sanity and legislative reality or face dire consequences that we cannot even imagine.

  • Bunkerville December 28, 2010 at 8:49 AM

    The story gives new meaning to overcoming adversity. Thanks for a great read on a critical time in our history– then and now.
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  • Doomed December 28, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    There are many books well written on the Civil War times but if you read Civil War a narrative by Shelby Foote……warning its a 3 volume set that encompasses about 3000 pages….you will get a really true sense of the futility of that war.

    A war that could have been averted by Lincoln in his campaign…..A war that showed the frustration of a nation that was forcing its wills on each other. The north with greater numbers and greater Electoral votes was forcing NO slavery on the south….changing their behavior, changing their lifestyle to meet the lifestyles of the north…….Not defending slavery….just a fact of what was.

    The feeling of having no control….no say….no imput into the direction of the country was prevalent in the south leading up to the election of Abraham Lincoln.

    In the end what we had was a nation so divided by ideology and culture and frustration at their lack of imput that civil war was practically unpreventable.

    When you study the 1850-1870’s with good works by non partisan historians trying to accurately portray that era you get the real sense that 2010 America looks awfully like these dark times of our nations history.

    The internet and blogs and the lack of good faith by our MSM is leading us on the road to perdition. In the background we have communists who are throwing gasoline on the fire.

    War is coming to America…..I truly believe that. It is why I had hoped that Obama would actually be the centrist, moderate, healer that we all coveted, much as Reagan pulled us out of the doldrums of we hate America of the 1960-1970’s and Vietnam.

    But alas….Barak Obama is Abraham Lincoln….Ideology driven, party motivated and determined to right wrongs….rather then be the president of all people who perceive that someone elses wrongs are someone elses rights.

  • Matt December 28, 2010 at 5:59 PM

    Lesson: Any power, no matter how small, given to the Federal Government, will one day be abused.

    Excellent one RHM. Great read, and very informative.
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