Nationalism, American Style
The main interest in Hamilton's Republic is the commentary. As an editor, Michael Lind leaves much to be desired: the texts he selected are not as substantial and coherent as one would like, and sometimes his introductions are longer than the excerpts they introduce. But when he writes in propria persona, he gives a robust and cogent defense of American nationalism.
The book has five parts. The first is devoted to Alexander Hamilton himself and his legacy; the second, to American nationality; the third, to the Unionist -- as opposed to the "states' rights" or "compact" -- interpretation of the Constitution; the fourth, to defense and foreign policy; the fifth, to the role of government in general.
Lind introduces the book by contrasting today's liberal/conservative dichotomy with America's own, unique political traditions: the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, democratic localists and democratic nationalists. One tradition was passed down from Jefferson's Republicans, to the Democratic Republicans, and finally to Andrew Jackson's Democrats. The other tradition was passed down from the Federalists, to the National Republicans, to the Whigs, and finally to Abraham Lincoln's Republicans.
This simple dichotomy is complicated by another tradition, which Lind calls the "Northern moralists," who spawned abolitionism, Progressivism, and opposition to America's wars from 1812 to Vietnam. Considering how radically this tradition has mutated over the generations, it should now be called the Northern (and Left Coast) immoralists. The whole story of the transformation from Puritanism to Political Correctness is worthy of a book in itself. Suffice it here to say that Lind emphasizes Lincoln's nationalism, but I have read too much by and about him not to know that Lincoln had a strong moralist streak, tempered by prudence. This is why he is hated both by paleoconservatives and neo-Confederates on the far Right, and by anti-white racists on the far Left.
To these indigenous traditions, one might add another political force: that of unassimilated ethnic groups, which has waxed and waned over time with the vagaries of our immigration and segregation policies. From the Irish Catholics of the 1800s to the blacks, Jews, and Hispanics of today, these have always strongly supported the Democratic party.
The Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian dichotomy lasted from the 1790s to the 1890s. After a generation or two of confusion and realignment, the contemporary Left/Right dichotomy emerged in the 1930s. Further realignment after the cultural revolution of the 1960s has left us with a more-or-less Jeffersonian Republican party based in the South and West, and a Northern/Left Coast immoralist Democratic party now dependent on mass immigration and racial separatism (euphemistically known as "multiculturalism") for its political survival.
The causes of this confusion and realignment were twofold: foreign and domestic. Immigrants brought with them the alien ideology of Marxism (an awkward fact ignored by those who see immigrants as nothing but cheap labor). Rural Jeffersonians of the South and West responded to industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of big corporations by creating a native equivalent of socialism: Populism. The "People's party," co-opted by the Democrats, mutated the Jeffersonian tradition by failing to make the distinction between wealth and power, so that the animus formerly directed against the federal government was now directed against "robber barons" and "economic royalists," while the federal government was looked to as a protector. Finally, the Northern moralists embraced a more genteel, paternalistic form of socialism.
These three groups eventually merged into the American Left, composed of the Roosevelt Democrats and explicitly socialist minor parties. In reaction, a purer breed of Jeffersonians gradually emerged to dominate the Republican party and the American Right.
Despite the absence of a Hamiltonian party to give it guidance and take the credit, 20th-century America was substantially what Hamilton had intended it to be: a great economic and military power -- indeed, the greatest. As Lind succinctly sums up, Hamilton's goal was "a strong, centralized national government promoting industrial capitalism and defending America's concrete interests abroad with an effective professional military" (p. 5). The momentum of the Hamiltonian policies of the Republican ascendancy was swerved from side to side, but not halted or reversed, by the push and pull of the new political alignment.
In the 21st century, however, the continued success of Hamilton's republic is far from guaranteed. Of all the dangers facing our country, the greatest are those that threaten the very existence of a united American nation: mass immigration, racial separatism, and the Leftist anti-culture.
On immigration, Hamilton (an immigrant himself) is worth quoting at length:
The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.
The opinion advanced in the Notes on Virginia is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived; or, if they should be led hither from a preference for ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism? There may, as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.
The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others, it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils. It has been often likely to compromit the interests of our own country in favor of another. The permanent effect of such a policy will be, that in times of great public danger there will be always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone will weaken the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader. ("Lucius Crassus," 1802. Vol. VII, pp. 241-242)
Lind does not address immigration directly, but does an excellent job of arguing for national cohesion against its ideological enemies. He witheringly derides "multiculturalism" as bogus and racist, directing particular scorn at the five quasi-racial castes into which the "affirmative action" system divides us. At the same time, he rejects democratic universalism: the idea, popular among libertarians and all-too-many "conservatives," that America is defined solely by abstract principles and needs nothing but these principles to hold it together.
A moment's reflection will show why the nation cannot be defined in political terms. The American nation, acting through its leaders, could not choose among different governments -- the colonial governments under Great Britain, the loose confederation set up by the Articles of Confederation, and the federal nation-state established by the 1787 federal constitution -- unless the nation had an identity that was not affected by mere alterations of governments or constitutions. (p. 37)
Lind is less clear, however, when he tries to define a positive conception of American identity. He contrasts "nativism" with the "melting pot" theory, inconsistently ascribing a policy of assimilation to each in turn.
In the strict historical sense, nativism is the belief that that certain kinds of foreigners simply cannot be assimilated because of their religion or race. History has -- so far -- proven this belief wrong: be they Irish or Chinese or what have you, all have eventually merged in the "melting pot." (The Jews are a conspicuous exception, at least as measured by their voting pattern; but their rates of intermarriage are so high as to render that ultimately irrelevant.) In a more general sense, nativism may be defined as the principle that the interests of the native population should never be sacrificed to the interests of foreigners. The question to ask about immigration is not whether the immigrants will eventually assimilate, but whether it's good for native Americans.
The problem with the "melting pot" conception is that it threatens "amalgamation (the formation of a new culture and population from several), not assimilation (the conformity of all new groups to the standards of the previously dominant majority)" (p. 39). This is precisely what nativists have always been afraid of, and rightly so: we have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from the amalgamation of our republican liberty with populations and cultures that have never known anything but despotism and servility.
It is hard to imagine a stronger rebuke to the amalgamation idea than that delivered by Theodore Roosevelt, who demanded
the Americanizing of the newcomers to our shores. We must Americanize them in every way, in speech, in political ideas and principles, and in their way of looking at the relations between church and state. We welcome the German or the Irishman who becomes an American. We have no use for the German or Irishman who remains such. We do not wish German-Americans or Irish-Americans who figure as such in our social and political life; we want only Americans, and, provided they are such, we do not care whether they are of native or of Irish or of German ancestry....
It is an immense benefit to the European [or Asian or Latin American] immigrant to change him into an American citizen. To bear the name of American is to bear the most honorable of titles; and whoever does not so believe has no business to bear the name at all, and, if he comes from Europe [or Asia or Latin America], the sooner he goes back there the better. (pp. 62-63)
Assimilation, then, is the alternative to both nativism (in the strict sense) and the "melting pot" (in the amalgamationist sense). So what if frankfurters and hamburgers (for instance) are German in origin? If there's one thing democratic nationalists and democratic universalists can agree on, it's that republican liberty is far more important than such trivia. The problem is that democratic universalists ignore the fact that republican liberty is not an abstract principle applicable instantly and uniformly without regard to context, but a complex system of customs and institutions that had a specific origin among a specific people: the Anglo-Saxons.
Even among Anglo-Saxons -- even among Americans -- republican liberty has been far from uncontroversial. Seeing as how the very people who created it have fought -- with words and with bullets -- over its worth and meaning, why should we expect any other peoples to establish and practice it any better? We should only be surprised if the French (for instance) had not bungled their first four attempts to do so in their own country.
The essential point in dispute, between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, is: which is the stronger bulwark of liberty -- the several states, or the Union? (It is worth noting that Jefferson was a slaveowner; so was Washington, but he freed his slaves in his will; Hamilton was a founder of the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves.) Is America a confederacy of petty sovereignties, or "one nation, indivisible"?
This would seem to have been settled, once and for all, at Appomattox; but enough apologists for the Confederacy (disastrous failure though it was) are still running loose, that it is worthwhile to pause and refute them. What's more, Lincoln and the Confederacy have been bones of contention within the American conservative movement since the 1950s, and those who take the Emancipator's side may in turn be taken as Hamiltonians and nationalists.
Sometimes the neo-Confederates complain that Lincoln was a fanatical "Jacobin," determined to abolish slavery at any cost (an argument that would astonish his abolitionist critics: they were the Jacobins, he was a Whig). Sometimes they steal an argument from the anti-white racists of the Left, and declare that Lincoln was a "racist" who didn't really care about black slavery at all, but only wanted to preserve the Union at any cost. Of course these arguments only refute each other, and are the malicious opposite to the resounding affirmation of Daniel Webster: "Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!" (p. 112)
Lincoln both freed the slaves and saved the country from splitting into two (and who knows how many more, potentially) fragments, all of them together both poorer and weaker than the whole combined. For these achievements, he deserves the gratitude of a free, rich, and strong nation.
Liberty cannot simply be wished into existence: it has to be established and defended, by force if necessary. No nation can rely for its security on the benevolence of other nations, or on international agreements, but only on its own power. Hamiltonians recognize these facts, and consistently base their policies on them; Jeffersonians and Northern moralists have often recoiled from them, preferring fantasies of a world in which the necessity of force can be wished away.
Until the beginning of the Cold War, America's defense rested on a synthesis of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian principles: a tiny professional military was maintained that, in time of war, was rapidly expanded into a mass army of citizen-soldiers, and just as rapidly disbanded afterwards. The new situation, a perpetual conflict short of all-out war, was unprecedented for the United States; we were finally, permanently drawn into the old world of power-rivalries, spheres of influence, alliances, large navies and standing armies. Both parties reached a Hamiltonian consensus on national defense -- mixed up, however, with democratic-universalist flapdoodle, exemplified by our involvement in the United Nations.
The Northern/Left Coast Democrats' support for this consensus collapsed during the Vietnam War as that section of the party merged with the radical, anti-American Left. The Republicans, supported by the dwindling number of conservative Democrats, stayed on the Hamiltonian course of containing Soviet power as best they could; when Ronald Reagan led them back into the White House, they went on the offensive and finally won the Cold War.
After a dozen years of drift and confusion in our foreign policy, the Republicans are back the White House under a new President Bush. Conservatives have hotly debated America's proper role in the post-Cold War world, and are far from reaching a new consensus. What does an updated Hamiltonian foreign policy have to offer? Never sacrificing America's national interests for "humanitarian" ends; keeping America the strongest power in the world; shutting down the grotesque charade of the United Nations; acting unilaterally as far as possible, and otherwise in concert with allies who are ready, willing, and able to pull their own weight, for clearly-defined and limited ends; neither trying to rule the world and remake it in our image, nor trying to ignore it and hope it will leave us alone.
Hamiltonian economic policy is a means to these ends: securing political independence through economic development and unification. In the "American System" of the 19th century, the federal government levied protective tariffs to promote native industry and sponsored internal improvements (roads, canals, railways, etc.) knitting the country more tightly together. Today, shifting the tax burden back from domestic incomes to foreign imports would unite the interests of upper-income taxpayers and lower-income wage-earners. However, in an age of interstate highways, jet airliners, telephones, television, the Internet, etc., basic infrastructure is no longer an issue. How else, then, should the federal government "promote the general welfare"?
This final issue is the one that Lind gets entirely wrong. After a few quibbles and qualifications, in the end he asserts that the Progressives and the New Deal/Great Society Democrats were actually Hamiltonians. They were, in truth, democratic socialists, not democratic nationalists.
Theodore Roosevelt is a kind of Janus-figure, looking simultaneously backward to Hamilton and the American System, and forward to Franklin Roosevelt and the welfare state. Although he still endorsed the principle of equal opportunity (as opposed to equal results), he had the Northern moralist's disdain for commerce, which leads to suspicion of free enterprise, dissatisfaction with its unequal results, and willingness to resort to government to change those results. He was guilty of uttering this most quintessentially socialist of sentiments: "We keep countless men from being good citizens by the conditions of life with which we surround them" (p. 280) -- with its implicit premises that men's conditions of life are the responsibility of society as a whole, not of individuals, and that society has unlimited power to change those conditions.
Hamiltonians advocate strong government, not big government -- i.e. government that is effective in performing the limited tasks assigned to it, of which the first and foremost is "to provide for the common defense." If Hamiltonian economic policy is defined by its contribution to this end, then the most Hamiltonian President in living memory was Ronald Reagan. Through tax cuts and deregulation, he revived the economy and made it possible for America to rearm and face down the Soviets. This was the latest triumph of American capitalism mobilized for America's defense -- hopefully, not the last.
Instead of natural barriers to travel and communication, it is artificial barriers to enterprise and productivity that need to be overcome: those raised by decades of liberal-Democratic over-government. This is something that Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians can finally agree on.
© 2002 by Karl Jahn