Alexander Hamilton and the New Republic

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson was happy with the classical idea of the republic. However, Alexander Hamilton thought that the classical rules of the republic, and Jefferson’s opinion about them, might not be worthwhile. What made him reject these rules in eighteenth-century America? How were his ideals different from those of Jefferson’s?

Signing of the United States Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton was not very happy with the state of affairs in the new American republic. (Image: Howard Chandler Christy/Public domain)

David Hume’s Thoughts about Governance

Alexander Hamilton was influenced by David Hume. Hamilton regarded the celebrated Scot, whose Essays and Treatises of 1758 and History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 were enormously popular among Americans as very ingenious and sensible and the least fallible guide of human opinion.

Hamilton learned from Hume that governments, including republican governments, cannot be invented out of thin air or pressed into an iron maiden of theory. Hume had no particular love for monarchy, but he did not believe that the British monarchy had always been bad in all cases, or that it merited being thrown out with the bathwater.

Politics should rest on experience, not theory; on practical realities, not ideology.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hamilton’s Suspicions about Republics

Considerations like that rendered Hamilton suspicious of reliance on the rule of virtue, much less of reliance on economies limited to agriculture, or of expectations that keeping republics small would keep them pure. The West Indies, on that logic, should have been showcases for republicanism.

Instead, they were ruled by raw, grasping self-interest, pursued by agriculturalists who were anything but virtuous, yet who had managed to establish an absolute homogeneity, and done it all on islands like Barbados which had only about 100,000 acres of arable land, but which were nevertheless transformed into hellholes of misery and exploitation rather than independence.

Learn more about ancient republics, empires, fiefdoms.

Hamilton on Jeffersonian Rules

Thomas Jefferson had this opinion about the people of America:

Never was a finer canvas presented to work on than our countrymen.
All of them engaged in agriculture or the pursuits of honest industry, independent in their circumstances, enlightened as to their rights, and firm in their habits of order and obedience to the laws. We have seen no instance of this since the days of the Roman republic. If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government, it is our case.

Hamilton felt with personal keenness that Jeffersonian rules about homogeneity and harmony were most likely to operate to the exclusion, not of the corrupt, but of honest outsiders like himself, who had no land, no inheritance, nothing but talent and ambition to offer the new republic.

The moment one begins arguing that only landowners can be virtuous, bigotry sprouts.

The Follies of the Confederation Congress

The other source which fed Hamilton’s skepticism about elegant but rigid concepts of republicanism was the behavior of the Confederation Congress. Even during the Revolution, Hamilton had been sickened by the folly, caprice, and want of foresight which characterized the general tenor of their actions.

What had been folly in war turned out to be folly in peace, as the states asserted their veto over the impost proposal, all the while spewing out emissions of unsecured paper money and claiming sovereignty over their own portions of the United States war debt. Hamilton sighed to John Jay in 1783,

Our prospects are not flattering. Every day proves the inefficacy of the present confederation, yet we are receding instead of advancing in a disposition to amend its effects.

Hamilton’s Anxieties in the New Republic

Hamilton drafted proposals to amend the Articles of Confederation so as to grant the United States in Congress assembled the power of general taxation, only to set the proposal aside for want of support. Even worse, the New York legislature was fulfilling every one of his anxieties about despotism being as much a threat from the many as from the one.

A drawing of Shays' troops being repulsed from the armory at Springfield.
Incidents like Shays’ rebellion made Hamilton skeptical about the efficacy of the republican form of government in America. (Image: Shockabrah/CC BY SA/ 4.0/Public domain)

When the legislature set about confiscating the property of onetime loyalists, Hamilton defended them in court on the grounds that the confiscation was a violation of the protective provisions for Loyalists in the Treaty of Paris. The specter of Shays’ Rebellion the following year did nothing to relieve Hamilton’s anxieties.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

The New York Legislature and Alexander Hamilton

But the cherry on top was the New York legislature’s move, early in 1786, to begin buying up the Confederation Congress’s bonds and notes with $500,000 of paper money. Now, ostensibly, this was done as an act of charity toward New Yorkers who had been waiting since the Revolution for Congress to redeem the IOUs and securities it had issued for goods and supplies.

What it really did was to make Congress a creditor of the state of New York, so that the state legislature had a financial stick to beat Congress with.

Worse still, in another gesture of phony charity, the New York legislature offered to allow the Confederation Congress to collect the long-desired impost on New York commerce, but only if Congress agreed to dedicate the revenue from the impost to servicing its debt, which, of course, meant that the impost would end up in the pockets of the New York legislature.

From his seat in the state legislature, Hamilton protested:

The United States are entrusted with the management of the general concerns and interests of the community—they have the power of war and peace, they have the power of treaty. Let us not endeavor still more to weaken and degrade the federal government, by heaping fresh marks of contempt on its authority.

It did no good. But if Hamilton could not persuade the Confederation Congress or the New York legislature to come to their senses, he did have one last court of appeal, and that was George Washington.

Common Questions about Alexander Hamilton and the New Republic

Q: What did Alexander Hamilton learn from the works of David Hume?

Alexander Hamilton learned from David Hume that governments, including republican governments, cannot be invented out of thin air or pressed into an iron maiden of theory.

Q: What did Alexander Hamilton think about the Jeffersonian rules?

Alexander Hamilton felt that Jeffersonian rules about homogeneity and harmony were most likely to operate to the exclusion, not of the corrupt, but of honest outsiders like himself, who had no land, no inheritance, nothing but talent and ambition to offer the new republic.

Q: Why was Alexander Hamilton worried after the American Revolution was over?

Alexander Hamilton was worried after the American revolution, as the states asserted their veto over the impost proposal, all the while spewing out emissions of unsecured paper money and claiming sovereignty over their own portions of the United States war debt.

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