To escape the soul-killing political minutiae inhabiting my Twitter timeline, I decided to trawl my own blog archive for diversion…and came across a piece I wrote in September 2013 on Alexander Hamilton!
Yes, Alexander Hamilton, current darling of the Washington set and central figure of an ethnically enhanced hip-hop musical that apparently provides the soundtrack and a sense of deeper meaning to liberal lives.
Reading the Chernow biography and Hamilton’s own writings, it is hard not to have a deep admiration for Hamilton (Chernow, by the way, collects a nice royalty from the musical). Way back in 2013, I saw Hamilton as the sophisticated urban/internationalist counterpoint to the pastoral/racist/secessionist stylings of Thomas Jefferson.
My 2013 piece was entitled Mob vs. Snob and, since it was punishingly long, I’m going to tease out the good, currently relevant bits here for the amusement and reflection of the 2016 audience.
As readers might gather from the title of the piece, I see a lot of US history as squaring the circle between the economic and political aspirations of the ordinary citizen a.k.a. the Mob vs. the laser focus of the elites a.k.a. Snob on securing the protection of their property, privileges, and power.
I see Hamilton as an important figure because he recognized that the key issue for the nascent federal system—and indeed most political systems we know today– was how to attract and retain the loyalty of elites to present a central government/elite united front against secessionism. The US government protected the economic interests of elites and in return, elites protected the federal government against the threat of secession. Kinda. Glitched a bit during the Civil War, among other times.
Nowadays the federal government doesn’t worry overmuch about secession, but elites sure worry about the mob i.e. “runaway populism”. And when it comes to allaying elite anxieties, the federal government and political parties are here to help!
2016 is doing a great job of affirming this dynamic as the Washington establishment and the propertied classes close ranks against Lumpenfuhrer Donald Trump. So did Brexit, by the way, which provoked open discussions of why rule by an informed and engaged elite was infinitely preferable to turning over the direction of the nation to an uninformed and easily manipulated rabble.
The most interesting development of the US election, I think, is the formal abandonment of the white conservative voting bloc as the vital adjunct to elite rule. Demographic change has rendered the male white conservative bloc vulnerable, and the Democrats intentionally ran a racially inflected “intersectional” campaign that identified overcoming oppressive white racism as a key social and political issue confronting the nation.
The Republican elite apparently accepted the proposition that the white bloc was a burned out case, and tried to reframe the GOP as a vehicle for the aspirations of upwardly mobile Hispanics. The Hispano-pander, keyed on profoundly unattractive and incapable campaigners Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz, foundered spectacularly.
I might as well note here, that I do not see Donald Trump as Hitler. He’s a carny barker—the Wizard of Oz was a displaced carny barker, by the way—whose grift runs counter to current elite priorities. So he’s the target of the full measure of exaggerated spittle in defense of globalized economic and security policies that support the economic interests of the elite, and attacks exhibiting a thoroughgoing disdain for non-expert/non-elite rule. Remarkable to me, at least, because following the wisdom of elites has been a barely contained disaster for the last two decades…and apparently nobody wants to talk about that.
Meanwhile, “people of color” are replacing whites as the political parties’ and elites’ ostensible raison d’etre i.e. representing “the nation” whose elevated aspirations and virtuous interests they profess to embody and advance. And, more to the point, elites co-opt the leaders and secure the votes of the POC community, thereby weakening the “mob” and strengthening the “snob”.
During the “end of history” period, Alexander Hamilton was often invoked as the architect of the triumph of the Western system. I am something of a pro-Hamiltonian revisionist, since the original critique of Hamilton that prevailed until the end of the 20thcentury (elite-adoring crypto aristo) was initially put forth by a pair of Virginia slaveowners, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who adored democracy in the abstract but had definite difficulties practicing it in the concrete.
Hamilton advocated a strong national government and orchestrated its establishment in the United States through his energetic participation in the composition, promotion, and, as first Treasury Secretary and George Washington’s most trusted counselor, implementation of the central-government friendly US constitution . He frequently sparred with Jefferson and Madison, whose advocacy of (to editorialize here) la-di-da pastoralism on a foundation of slavery looks a lot like an effort to protect Virginian parochialism and particularism from the commercial and industrial transformation of the United States—a transformation that Hamilton, with his early and positive exposure to the British example, clearly saw coming, and which he enabled with a powerful central government with strong fiscal, legislative, and enforcement powers.
From the 21st century perspective the key element was Hamilton’s extremely successful attempt to create a robust alliance between the federal government and northern and northeastern business interests. Hamilton was desperately invested in a strong, extensive federal union because the greater the sway of the federal government, the more unique and attractive it looked as a bulwark of power, stability, and property rights, and the better it could secure the loyalty of the elite.
Elite loyalty was, to put it mildly, an issue. Not just because of pervasive Loyalist (to Britain) sentiment in the upper classes in the colonies that carried over into the early days of the Republic. Also because the United States was created on a foundation of elite disloyalty, amplified by seditious incitement of populist forces.
It should be remembered that the American revolution was driven to a significant extent by the alienation of US elites, especially in New England, from Great Britain, and the creation of a potent alliance of “mob” and “snob” fatal to British rule. The Sons of Liberty were despised as rabble by most of the founding fathers, but elite folk like John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, et. al. made the historic decision to stand with them, or maybe just exploit them as anti-British shock troops and provocateurs, instead of denouncing them.
However, after independence—and by the time the constitution was written–US elites lost their love for the masses; Hamilton and his Federalists, in particular, lived in terror of the mob, thanks to the outbreak of Shays’s rebellion, the example of the French revolution and to the endless willingness of poor and disenfranchised folk, especially in the rural western reaches, to create a rumpus.
The normally phlegmatic George Washington was vocally dismayed by the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, and joined Hamilton in organizing an overwhelming federal force to march into the countryside and overawe the miscreants. A similar exercise in federal shock and awe occurred when Hamilton marched a federal force against another Pennsylvania upset, Fries’ Rebellion, in 1799.
In the midst of the “Quasi War” with France in the late 1790s, Hamilton had lobbied President John Adams frantically (and, for the sake of his relationship with Adams, fatally) for a federal army that Hamilton would lead under the aegis of the largely retired George Washington. This was held against Hamilton, both by Adams and Jefferson, as an open admission of Hamilton’s caesarism, since it was assumed that this army, while defending against the unlikely prospect of an invasion of the United States by Napoleon, could be used to cow the federal government or serve as the vehicle for some extra-curricular nationbuilding by Hamilton, such as the seizure and annexation of western lands—and maybe even South America–from their Spanish masters.
It seems more likely that Hamilton was carried away by the fear of a French-style rural jacquerie and Jacobin-style urban purge, perhaps sparked by some French military adventure and supported by a Jeffersonian fifth column, and wanted a federal army as a shield—and sword–against both. And, admittedly, he wouldn’t have minded leading the army through the Americas after putting paid to the French menace, thereby winning more glory for himself and more territorial swag for the USA.
But Hamilton’s efforts to create a strong federal edifice involved more than giving the central government independent military might to cow local “mobocracy” when the compromised state militias weren’t up to the task. Strengthening the bond between the federal government and US elites—and weaning them from political collusion with the ever-present and easily aggrieved “mob”—was a key feature of Hamilton’s policy.
He famously bound elites to the federal government by promising to fund all federal debts (currently trading at ten or fifteen cents to the dollar) at par, to assume all state debts dating back to the revolution, and coming up with a plausible way of paying them. He also rebuffed criticisms by Jefferson and Madison that this policy was a sell-out of the revolutionary war veterans who had been paid with these bonds but sold them at a deep discount to speculators, and an unfair windfall for Hamilton’s well-heeled and well-informed buddies.
Hamilton was intentionally giving the business elites some (inordinate) skin in the federal game, so that they would cleave to the federal government and not side with the mob—or their states–as they had in revolutionary times against Britain, or during any of the serial crises that would occur as the United States embarked on its bloody and highly successful campaign exploit the resources of the land, the labor and creativity of its people, the capital and energies of the elites, and the enormous potential of national and global markets.
Specifically, Hamilton devoted a great deal of intellect and energy to creating a bond between rich guy and the central government that would address the biggest threat to the federal system: secession.
You know, like the kind of secession the 13 colonies carried out only a decade before against the British government, and was threatened every time some cluster of US states weren’t getting their way. The kind of secession that actually happened in 1861. And the kind of secession that Tea Party enclaves like northern Colorado now invoke as a solution for their Obama-related grievances. And the kind of secession (by the various Soviet SSRs and satellites) that brought the Soviet Union to its knees. And the uprising in eastern Libya (capital: Benghazi) that brought down Qaddafi with a little outside help.
In each instance of secession, the secret sauce of freedom wasn’t democracy and free markets; it was the fact that local elites abandoned their allegiance to the center and sided with the locals instead.
The most famous of the Federalist papers, No. 10, written by Madison, rebutted the idea that democracy only works in small, homogenous states and couldn’t work in an extensive empire that the United States was clearly going to become. Specifically, he argued that the republican form of government would interpose a civic-minded and unfactional elite between gormless voters and the operating levers of the government machinery.
The United States was bedeviled from its inception by the centripetal tendencies of its states and regions. Stability and a significant measure of unity was only achieved after eighty years of escalating confrontation, through the rather undemocratic means of a massive civil war and a ten year occupation of the south.
To me, the alpha and omega for Jefferson and Madison was southern privilege. They recognized early on that southern privilege was based on a rickety, limited foundation of slavery-based agriculture, which was increasingly at risk in a strong federal system as the nation grew and industrialized and decisively moved away from the southern model. If the constitution didn’t adequately support pretensions to southern political, economic, and social agency for the white crowd, it could go out the window.
Jefferson and Madison pioneered the state nullification doctrine in their Kentucky and Virginia resolutions and initiated seventy years of efforts to maintain southern autonomy which culminated in the Civil War. After Hamilton shattered his Federalist faction with some unwise political maneuvers, Jefferson and Madison ruled the federal roost and the contradictions between the slave-owning priorities of the south and the rest of the union were papered over. Pro-Jeffersonian history usually excuses Jefferson and Madison’s transgressions on the grounds that their nullification and state’s rights doctrines embodied in the Resolutions were a desperate and limited riposte to the flagrantly partisan and unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts.
Not so fast. Secession, which I define as elite disloyalty combined with populist politics, a.k.a. the “mob and snob” revolutionary alliance, is as American as apple pie and suited the tastes of Jefferson and Madison.
It wasn’t just the south that toyed with secessionist impulses. Northern secession was advocated by northern business classes frustrated by southern resistance to Federalist fiscal and economic policies and the fear that the “Virginia faction” had permanently captured the Federal government thanks to the inordinate weight of the south at the center thanks to the 3/5 rule (slaves counted at 3/5 for representation purposes) and the ceaseless, united obstructionism of southern delegations anxious to safeguard their dominance (and the future of the slave system) as the nation expanded.
One of the many reasons for Hamilton’s disdain for Aaron Burr that provoked the fatal duel was that Burr was looking to resurrect his political fortunes by conniving to bring his home state of New York into a nascent northern secessionist camp championed by elites in the New England states.
When the Federalist party imploded thanks to Hamilton’s spectacular political misjudgment and Jefferson and his acolytes controlled the Federal government for decades, northeastern interests organized the Hartford Convention during the War of 1812 to advance their pro-British/anti-embargo/pro-manufacturing interests and priorities. Their activities carried the faint but undeniable whiff of secession. The governor of Massachusetts even dispatched an emissary to discuss a separate peace with Great Britain. This treasonous exercise never caught on, as the war ended rather abruptly and favorably for the United States, much to the discomfiture of the northerners and, in any case, the subsequent peace provided the economic benefits that had previously been denied them.
After three decades of southern domination, federal power inexorably shifted to the north and west, and the US government, while sedulous in preserving the financial, legal, and coercive foundations of northern prosperity, proved itself fatally ambivalent about protecting a key southern elite interest and the foundation of the southern agricultural economy—slaves as property. When southern elites felt threatened by the prospect of loss of political primacy at the federal level and the threat of a growing abolitionist consensus in Congress, they were wedged off from the union (much as the business interests in the colonies were wedged off from Britain in the 1770s) and turned their efforts to creating a “mob and snob” integrated power base within their own states.
The result was decades of dismal extortion as the south used the threat of resistance/nullification/secession to extract assurances of continued passivity from the federal government on the slavery issue.
I also might point out that the mayor of New York City, with its textile and export economy tied to southern cotton, actually proposed New York secession in 1861. The dreaded “mob and snob” alliance between some disgruntled New York plutocrats, Tammany politicians, Copperheads (anti-war Democrats willing to accept southern slavery) and the municipal lumpen re-emerged, culminating in the gruesome draft riots of 1863.
When the end came, it didn’t come thanks to the invincible ideas of democracy and free markets (with the obvious and execrable exception of slavery, southern economic and political practices did not differ significantly from those of the north); it came because the elites of the north united with the federal government to crush the south with their armies and industrial power.
With the civil war, the southern elites and their determinedly non-industrial, non-financial slave-shackled economy lost the argument to the determinedly industrial and financially sophisticated north. Conquest, the end of slavery, and the increasing industrialization of the United States made secession, southern or otherwise, an unfeasible option.
Despite the awkward fact of southern elite treason, the importance of elite support for the federal government was reaffirmed as, after a brief interlude of carpetbagging, blacks were disenfranchised, and southern elites were welcomed back into local and federal governments and the heart of the southern economy.
With the disappearance of the secessionist option, the impetus toward a “mob and snob” alliance evaporated, and elites and the federal government eagerly joined hands to protect property, privilege, and the well-being of elites, by gun and bayonet if needed.