Alexander Hamilton: Switzerland or the Caribbean, Anyone?

McCraw uses the  immigrant experience to explain in part the development of a national perspective (see here and here for the 1st 2 installments in this series). Being originally outsiders, immigrants could see the forest for the trees while many, if not most of their native born friends were freighted with the prejudices of particular states. (363) It was this, combined with Hamilton’s and Gallatin’s natural brilliance, McCraw contends “that enabled them to envision and then to execute the responsible deployment of rootless capital in the forging of a new economy.” (326)

Looked at from this perspective, McCraw understandably connects only partially to his subjects pre-American experiences, and then more for Hamilton than Gallatin. Much of the former’s sense of urgency and impatience stemmed, as he notes, from Hamilton’s youth on the island of Nevis: “He knew from his boyhood that things could fall apart on short notice.” (49)

The Caribbean was not the most stable region politically. Hamilton’s own French Huguenot background through his mother,  and his father’s origins in Scotland, testify to the imperial seesaw that characterized the geopolitical reality of the islands. Yet for Gallatin, he misses a similar opportunity.

One of the chief differences between the two men that McCraw continually hammers home (207, 220, 231,235), is Gallatin’s anti-militarism and his corresponding commitment to keeping expenditures on defense to a minimum and avoiding internal taxes. McCraw’s account attributes this disposition to Gallatin’s disgust with European power-politics and Napoleon in particular. (264-265) But in an earlier observation, he notes that Gallatin, unlike Hamilton, had a different geopolitical understanding. He viewed the Atlantic as a great “barrier,” one that could help America “avoid the chronic warfare that had plagued Europe for centuries and corrupted  its governments.” (235)

Why did Gallatin see it this way? Might it have been his experience as a former citizen of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation? And what was that experience, relative to the rest of Europe, but one of general stability in a sea of turmoil? It was not that the Swiss did not know war, but by-in-large, the confederation had been populated through the centuries by people escaping the major cultural regions of central Europe to the safety of the defensible passes, lakes , forests, and mountains of the Alps.

Gallatin’s understanding of geography and his confidence that America was relatively safe, might well have derived, at least in part, from this background. Here then we begin to get a more complete picture both of Hamilton’s sense of urgency and its sharp contrast with Gallatin’s sense of security.

Turning again to Hamilton’s Continentalist Essays, we can see clearly the international roots of his thinking.  Whatever he may have said about the balancing and fostering of commerce and industry, issues of rivalry and power—of war and defense—rested at the heart of his impatience with the America of his day.  In it, we see the immediate challenge that Hamilton faced: He knew that the war with England was winding down. He knew that his countrymen would soon get back to their old ways. To counter such, it was necessary to show a grimmer, more urgent prospect.

Peace without centralization, he put forward in the third essay, would bring internal bickering and dissension because “Political societies in close neighborhood must either be strongly united under one government, or there will infallibly exist emulations and quarrels; this is in human nature, and we have no reason to think ourselves wiser or better than other men.” Rather than growing more complaisant, he urged his fellows to consider that “A schism once introduced, competitions of boundary and rivalships of commerce will easily afford pretexts for war.”

Here then are two distinct pictures of the prospects for order arising, as it were, from two distinct experiences of political and cultural diversity. Gallatin’s Gallic experience of the Swiss Confederation versus Hamilton’s Gallic/British experience of the Caribbean.  Which one was the better fit for America?

The critics of greater centralization (those generally mischaracterized by their opponents as men of anti-federal sentiments) were not just naysayers. They had a reasoned position. They had a different sense of the American development of self-government, and were desirous to proceed more gradually. To understand this, the immigrant experience is essential, but it is a much broader type than that from which McCraw has drawn his analysis.

Geographical movement has always been at the heart of American political and cultural life. It could hardly have been otherwise in a region whose predominant  population originally came from elsewhere. (And if one considers that those already here were themselves given to movement, the theme is deepened even further!)

We should also recognize that not every immigrant embraced McCraw’s particular national perspective. Much of this depended on when a person or group came, as David Hackett Fischer has argued in Albion’s Seed.  But even immigrants contemporary with Hamilton and Gallatin, were often found on the side that championed a less concentrated federal structure.

Among Gallatin’s close political associates from the back country of Pennsylvania were men like William Findley of Scots-Irish origin. These persons very much attached themselves to their adopted states, and each counseled in his own way against the urgency of Hamilton.

At the heart of this broader conception of the immigrant experience, was a fundamental association of the freedom of movement with the securing of liberty in general. These persons recognized something stable and reassuring (rather than chaotic and disturbing) in American institutions as they had evolved from colonial times, and here is a real and interesting contrast in visions that can be drawn out even further.

Cited on this website before, the anonymously written essays of Maryland Farmer highlighted the importance of the freedom of movement in a truly federal context where “in small independent States contiguous to each other, the people run away and leave despotism to reek its vengeance on itself.”

articlesFar from destabilizing the nation, Maryland Farmer looked directly to Gallatin’s place of origin to draw historical support for the American experience: “I have either read or heard this truth, which Americans should never forget, that the silence of historians is the surest record of the happiness of a people. The Swiss have been for four hundred years the envy of mankind, and there is yet scarcely a history of their nation.” And what was so distinctive about this history?  “The people being free,” he wrote, “ government having no right to them, but they to government, they would separate and divide as interest or inclination prompted—as they do at this day, and always have done in Switzerland.”

Where Hamilton saw prospects of foreign intrigue in a decentralized state system like the Articles of Confederation, Maryland Farmer saw the opposite. A confederation could play great powers off against each other. Constancy and policy were not antithetical. “That [centralization] is necessary,” he argued, “to prevent foreigners from dividing us or interfering in our government, I deny positively.”

The Swiss, he went on “have always proved faithful allies and friends of France, but have laughed at her political advice as the assembly of Foxes treated with derision the curtailed Reynard who advised them to part with their cumbersome quantity of brush.” Where Hamilton saw urgency, Maryland Farmer argued that “Our people are capable of being made anything that human nature was or is capable of, if we could only have a little patience…”

Liberty as understood from this perspective was all about the freedom of movement. Americans have always been known to be a geographically mobile people. It is interesting to reflect that under our first constitution, under the Articles of Confederation, the precursor of our current understanding of privileges and immunities had this explicit recognition of this most basic liberty set within its Article IV provision:

 …and the people of each State shall have free ingress and regress to and from any other State, and shall enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions and restrictions as the inhabitants thereof respectively…

But, here the early bird got the worm, so-to-speak. The Constitution replaced the Articles, and new surprises of taxation and national banking awaited…

Hans Eicholz is a historian and Liberty Fund Senior Fellow. He is the author of Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government (2001), and more recently a contributor to The Constitutionalism of American States (2008).

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