Thanksgiving is a peculiar holiday, at least in the modern world. Its roots are religious, and the American nation is, at least in law, secular. Its very name speaks of thanks, or gratitude, and gratitude is an ancient virtue. Indeed Aristotle speaks highly of it. Even so, or perhaps for that reason, it is very American. In his Thanksgiving address in 1922, President Coolidge called it “perhaps the most characteristic of our national observances.” He was not wrong for, as Chesterton wrote, America is “a nation with the soul of a church,” and Abraham Lincoln called us an “almost chosen people.”
There “is a role for Congress,” says a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, “in our Iran policy.” This is big of her, seeing as how “our” Iran policy consists largely of sanctions imposed by the legislative authority of Congress. A great deal hangs on the spokeswoman’s cavalier use of the word “our.” The suggestion is that the nation’s disposition toward other nations is a constitutional plaything, belonging solely to “us,” which is to say to the executive, and to be shared at “our” discretion. Imagine a comparable audacity—or is it to be called magnanimity?—from a congressional spokesperson: “There…
With this I end with thanks a month-long stint as a Law and Liberty blogger. It’s been great fun, even with the distractions that came from pushing my book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
The book’s thesis is that, from an admirable patriotism and a less attractive ignorance of history, American libertarians do not adequately defend liberty.
We are all patriots first and philosophers second—and that is just as it should be. For American theorists, patriotism means elevating people such as James Madison to the pantheon of political philosophy. The British have Hume and Burke, the French have Rousseau and Tocqueville—and the Americans have Madison and Hamilton. To be sure, they’re not mediocrities. But then they’re not the people who made the deals that produced the Constitution, or whose beliefs informed its content.
Kevin D. Williamson has posted an excellent takedown at National Review of a National Journal assault on the Constitutional regime. This latter piece, a polemic by Alex Seitz-Wald, argues that the founding document, while innovative in its time, no longer reflects humanity’s best constitutional erudition. Williamson’s critique is definitive—he notes, among other points, that the regime is not defective simply because it has failed to produce results in accordance with a critic’s proclivities—but I would amplify one point. Seitz-Wald argues for a sort of latter-day constitutional technocracy arising from science and divorced from experience that describes neither what happened at Philadelphia nor that for which any political society ought to wish today.
Seitz-Wald writes: “What was for the Founders a kind of providential revelation—designing, from scratch, a written charter and democratic system at a time when the entire history of life on this planet contained scant examples of either—has been worked into science.” Actually, the entire history of planetary life contained the British constitution, which the convention delegates much admired, and, more important, upwards of a century-and-a-half of uniquely American experience with self-government from which constitutional institutions evolved.
My 10-year-old, fruit of my own loins, came home from fifth grade on Constitution Day to announce that his teacher could no longer demand his homework because the Fourth Amendment entitled him to be “secure in his documents.” This, like all sensitive situations, was to be handled with a degree of delicacy: interest in the Constitution to be celebrated, fallacies about it to be clipped before flowering.
“Did you read the Constitution in school?’
“Yeah.” Pause. “Well, we read the Bill of Rights.”
This next conversation is with Joshua Hawley, a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, about the arc of power exercised by the Supreme Court since the passage of the 14th Amendment. In one sense, we understand directly what the Antifederalist Brutus once opined about its potentially unlimited powers. The Court, Brutus informed, would be the most dangerous branch because its judges "are independent of the people, of the legislature, and of every power under heaven." Of course, criticisms of the Court's activism are now part of…
Don't miss Greg Weiner's reply in the Liberty Forum section to separate responses by Stephen Knott and George Thomas to his essay, "Congress and Deliberation in the Age of Woodrow Wilson: An Elegy". Herewith, an excerpt: [F]or every instance of presidents acting alone, one can offer others of presidents acting in consultation with Congress according to the constitutional model. James K. Polk lined up troops on the Mexican border, observed that a state of war already existed, but nonetheless asked Congress for a declaration. Lincoln, so beloved of devotees of Presidential prerogative, repeatedly asked Congress to ratify what he had extra-constitutionally done. …
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.
So returning to Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance, McCraw’s interpretive concept around which he builds his narrative is the idea of the “immigrant,” but not just any immigrant. Rather, he has highlighted the traits of a select few: those with commercial and financial experience and understanding. This group, he points out, had particular facility with numbers. They were at home with account books. They understood commercial instruments. They could handle all manner of complex transactions.
Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin were exemplars of this type. But aside from their technical proficiencies, McCraw finds one further trait to be of paramount importance: a national perspective on their adopted homeland. (363) And among this select few, it is Hamilton who takes the lead, rising to the level of brilliance.
Editor’s note: Occasioned by Thomas McCraw’s The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy, this is the first post in a series by Liberty Fund Senior Fellow Hans Eicholz that will explore the contrasting visions for the early American republic in the financial, economic, and foreign policy thinking of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin. Stay tuned for further developments.
Thomas McCraw has given us a compelling portrait of two major figures at the outset of American financial and economic history in The Founders and Finance. His primary aim is to draw out their similarities—their foreign origins, their experiences in commerce, their capacity to see the big picture of American nationhood—but I was struck more by their striking dissimilarities.
Where Albert Gallatin aspired initially to commercial success; Hamilton very early determined on a political career. Where Gallatin felt somewhat awkward on the political stage, Hamilton thrilled at the prospects of a public career and a public reputation. Where Gallatin learned to roll with the political punches of a diverse and rollicking republic (adapting policies to commercial and political realities), Hamilton formulated a clear, even unitary conception of where America needed to go and what he needed to do to get it there.