Our Heritage from Hamilton
Address on the anniversary of the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, before the Hamilton Club
January 11, 1922
We may not know the source of greatness. We do not need to know. But when once it is revealed, we disregard it at our peril. To the uncivilized all things are common. The measure of the strength and the enlightenment of a people is the measure of their appreciation of their great men, their devotion to their memory and the defense of the institutions which they have established. When the reverence of this nation for its great men dies, the glory of the nation will die with it. While that reverence lives, the glory of the nation will live.
It was in that spirit that this club was formed, by men conscious of the obligation due to the memory of a great man, and thereby the obligation due to themselves and to their country. Civilization and progress depend upon the genius of the people themselves, but that genius depends to a large extent upon the ability to perceive and accept leadership. The great man is he who can express the unuttered opinions of his time, direct energy along profitable channels, divine the spirit of the people, and unify action under just and stable institutions of government. Such a man was Alexander Hamilton. When America ceases to remember his greatness, America will be no longer great.
He lived in the age which not only established the independence of our country, one of the most remarkable of achievements, but also saw the adoption of the Federal Constitution and provided an economic system. These gave this nation liberty, order, and prosperity. His fame rests on the deep influence which he had in producing these results.
The place of Washington in history is secure. He stands as a world figure. He ranks as a great captain, a foremost statesman, and the supreme patriot. Without him it is difficult to comprehend how independence could have been won. Holding at all times the complete affection of all his soldiers and the highest confidence of his fellow countrymen, his approval aided greatly in the adoption of the Constitution, his honesty opposed any repudiation of the debts of his country, and his character gave to the office of the presidency a position and influence which contributed greatly to stability in the formative period of our government. But along with Washington goes Hamilton, neither nonetheless great because their talents mutually increased the success and greatness of each other.
That service together, which has set its mark upon the world, began in the summer of 1776, when the young captain of artillery was presented to the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Becoming soon after his aide and military secretary, he contributed to the remarkable quality of the dispatches and letters of his chief. This intimacy, thus begun in the field, continued almost without interruption until broken by death. Some of the most important accomplishments of constructive statesmanship made for the welfare of his country, Hamilton made in his different posts as secretary under Washington. He stayed in the army from that day in 1776 until after he had captured the first redoubt in the charge at Yorktown. But it was as an administrator and statesman rather than as a soldier that he was destined to render his most distinguished services to the cause of civil liberty.
The most conspicuous talent of this great man lay in his ability to put principles into practical effect. He carried in his mind the vision of a powerful nation. Patrick Henry had declared, years before, that he was no longer a Virginian but an American. But when the time came to realize that vision to the full, Henry let it fade away while Hamilton transformed it into the enduring form of our Federal Union. If there be one principle for which he contended with more vigor than another it is the principle of integrity in governmental affairs. He saw not only the great practical value but the supreme moral requirement of meeting obligations. Terms of peace were concluded after the war, which provided for a just treatment of those who had adhered to the British cause. There soon arose criminations and recriminations in relation to the observance of this treaty. Notwithstanding its provisions Tories were badly used, practically denied the administration of justice, and visited with the confiscation of their property. This went on until Hamilton, not only in his capacity as a lawyer but in recognition of his own and the public obligation to abide by the solemn covenants of a treaty, accepted the cause of one of the Loyalists and successfully enforced his rights in court. Laws and treaties meant to him not only a declaration engrossed on parchment but a rule of action which required performance. Later he carried this principle over into his dealings with the debt of his country.
In common with his countrymen he saw the confusion and disorder which followed the war. He saw the disposition for repudiation of both private contracts and public debt. He saw the disorder of such an uprising as Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, the economic disaster which followed the issue of great amounts of paper money through State agencies, the paralysis alike of credit and trade, and the entire impotence of the central government.
He recognized that the one remedy for disaster at home and humiliation abroad lay in a central government entrusted with sovereign powers. Whether or not he was the first to suggest a convention to propose a form for such a government, he was one of the most instrumental in bringing it about. In that convention he took a conspicuous part. He had a great love for liberty, and desired that it might be perpetuated as the heritage of his countrymen. He had a faith in the people which carried him beyond their expression of the mere passion and fancy of the hour, giving him the insight and courage to appeal to their calmer selves and to depend upon their deep and abiding convictions. He believed in a representative government, Republican in form, provided with checks and balances. “Give all power to the many, and they will oppress the few,” he said. “Give all power to the few and they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, are to have the power that each may defend itself against the other.”
No concourse of men assembled to promote the art of government ever attained a position which this convention, is entitled to hold in the estimation of the American people. Justly, since that day they have been termed the Fathers. The result was our Federal Constitution, since aptly described as the most remarkable document ever struck off by the hand of man at a given time. When the Constitution was submitted to the States for ratification, to defend its provisions, expound its meaning, and urge its ratification, Hamilton prepared the large part of those masterly essays on government which, when collected, became known as “The Federalist.” Great as was this accomplishment, it was surpassed by his achievement in the New York convention. At its inception it was more than two to one against the Constitution. Yet by his persuasive and enlightened arguments, Hamilton secured the ratification of the Constitution. There is no more remarkable victory in parliamentary history. The ratification of the Constitution by a sufficient number of States soon followed. There was at last in existence a Federal Government which was founded on national integrity.
In the affairs of a nation, especially of a free people, no one man is ever entitled to all the credit of a great accomplishment. But when it is recalled that it was the genius of Hamilton that conceived of a national government, that he played a leading part in the framing of the Constitution which established that government, that he was the chief author of the arguments by which it was commended to the several States for ratification, it appears probable that without him the American nation would not have come into being. This were distinction enough to give any man an important place in history. But there lay before him services which it is hard to say were not of equal importance.
When Washington was chosen President he made Hamilton the first secretary of the treasury His tremendous task was to provide for funding the national debt, establish the public credit, and provide for the government revenue. He insisted upon the assumption alike, of the debts of the old Confederacy and of the several States which had been contracted in the prosecution of the war, both foreign and domestic. Nine years before he had sent two memorandums to Robert Morris, concerning the establishment of a national bank. As an incident to the collection of the nation’s revenue and the carrying out of its fiscal policy, he finally secured the establishment of such a bank. Although not specifically provided for in the Constitution, he justified it on a theory of implied powers which he developed, arguing that what the Constitution had provided should be done, necessarily warranted the inference that the Federal Government had power to create all instruments necessary and desirable for doing it. This was a wise and profound theory of the Constitution, which transformed it from a dead parchment into a vital fabric. In addition to these purely fiscal operations of the government, Hamilton made a great contribution to political economy in his “Report on Manufactures.” He considered the establishment of these first of all a national policy through which his country might secure economic integrity. It was in this document that he developed his theory of protection. While statesmen have recognized perhaps more and more the difficulty of putting this theory into practice, yet, on the other hand, experience has more and more demonstrated the soundness of the principles.
He believed in protection in the first place as a means of national defense. He desired his country to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient. He wished to encourage manufactures in order that no hostile force should ever be able to deprive the country of “the means of subsistence, habitation, clothing and defense.” After national defense he advocated protection as the method by which the nation would increase its power to produce wealth. In a diversification of industry he saw an enlarged productive power. But beyond these material benefits of protection he sought to confer upon his countrymen the spiritual benefits which he believed would accrue. He knew that diversification would call forth more energy, more effort, and more of the spirit of enterprise. No one would deny that there have been instances where rates have been excessive and the policy of protection has been abused, where selfish interests have unduly profited and where provincial minds have seen in the tariff only a local issue; but this is neither the principle nor the application of the protective theory of Hamilton, which stands today almost as the accepted doctrine of the world.
He had no delusions, however, about the fact that commerce consists of a mutual exchange of merchandise. He saw the folly of attempting, as he expressed it, to “sacrifice the interests of a mutually beneficial intercourse to the vain project of selling everything and buying nothing.” The prevailing activity of his day was agricultural. Though he was reporting on manufactures, he had that interest steadily in mind. His vision always comprehended the whole situation. “It is evident,” he said, “that the exertions of the husbandman will be steady or fluctuating, vigorous or feeble, in proportion to the steadiness or fluctuation, adequateness, or inadequateness of the markets on which he must depend for the vent of the surplus which may be produced by his labor. . . . To secure such a market there is no other expedient than to promote manufacturing establishments.” And he added another great truth: “The aggregate prosperity of manufactures and the aggregate prosperity of agriculture are intimately connected.”
This is the great heritage which Hamilton bequeathed to his countrymen. It is a legacy in which every American has a share. He did not make his appeal to the more ordinary and common motives of human action, which characterized the appeal of Jefferson. He did not trust so implicitly in the popular side of our institutions. He did not realize so thoroughly that whatever forms of government have been provided, whatever economic system has been adopted, that however great and necessary these contributions may have been, the liberty, good order, prosperity, and the moral and spiritual condition of the people depend upon themselves. His great contribution was in providing the means by which these results might be secured. The disposition to ignore or to adopt these means can only be determined by the people themselves.
He had faith that they would make the right choice. That faith has been justified. When great tests have come, when supreme choices have been made, the American people have always stood with Washington, with Hamilton, and with Marshall.
The party now in power in this country, through its present declaration of principles, through the traditions which it inherited from its predecessors, the Federalists and the Whigs, through their achievements and through its own, is representative of those policies which were adopted under the lead of Alexander Hamilton. They are the parties which have kept steadily in view the Union, and the whole Union. They cherished it through the necessary compromises of Henry Clay. They supported it through the wise and patient statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. Without their vision the Union would never have been formed. Without their sacrifice it would not have been preserved.
No one speaks of dissolving the Union now. Its necessary advantages, supplemented by that true spirit of loyalty, make such an appeal impossible. Yet such proposals have their counterpart in those who, while remaining in the Union, selfishly undertake to escape bearing their share of its burdens and rendering due allegiance to its laws. This sometimes appears in the form of sectionalism, sometimes in an attempted class distinction. I do not object to sectionalism because through its action there might be worked an injury to that part of the country in which I live; I do not object to alleged class distinctions because thereby that class to which I should be presumed to belong might suffer harm; I object to them because, by whatever section or class they may be exhibited, they are an injury and a menace to my country; they are narrowing and withering, undertaking to substitute a temporary advantage for the permanent welfare. They are bound to end in destruction. When a people begin to cherish plans for anything save the common welfare, the decay of that country has begun. No party can survive which does not minister to national integrity.
As the inheritors of those principles which saved the young republic from repudiation in its weakness and infancy, we saved it again in its strength and maturity from the attempt at repudiation through the issues of greenbacks in the 1870’s, and from the delusions of free silver in the 1890’s. Our country at the present time is going through a period of deflation, apparently completed, and through a period of retrenchment in public expenditures, both against the opposition of those who were under the misapprehension that they could reap profit out of an unsound condition, and that the country could continue to afford to do through the public treasury what it could not afford to do through private enterprise. While no one at the moment is advocating unsound money, there has been no lack of advocates of unsound credit and unsound prices. Inflation is repudiation. Deflation is assumption. The one undertakes to suspend economic law, and the other undertakes to support it. Either the nation had to bring down the burden, or the burden would bring down the nation. It is the policy of the Republican party, in so far as it can influence conditions, to re-establish financial stability. Like everything which is of value it could not have been had unless we were willing to pay the price. On that firm foundation, which it was absolutely necessary should be built, and which has been built with the least possible inconvenience and loss, there is every reason to expect that the country will go forward into an era of prosperity, tempered, of course, by war conditions, like that which followed the liquidation of the early 1890’s. The only hope of such a prosperity lies in the establishment of economic integrity.
Commensurate with the work of building up was the work of regulation. There came a time at the beginning of this century when economic freedom was threatened, when great combinations were gaining the power to control the business life of the nation and extending an undue influence over the affairs of the government itself. The open door of opportunity, which had always been the American ideal, was in danger of being closed. Through the enactment of new laws, but more especially through the administration and enforcement of old laws, that danger and that threat were averted. Government control and regulation are still new. They have at times been mistakenly applied. They will need the modification which experience shall demonstrate both of withdrawal and advance; but they have kept open the door, they have re-established freedom. This was again the application of the theory of Hamilton to present conditions, that the government have and use the power necessary for the economic welfare of the country. This doctrine our party still supports and still applies to the business regulations of this republic, not that business may be hampered but that it may be free, not that it may be restricted but that it may expand.
There are those who give great expression to their solicitude for the welfare of the people. Their expressions are, no doubt, sincere, and they may entertain a candid desire to accomplish such a purpose; but the great power of production which diversification of industry has brought about has created a condition of interdependence. There is no such thing as the general welfare of the people in a period of business depression. If those policies are adopted which do all that can be done to produce a business prosperity which follows, there is no power which can prevent such prosperity from being diffused among the people. It is the doctrine of the Republican party to encourage business, not merely for its own sake but because that is the surest method of administering to the general welfare. Those who criticize will be justified in their criticism when they can point out a better way.
Amid the changing conditions of the present day, hampered by the uncertain fluctuations in foreign exchange, confused by those costs of production abroad, which cannot be estimated, nevertheless the party is undertaking to reestablish the ancient and always beneficial policy of protection. It is seeking to give it the quality of elasticity that it may be administered in accordance with duly ascertained facts. It will undertake to be a national tariff under which different groups will profit in accordance with duly ascertained facts. It will undertake to be a national tariff under which different groups will profit in accordance with what such action will contribute to the national welfare. It will undertake to be a tariff under which the individual will benefit whenever such benefit would accrue to the common good. While the manufacturer might appear to benefit most in the first instance because he comes into direct competition with foreign production, if the theory of Hamilton be sound the indirect benefit to agriculture will be as large, if not larger. The products of agriculture are consumed by the industrial population. They are the customers of the farmer. If they be prosperous, his markets will grow. On the other hand, the great outlet for manufactured products is on the farm. A prosperous state of agriculture is the foundation of all national prosperity. The manufacturer must look to the farmer not only for his supply of food but for the sale of his commodities. Not in trying to overreach each other, but in putting forth their effort to assist each other, each will find a common salvation.
The ancient power of leadership has not left the republic; the wisdom and statesmanship of those who contributed to its beginnings and supported its continuation are with us yet. The old American spirit lives again in President Harding. Conscious of the burdens which are borne by his countrymen, solicitous for their prompt and effective relief, meeting new occasions with new remedies, rising to new heights as he advances, he is administering the affairs of our country with courage, with resource, with decision, and with a patriotic devotion that is fine and true. The nation looks to him with affection and follows him with admiration.
Hamilton was a soldier not by profession but to accomplish a specific purpose. He was ever a firm advocate of national defense. He laid down the theory of neutrality, not the neutrality of a nation suffering impositions through its weakness, but the neutrality of a nation commanding respect through its strength. He never sought military glory for himself or for his country. His fame does not rest on plans for military conquest. It rests on a firm, secure, and permanent foundation of sound government and economic development. No one can doubt that he desired pre-eminence for his country, but it was the pre-eminence which was to be won not through military aggrandizement but through the example of economic service and enlightened liberty. The nation has attained that diversification of industry which was the vision of Hamilton. How wisely he built it, how successful were his plans is demonstrated by the gigantic resources of our country. In many important products and fabrics our output exceeds that of all the rest of the earth combined. We have attained a world pre-eminence, an unsurpassed agricultural, industrial, and economic strength. It was not merely the courage of the soldiers or the military skill of their commanders, but the enormous unit production of our manufacturing establishments, which won the war. That fervid enterprise, that intellectual ardor, that comprehensive grasp, which Hamilton so successfully sought to call into being, is known the world over as the American spirit. But it is not merely through economic grandeur that the Republican party desires to see this nation serve itself and serve mankind. Unsupported by a moral grandeur all this glory fades away. Unless these resources can be so administered that they increase the material and spiritual welfare of the people, their accumulation has been in vain. All the elaborate functions of the government will be of no avail, unless there abide in the people the simple, homely virtues of industry and thrift, honesty and charity. Without these characteristics there of the government or the general welfare of the people. All of our natural resources, all of our attempted industrial organization, all of our guarantees of freedom will avail nothing without the support of character. There can be no national greatness which does not rest upon the personal integrity of the people.
Great powers bring great responsibilities. We are no longer, as in the days of the fathers, suppliants, depending for our national existence in part upon the jealous rivalries of others. We stand forth independent of all except ourselves. We are advancing toward a new leadership among the peoples of the earth, which must be promoted not by our power to take but by our power to bestow. That same moral grandeur which has been the national ideal in our domestic relations is being made the ideal of our foreign relations. We are the first great nation which ever submitted an authoritative and responsible proposal for the voluntary reduction and limitation of the armed power to coerce. We are the first to secure the consent of the representatives of the great nations to such limitations. It is the record of history that nations follow their interests. We shall follow ours. But the highest interests of our nation lie not in promoting a desire for war but in promoting the arts of peace. Conscious of her strength, serene in her security, rejoicing in her duty, rising to the inspiring vision of Hamilton, America is coming to the position of a nation which:
“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh not evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” and “never faileth.”
Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1924.