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in defense of historical context

I was struck by a recent article by Ed Glaeser, which takes a historical look back at the policies and ideologies of politicians from Henry Clay to Woodrow Wilson.

While I generally find Glaeser’s perspective to be in line with my own, I found his historical characterizations grating: positive depictions of Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson, negative characterizations of Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt — yikes.

I can’t claim complete objectivity in this matter, as the latter are two of my favorite American historical figures, and the former float around the bottom of my informal ranking of American presidents. For reasons distinct from his economic policy, Jackson may be one of the most despicable blemishes on our national record (I’ll be reading the “American Lion” soon – we’ll see if that sways me.)

But more significant than the details of Glaeser’s particular article is what it represents, that is, a tendency amongst modern thinkers to distort the thoughts, motivations, and actions of past figures through a decidedly modern prism.

Many small-government folks will pick up the “Jeffersonian” mantle and sneer at Hamilton, with his love of federal power. Now, people do all sorts of crazy stuff, but this bothers me because I happen to otherwise agree with a lot of these people. Often these are disciples of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who view the Hamiltonian legacy as a threat to state -and by extension- individual power.

These moderns have the nasty tendency of reading the words and actions of men and women (namely men) long since dead and gone as if they were writing and acting in the modern world. ‘Hamilton – oh jeez, he loves federal power, he’d be all about expanding the reach of The Man at the expense our Ron Paul revolution!’

And so, these men of history are stripped of their historical context.

This is unfortunate. A careful consideration of context allows for a more precise understanding of the historical person, a more objective and apt judgment of their actions, and a sounder understanding of just what lessons to learn from their experiences.

Myself, I believe Hamilton’s presence may have carried the second most weight in securing the United States’ future prosperity and relative security while also believing that the US would currently benefit from a devolution of power from the federal to the state level (and from the government to the individual): there is no contradiction inherent in these positions.

The age of Hamilton saw the competition of great Atlantic nation-states. The countries were powerful, aggressive, and keen to elbow out competition and expand wherever they might find opportunity. (Just ask the Dutch Republic.) The American colonies were weak and divided, and, without Hamilton’s supposedly nefarious central bank and consolidation of debts, would doubtlessly have drifted further apart.

Even with Hamilton’s work, the United States had to fend off foreign intrigues that sought to play one state off the others to secure geopolitical and economic interests in America. Given the history of Europe, I feel confident speculating that a country with a Spanish Florida, British Texas/South, French Bayou, and/or Mexican/German/Japanese Pacific would have led to considerably more wars and considerably less economic growth.

My argument, by the way, implies that this added value also supports the westward expansion (unfortunately named ‘Manifest Destiny’) in the name of continental integrity (the later Mexican/German intrigue and Japanese hostilities would seem to support this logic), as well as forbidding the South from succession (a tricky issue likely deserving of its own post).

Economic liberty should be fought for and celebrated, and Americans are right to be suspicious of any actions that usurp this personal freedom in the name of fighting some greater enemy.

That does not necessarily mean that there are no times when such a sacrifice is not just wise, but necessary for the long-term preservation of this economic liberty. In the early 21st century, with the world’s great states at rest and a federal government infinitely more powerful than its 18th century counterpart, there are few if any reasons to further concentrate power (and indeed many to devolve it). As noted above, Hamilton’s America was an entirely different beast struggling to survive in a far different jungle. And just as evolution may favor a smaller or larger animal at different points of time, the same is true for the natural selection of human societies.

The intertwining fates of survival and liberalism are recent developments, and to attack figures like Hamilton for failing to live up to 20th century ideals is as silly as criticizing Caesar as a murderer of democracy. To say that circumstances vary widely is to understate the point: in many cases, it may be more effective to use different terminology for different periods of time, so as not to confuse common terms with common realities.

I should note that I don’t mean this post to be a final word on the defense of Hamilton, but simply to raise a principled disagreement with the method by which he -and many others- are judged. Economists with no historical background can be just as inane as historians with no economic learning.

That said, I think the econs are right on about FDR. 😉

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Filed under: Economic Policy

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