Thursday, January 22, 2009

Personal Aside: The Ideological Tennis Game that Has Built Our Politics.


The Tension Between Liberty and Order.

Our country’s politics began as an ideological tennis match—the founding of this country. And it’s still going on after 220 years. But the game is getting so one-sided that until it returns to a middling balance between the players, it’s going to be ruinous for us all.

It’s always been known that the good society must have both liberty and order. If you have too much liberty, the absence of enduring law, you get anarchy. If you have too much order, there is a snuffing out of freedom and you get despotism. The knack of the game is to equate a balance between liberty and order.

After the Revolution, two major league players moved to center court. Superbly equipped intellectually, they were probably the most fascinating opponents a political system ever had. As they took their places on opposite sides of the net, let’s examine them. One: Thomas Jefferson. A Virginia patrician landowner, horticulturalist, architect, inventor, statesman and sublime writer, in his 40s when the game began, he stood for one of the two key aspirations that make a country great: liberty. He began as the designated server in this makeshift tennis match by serving up our canonical testament for freedom, the Declaration of Independence—no greater argument for liberty in the West. With the penning of the Declaration, proclaiming liberty, the joust begin with: Advantage: Jefferson.

On the opposite side of the net, was Alexander Hamilton, illegitimate, motherless at an early age from the West Indies with a Scot noble as father, moved to New York in his teens, worked in a counting house, becoming lawyer, economist, soldier, constitutional expert, in his late 30s at start of the game. He stood ready to receive. When the ball came over the net, he countered with order and crusaded for a Constitution…something Jefferson vaguely distrusted—a set of laws with teeth, not semi-recommendations as in the Articles of Confederation. When the Constitution was approved, there was a tie between the two: liberty with Jefferson, order with Hamilton. The difference was crystal clear: Jefferson sided with rural areas, individual liberty, as little government regulation as possible. Hamilton sided with a strong national government which he insisted was needed to protect commerce.

But for now with adoption of the Constitution, Advantage: Hamilton.

In response Jefferson smashed an attack across the net in behalf of liberty: the Bill of Rights. Hamilton wasn’t happy with the Bill of Rights but accepted it in order to get the Constitution ratified. Advantage: Jefferson.

In the administration of George Washington, both protagonists…who didn’t like each other at all…were cabinet members: Jefferson, secretary of state and Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. Now the tennis game started to get furious but the country immeasurably benefited from such creative energy and competition. Hamilton realized the U.S. was born in debt and he had the job of paying the bills. The U.S. had just come through the Revolution while it also endured a recession. Hamilton set up a revenue stream (excise taxes, import duties) and a heavy tax on whiskey but Jefferson said this was impinging on liberty. Farmers in Pennsylvania started a revolt against taxes on their grain that went into distilling whiskey. Advantage: Jefferson.

But Hamilton sent out an army to force them to obey—and they did. Advantage: Hamilton.

Now Hamilton insisted on much more monetary control. He wanted to set up a mechanism by which the U.S. could borrow massive funds for growth. Hamilton who was brought up in a counting house, worried that the economy had a lack of liquid capital and believed government bonds could serve as collateral for bank loans, leading to more available capital which would lure more capital from Europe. Jefferson detested the power of the money oligarchs (even though he personally was far wealthier than Hamilton), arguing the country’s freedoms could be best preserved in agrarian societies, not urban areas. Washington agreed with Hamilton. Advantage: Hamilton.

Hamilton became the de facto prime minister. He insisted the federal government assume the debts of the individual states during the war. Jefferson was adamantly opposed since his state, Virginia, had redeemed most of its bonds as had other southern states. He saw it as a grab by Hamilton’s New York speculators who bought the bonds at cut rate prices and wanted to make a killing on them when the price rose. Jefferson and his ally Madison defeated Hamilton’s plan four straight times in the House. Advantage: Jefferson.

Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison…representing New York and Virginia…got together over dinner and agreed that if Jefferson’s loyalists in the House would agree to the feds taking over the debt, Hamilton would agree that Virginia would host the capital on the fetid swamp of the Potomac river. The deal worked out for the Capital city and the economy. The U. S. bonds were snapped up in the marketplace with the whole issue sold out in a matter of weeks. Europe got interested and was a resounding point in the tennis game for Hamilton. Advantage: Hamilton. .

Now Hamilton, heady with victory over Jefferson, pressed his advantage. He called for creation of a national bank , the Bank of the United States, patterned after the Bank of England. He saw the bank as a depository for government funds, a means of transferring monies from one part of the country to another, a source of loans to the government and other banks and a device to regulate the money supply i.e. a 18th century version of the Federal Reserve. He didn’t like the idea of government issuing paper money because governments, he said wisely, are not noted for self-discipline. Jefferson saw this as a violation of the Constitution which doesn’t mention a bank, as a giveaway to the rich, He despised banks and stimulated a fear of powerful financial institutions in his followers.

To the argument that the Constitution didn’t provide for a bank, Hamilton invented the concept of “implied powers.” Oh-oh: danger signal.

That concept has been with us for two centuries. Implied powers was an invention, Jefferson said, and potentially a deadly threat to liberty. It could be stretched to embrace anything the politicians want. You know what? He was right. Hamilton argued that without “implied powers,” the government would be imprisoned in a kind of strait-jacket. He was right, too. For proof in the 1780s, the colonies were a financial disaster. The record was clear: By 1794 it had the highest credit rating in Europe. By 1801 Europe was helping to build the U. S. economy. Hamilton seemed to have the better of the argument—besides he had Washington on his side. You can’t just go on passing amendments to the Constitution every time you want to do something, said Hamilton, adding: don’t worry—I’m incorruptible. .

And there was still more—and Hamilton bested Jefferson in all of them. Hamilton’s Report on Manufacturers was a document that called for tariffs and subsidies to protect domestic industries. Jefferson was a free trader. Using the General Welfare clause of the Constitution, Hamilton opened the door to wholesale subsidies for big business, to projects for roads, dams. Who was ultimately right in that contest? Most Americans then, seeing the economic growth of the U.S. and rooted in pragmatism, would say Hamilton. But under the ambitious Hamilton, Congress’ spending rocketed and the national debt soared to more than $80 million…then a spectacular amount. Payment of interest alone amounted to 40% of the nation’s revenue. However, it’s hard to see how the new government could have survived without Hamilton. But still Washington backed Hamilton. Advantage: Hamilton.

At this point, Hamilton and Jefferson left the administration and formed two different parties—the Federalists (Hamilton) and the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson). The Federalists turned despotic after Washington’s term as their passion for order stifled legitimate dissent. Federalist president John Adams signed laws that punished anyone who dared to talk against the government. Jefferson won the presidency in 1800 and that was the end of the Federalists. He ended the Bank of the United States. Advantage: Jefferson.

But Hamilton influenced Adams to name a string of Federalist judges to life terms including as chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Marshall served 35 years changing everything in his wake for supposed order. With crusty old Marshall, a devotee of Hamilton presiding, the forces of supposed order drastically out-pointed the forces of liberty. Marshall changed the tennis game permanently, continuing to do so long after Hamilton and Jefferson were dead. How?

In Marbury v. Madison he wrote the most important decision in U. S. history, declaring the Court, his Court…meaning him—had the authority to declare laws elected by the people’s representatives in Congress unconstitutional. It was judicial dictatorship. Jefferson responded: “ My construction of the Constitution is…that each department [i.e. branch of government, executive, congressional, judiciary] and has an equal right to decide what is the meaning of the Constitution in the cases submitted to its action.” Longtime Advantage: Hamilton--which continues to this day. The corkscrew concoctions of law based on implied words and inventions have given us Roe v. Wade and many others to come down the road—possibly same-sex marriage (already realized in Massachusetts).

Jefferson Faces a Dilemma.

Though as president Jefferson announced he would do things by-the-book (the Constitution)—and indeed he paid off all the national debt--, in 1803 he found he had a difficult choice to make. He worried that Napoleon, by possessing the port city of New Orleans, could close the Mississippi to U.S. commerce at any time. His job was to protect and defend the United States. But here he was caught in a vise. Nowhere does the Constitution provide that we can purchase land from a foreign country. He signaled an offer to buy for up to $2 million the city of New Orleans. Lo and behold, Napoleon’s emissary wanted to know how much the U.S. would pay for the entire Louisiana territory—82,000 square miles!

Time was running out. No Constitutional sanction aside, it was too good to pass up a deal like that. And so, for a seeming pittance. $15 million, less than 5 cents an acre Louisiana doubled the size of containing present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, that part of Minnesota south of the Mississippi, most of North Dakota, most of South Dakota, northeastern New Mexico, northern Texas, portions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Orleans. The Federalists raised their eyes to heaven: here was Jefferson violating the Constitution—of all people! The territory was valueless—just a huge desert.

But shame, not being in the repertoire of politicians, Hamilton’s Federalists attacked Jefferson for “violating the Constitution.”. Jefferson got the deal through anyhow, one of his greatest contributions to his country—opening the way for the eventual expansion of the U.S. across the continent to the Pacific—the biggest land acquisition in history without a shot being fired or a single life lost. Titanic advantage: Jefferson, though on Hamilton’s side of the tennis court in behalf of Order.

Well, in 1804, Hamilton was shot to death in a duel and the Federalist party died with him to be succeeded by the Whigs which became the repository of the impulse for order, the party of business interests and public highway and dam construction. Then a frontier general came on the scene, a slave-owner who hated banks and big business almost as much as Jefferson did. He was Andrew Jackson who abolished the 2nd Bank of the United States (which had been restarted by James Madison). But Jackson also had a strong streak of Hamilton in him. When South Carolina tried to secede over a tariff issue, Jackson sent the army in to quell it saying “To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the union is to say the United States is not a nation.”

From that time on, the forces of liberty didn’t make out too well A so-called Jefferson Democrat, James K. Polk became president. He was an expansionist big-time. We acquired Texas and with what some say was a trumped up charge, we rigged a vote to go to war with Mexico over California. The peace treaty increased our size by a third…California, Nevada and parts of New Mexico. He wanted to acquire Cuba from Spain when his term ran out. The Whigs opposed it for a while but switched stands.

Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, is credited with “saving the Union” but to do it during the Civil War he extinguished personal liberties for a time—including the suspension of habeas corpus, shutting down more than 300 opposition newspapers and confiscating private property. Of course when he was doing these things, Lincoln could see out his 2nd floor bedroom window the Confederate campfires burning in Virginia. That should grant him some leeway don’t you think?

But the biggest usurpation of power by the Hamiltonians came in the late 19th century with Teddy Roosevelt, followed in the 20th by Woodrow Wilson who maneuvered us into war with Germany and Franklin Roosevelt who announced the Constitution was a product of the horse-and-buggy days. The greatest president of the early 20th was Calvin Coolidge for a masterly passive rule of law. By his annunciation of the phrase “Government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan was a beacon of liberty.

How can we rectify the imbalance and return our polity to the old tennis game format where there is a force for liberty balanced against a force for order? First, I would suggest we have to specify the concept of order. I give Hamilton a pass on his early innovations as treasury secretary including the bank. I would definitely not give his colleague John Marshall a nod of recognition for Marbury v. Madison which installed the makings of judicial tyranny for life. Realism must overcome rigid ideology when the nation’s welfare is at stake, and of course Jefferson was right in sanctioning the Louisiana Purchase. Polk’s expansionism made sense until he invented a spurious pretext for war. Lincoln was faced with an insuperable problem. To sanction the breakup of the union would be to allow the country to be chopped up successively over any other issue.

Our greatest enemies were Theodore Roosevelt who allowed expansionism to shape his bogus dream of glory…Woodrow Wilson who got us into a needless war culminating in the Versailles Treaty that spurred another one…Franklin Roosevelt a grimacing old fraud who never solved the Depression and yearned for war. I give a pass to George W. Bush for Iraq. It’s not just happenstance that we have been spared terrorist attack in the last seven years…and, incidentally, news to the media, we’ve won the Iraq War. The great model for both liberty and order was Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio in his 1952 campaign I enlisted—and after studying his record for the past 60 years, I still admire his wondrous balance in domestic and foreign policy. The closest to Taft today is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

Let us pray that there will be a party realignment on both sides and a tennis game will start once again between the forces of liberty and order.

To start with, it’d help if we could get the DNA of Hamilton and Jefferson.


  1. "The greatest president of the early 20th was Calvin Coolidge for a masterly passive rule of law."

    A righteous "Amen" to that observation!

  2. My compliments on an essay worthy of a college history lecture. The last thing I've seen along these lines was an essay in the Boston Globe three years ago on how the great intellectual debate of the previous 50 years was over the role of government and the economy, with Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith as the adversaries.

  3. And then came the Jews who screwed it all up. Thanks to the Jewish neo-cons we can all say bye bye to Social Conservatism.