Chapter 4: State’s Rights
4.2 How they were lost
We have already covered how decentralization in principle was lost already with the Constitutional settlement. It is not my intention to rehash that same material for the loss of State Rights—though much of it is relevant. But we need to know more of the story, and we need to know more details of some of the parts I have mentioned in passing. What we have not covered yet, but very much need to, is just how systematic and premeditated that original takeover was. We are not dealing with patriots and patriotism here; we are dealing with the roots, causes, and progress of tyranny.
It is helpful to remember at this point that while great societies often appear to crumble overnight, very often the seeds of their destruction were actually planted long before. For example, when the Israelites demanded a “king like other nations” (1 Sam. 8:5), God said definitively that they had rejected Him (1 Sam. 8:7–8). This began the era of the kings in Israel. And yet this God-rejecting society which was “serving other gods” did not collapse immediately. Rather, it gradually decayed over centuries to the point that even its most famous reformer-King, Josiah, could not totally spare it from judgment. This era of the kings ended when the people were defeated and carried away captive into Babylon. But from beginning to end this decline and fall took about 434 years (1020BC to 586 BC). In other words, the incipient cause of a social decline can be present immediately, but its effects may take centuries to manifest fully.
Thus while it may be illuminating to speak of the various periods of centralization in America’s history—whether it be the Wilson War State, the Civil War, etc.—it is not necessarily the most effective approach. It may even be detrimental. For example, the Civil War debate can entirely consume you with an endless variety of side-issues—slavery not the least of them. And yet the issue of slavery—as important and interesting as it is—is not the core issue behind tyranny and centralization in American history. Yet it will consume the entire debate, and then breed several side debates of its own. This is unfruitful. It is better to lay the axe to the root of the tree than hack away at a thousand branches which always seem to find a way to grow back anyway. While it may require some digging, sweat and dirt, we simply must get to that root.
We cannot solve the problem if we are continually trying to fix the wrong problem. We cannot plan a proper solution to the problem if we are misstating the problem, or stating only part of it. For example, we feel free to condemn Wilson or FDR, Johnson or Obama, Socialism or the Fed, and yet we remain timid or even defiantly opposed to criticizing even parts of the Constitution itself. But if the Constitution was the first great act of centralization in this land—the act which enabled and empowered all subsequent centralization in this country (exactly as predicted by its opponents)—then it will do little good to clear away the subsequent acts alone. If the root remains viable, the brambles will grow back. “Return to the Constitution” sounds nice, but what good does it do to return ourselves atop the same slippery slope we’ve already gone down?
So in regard to this project, I am not so much interested in debating the evils pro and con of the Civil War (Northern Aggression, Southern Rebellion, or any of its other hundred partisan epithets), Reconstruction, or the Progressive Era (either in its Republican or Democrat permutations), or anything else. I want to focus on the root of the problem. For that reason, I will take this section to continue the story of centralization during the first generation after the Constitutional settlement, adding upon what I’ve already written under County Rights. I wish to hammer home just how systematically and drastically power was grabbed and centralized during that time, preparing the way for the wars, debts, and tyrannies that would come later. Since I have already told some of the story of the ratification debate, and the series of John Marshall’s Supreme Court decisions which gradually centralized power over every area that the Anti-federalists predicted, I now want to cover a different angle of the same takeover. This will, hopefully, further drive home how the nationalist takeover was premeditated and purposeful, and how it was the turning point for the country (though the nature of the change would take decades fully to manifest).
One of the prominent Anti-federalist writers, “The Federal Farmer” (possibly Richard Henry Lee), pointed out both the extreme degree of the change in government and the premeditated nature of it. Very early in the ratification debate, he wrote,
The plan of government now proposed [the Constitution] is evidently calculated totally to change, in time, our condition as a people. Instead of being thirteen republics, under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government. . . . This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for sometime past.1
The Federalist Agents of Centralization
We need, therefore, to examine the goals and efforts of the most prominent of these early central planners. While there were, of course, many that deserve attention, we will only have space here to deal with some of the most famous—Madison, Hamilton, and Washington. Among these, we will mainly concentrate on Hamilton’s agenda.
As I said, we have already discussed Marshall a bit. Despite the enormity of his contribution, he was only the judicial wing of the real energy behind the Federalists. Writing on the centennial of Marshall’s death, the leftist Max Lerner noted the direction of the judge’s agenda: “[M]uch of Marshall’s career may be viewed as a process of reading Hamilton’s state papers into the Constitution.”2
There is no doubt that there was no influence toward centralization of power more efficient, effective, energetic and evil all at the same time than Alexander Hamilton. Often praised today by conservatives for the tradition of “strong Hamiltonian Federalism”—derived from his central role in writing the Federalist Papers defending the Constitution—his system was anything but truly federal. He was the liberal progressive of his day in nearly every political sense considerable (except possibly the idea of social welfare which was not really invented yet, not in the modern sense).
Long before the Convention, Hamilton displayed a dangerous taste for top-down, coercive means of obtaining his goals. As a young soldier these instincts served him well, producing examples of bravery and leadership during the Revolution. But during the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, when the restless Revolutionary Army refused to disband without its long-overdue pay, Hamilton suggested Washington take charge of the army and use the threat of force to persuade Congress not only to pay up, but to pass legislation to install his dream of a more centralized financial system. Washington, as much a statist but less foolhardy than his former aide-de-camp, read Hamilton’s letter “with pain . . . astonishment and horror.” He explained,
The idea of redress by force, is too chimerical to have had a place in the imagination of any serious Mind in this Army; but there is no telling what unhappy disturbances might result from distress, and distrust of justice. . . . [T]he Army . . . is a dangerous instrument to play with.3
Hamilton’s dangerous disposition developed very early. As a bastard child who was orphaned at about 12 years of age when his mother died of fever, he was fortunate to find meaningful employment as a merchant’s apprentice. A prodigious self-taught child, his intellect and energy drove him quickly to a position of responsibility: he was keeping the books and running the warehouse at 12 while his masters were out at sea. Despite his early accomplishments and promise, Hamilton was bored. He confronted his boredom with dreams of fame and glory. In a letter to a friend, he revealed how he disdained a life of common business: “I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me.” He said he would willingly risk his life to exalt his “Station.” And Hamilton had studied the classics; he knew how to achieve advancement and fame. The primary way—according to prominent Greek and Roman writers—was through warfare. Hamilton was ready to risk his life, he said; and thus he wrote, “I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a war.”4
For a young man to be considering personal fame and advancement, and already having plans how best to achieve it, at age 12, is to say the least extraordinary. But to be discontent with a promising business career and willing to die for fame is the definition of a fool. To dismiss (really hate) the value of a steady wealth-producing life due to a lust for fame is indeed a biblical definition of foolishness.
We must not ignore the powerful role that the lust for fame played in the lives of America’s framers. It was overwhelming; it was all-consuming for them. An historian widely respected by colleagues from various perspectives and parties, Douglass Adair, first alerted the American history profession to the importance of this concept. It reigned true for most of the famous founders, including Hamilton. Hamilton recognized that “love of fame . . . is the ruling passion of the noblest minds.”5 He would second this motion later in his life in a letter to his uncle, suggesting that the “love of fame” was a common “spring of action” for seeking public office.”6 After reviewing how this love of fame infused the lives of Hamilton, Washington and others, Adair concludes,
The love of fame, and the belief that creating a viable republican state would win them fame, is part of the explanation of the élan, the tremendous energy, the dedicated and brilliantly effective political maneuvers by which a small minority of American leaders who were nationalists kidnapped the movement to reform the Articles, wrote what they conceived to be a more perfect union, and then managed to get it ratified by the reluctant representatives of a apathetic populace.7
An American Caesar
In Hamilton’s case, the love of fame seems to have had some attachment to the icon of empire himself—Julius Caesar. Jefferson had portraits of Bacon, Locke, and Newton in his parlor. He called these the three greatest men the world had ever produced. As a guest in Jefferson’s house, Alexander Hamilton rebuffed him: “The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.”8 Jefferson would conclude of Hamilton that while “honest as a man,” he was nevertheless, “as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”9
An interesting angle appears long before Hamilton’s visit to Jefferson. As champion of the Constitutional centralization, Hamilton was the most vigorous nationalist to undertake its defense in print. But before he and Madison collaborated as “Publius” on the Federalist Papers project, a curious pair of response letters appeared in a New York newspaper. Here’s the story:
The other two delegates from New York left the Convention early in disgust at what they perceived as a coup. They returned to New York City and informed the strongly state’s rights (at the time) Governor George Clinton what was afoot. Merely ten days after the close of the Convention, the proposed Constitution was published in the New York Journal for all to read. In that same September 27, 1787 edition, an open letter to the citizens of New York bore a critique and solemn warning about the proposal. The letter was signed with the pseudonym “Cato.” The author was (most assume) Governor George Clinton.
The name “Cato” was taken from Cato the Younger (d. 46 BC), the ancient Roman statesman known for his commitment to freedom and honesty. After Caesar crossed the Rubicon and usurped power from the Senate, Cato committed suicide. He would rather die than suffer the tyranny of Caesar’s military dictatorship. Governor Clinton now saw a group of similarly ambitious would-be Caesars usurping power from the States. He warned the people:
Deliberate, therefore, on this new national government with coolness; analyze it with criticism; and reflect on it with candor: if you find that the influence of a powerful few, or the exercise of a standing army, will always be directed and exerted for your welfare alone, and not to the aggrandizement of themselves . . . adopt it—if it will not, reject it with indignation—better to be where you are, for the present, than insecure forever afterwards. . . .10
Within a week, the letter received a response in the newspaper.And what pen-name would the ambitious defender choose to oppose Cato? Unbelievably, it was “Caesar.” And just like the Caesar who crossed the Rubicon with military force, this young would-be Caesar brandished the threat of military takeover should the people not submit to the proposed government willingly. Referring to George Washington as “the American Fabius,” he urged Clinton to help the former general’s journey to the presidency of a new nation:
I would also advise him to give his vote . . . to the American Fabius; it will be more healthy for this country, and this state, that he should be induced to accept of the presidency of the new government, than that he should be solicited again to accept of the command of an army.11
Scholars for some time considered Hamilton the author of the “Caesar” letters, though it has been severely questioned by some today.12 Whoever the author was, he (or she) was certainly of same Hamiltonian nationalizing spirit, even if more extreme, and was very likely of personal association with, or at least known to, Hamilton. What this shows is that the nationalist clique of New York in which Hamilton circulated himself at the time was willing to appeal immediately to military force in order to get their agenda passed.
So here we have the same Hamilton who in 1783 urged Washington to leverage military power aligned with the same “end-justifies-the-means” tactic once again. Clinton (although certainly no saint himself) denounced this idea to the people as a threat that “in case you do not acquiesce, he should be solicited to command an army to impose it on you.” In his second letter as Cato, he went on to remind them of the freedom they had just fought for:
Is not your indignation roused at this imperious style?—For what did you open the veins of your citizens and expend their treasure?—For what did you throw off the yoke of Britain and call yourselves independent?—Was it from a disposition fond of change, or to procure new masters?—if those were your motives, you have your reward before you—go,—retire into silent obscurity, and kiss the rod that scourges you—bury the prospects you had in store, that you and your posterity would participate in the blessings of freedom . . . let the rich and insolent alone be your rulers—perhaps you are designed by providence as an emphatic evidence of the mutability of human affairs, to have the shew of happiness only, that your misery may seem the sharper, and if so, you must submit. But, if you had nobler views, and you are not designed by heaven as an example—are you now to be derided and insulted?—Is the power of thinking, on the only subject important to you, to be taken away? And if perchance you should happen to dissent from Caesar, are you to have Caesar’s principles crammed down your throats with an army?—God forbid! . . .13
This indeed was a case of Caesar versus Cato, and the Governor intended to make it clear to all people that a small group of tyrants intended to grab power over them. He wrote:
The Convention too, when in session, shut their doors to the observations of the community, and their members were under an obligation of secrecy—Nothing transpired. . . .
For the sole and express purpose [of revising the Articles of Confederation] a Convention of delegates is formed in Philadelphia:—what have they done? Have they revised the confederation, and has Congress agreed to their report?—neither is the fact.—This Convention have exceeded the authority given to them, and have transmitted to Congress a new political fabric, essentially and fundamentally distinct from it, in which the different states do not retain separately their sovereignty and independency, united by a confederated league—but one entire sovereignty—a consolidation of them into one government. . . .
[T]he Convention had taken on themselves a power which neither they nor the states had a right to delegate to them. . . . it originated in an assumption of power . . . founded on usurpation. . . .
[A]nd yet you are unhesitatingly to acquiesce, and if you do not, the American Fabius, if we may believe Caesar, is to command an army to impose it.14
Caesar’s final letter against Cato would reveal his animosity not only to freedom, but to religion: he wished to see America as a glorious secular empire destined to steal power from and begin the decline of Christian nations:
When this glorious work is accomplished, what may America not hope to arrive at? I will venture to prophesy that the day on which the Union under the new government shall be ratified by the American States, that that day will begin an era which will be recorded and observed by future ages, as a day which the Americans had marked by their wisdom in circumscribing the power and ascertaining the decline of the ancient nations in Christendom.15
Hamilton surely, quickly realized that “Caesar” did not have the upper hand in this particular rhetorical battle. He was playing the role of the tyrant, Caesar, against the just lover of freedom, Cato. He was threatening a military dictatorship, or at best a civil war, and he openly opposed Christian civilization at this time. He seemed to play the part of a tyrant well. So Hamilton resolved to change tactics: he presented himself as the champion of federalism and liberty, joining with Madison for the Federalist Papers. These did become a success, and probably should be the subject of a later supplementary discussion.
A Christian Statesman?
The public deprecation of “the ancient nations in Christendom” struck directly (if unwittingly) at the true Christian heritage of America. As we saw in the last chapter, the Christian feudal system (what was good of it), particularly the emphasis on contracts and property ownership, formed the basis of the settlement of this land. It formed the basis, particularly, of the decentralized nature of government in America. The nationalist swipe at that heritage—indeed the prophecy of its decline and fall—was an admission of the unbounded tyranny latent in that party.
Hamilton’s relationship with religion is certainly of interest. Adair and Harvey have recognized four different periods of his life in which his attitude toward religion was quite different: his youth, his fabulous rise to fame, his partisan activist period, and his decline and fall.16 Without explaining each part in depth, here are the main points. During his youth, Hamilton was eventually taken in by a devout Presbyterian family. During these years he prayed regularly and attended worship services and religious education, though he never joined a church. It seems that during these years he may have been simply going through motions, for in the second period, his references to the faith disappear from his writings almost entirely.
It is the second and third periods which concern us most here, for this is when most of Hamilton’s permanent influence was wielded. And it is here that his agenda and worldview are most explicit. As I mentioned, during this second period—which covered his military exploits and advance to national stardom, 1777 to 1792—Hamilton appears religiously indifferent, even mocking. He refers to religion only twice in these fifteen years, and both times in crude jest. In the first, he says that a certain “Dr. Mendy” fit his mold for a perfect army chaplain except that the parson “does not whore or drink”—suggesting that he expects hypocrisy among Christian ministers. Not ironically, the later editor of Hamilton’s writings, Henry Cabot Lodge, scrubbed “whore or” from his edition of the letters (the only one available to the public). The lack of irony comes in the fact that Lodge published in 1904 as a partisan of the old imperial Progressive Republicans—for whom Hamilton was a hero, but he had to be sanitized for “Christian America.” In the second reference, Hamilton provided a friend with his qualifications for a good wife. Among having “a good shape” and a large fortune, she must both “believe in God and hate a saint.” Aside from these references, we have nothing from Hamilton’s own pen on religion during the period. There are a couple of other anecdotes from others, but these, too, are unflattering.
Hamilton’s third stage is ushered in during the period of the French Revolution and the political battles with Jefferson. At this point, Hamilton suddenly waxes religious again. Unfortunately, his main references during this period make it clear he was using religious rhetoric only for political advantage. Indeed, he speaks explicitly of religion as an “engine” of politics, and explained this at length in letter to William L. Smith (April 10, 1797):
A politician will consider this [religion] as an important means of influencing opinion, and will think it a valuable resource in a contest with France to set the religious ideas of his countrymen in active competition with the atheistical tenets of their enemies. This is an advantage which we shall be very unskilled if we do not use to the utmost.17
Just for the record, while Lodge printed part of the letter of Hamilton’s, he suppressed this part of it. Progressive Republican “Christian American” endured.
With this plan in place, Hamilton mounted his attack against the Jeffersonians by presenting them as American admirers of the French Revolution, engaged in “a conspiracy to establish atheism on the ruins of Christianity.”18 Yet as we just noted, it was Hamilton himself who sought to overthrow the ancient heritage of Christianity in society. So nothing of Hamilton in this period speaks of a Christian worldview: only of hypocrisy and political leverage. Even the secular historians note, “this period in his life hardly deserves to be praised as an era of Christian thought and practice.”19 This is an understatement.
Hamilton does eventually appear to get true religion, but only after his dramatic fall from fame and popularity. In his final four years of life there are numerous testimonies to his change of heart and perspective in his humbled state. He focuses on family, nature, and gardening, and prays with his sons. He allegedly disagreed with dueling, and yet accepted the code of honor to which he apparently felt bound. Nevertheless, he allegedly wrote that he would waste his shot and let Burr kill him. On his death bed he pleaded for the sacrament and eventually received it when the parson accepted his faith as genuine. Thus it appears Hamilton died a Christian.
But all of this came only after his great fall from public grace and influence, and little-too-late to affect his politics in a biblical way. Adair and Harvey observe,
Hamilton, who in the years of his early success had almost forgotten God, who in the years of his greatest power had tried to manipulate God just as he manipulated the public debt to increase that power, began sincerely seeking God in this time of failure and suffering.20
Besides, this more private religious period is less referenced as the image of Hamilton’s faith. It was his period of manipulating God that factors most heavily in this image:
Ironically, it is his insistence during these years, in tirade after tirade, that “democracy” and “Christianity” were incompatible, that Jefferson, “the atheist,” was God’s enemy, that has left a simple-minded American posterity with the false impression that Hamilton throughout his life was a devout Christian in both thought and practice.21
Indeed, we have seen that this was not the case. During his most influential years, he was at his most irreligious. And during these times he had perhaps the largest hand in America in pushing through massive assumptions of power, beginning with the Constitution, and extending throughout many acts of legislation, taxation, military action against Americans, central banking, judicial cases, and many other acts of tyranny. It is tempting to say that his years of tyranny and sacrilege were not ironically synchronized.
To be Continued . . .
Well, it is clear that this article is getting too long for one post. I will have to divide this section into two parts. In the next installment, we will walk talk about the New Deal—but not the one you think!—and the power-hungry elites who brought it to pass.
- The Complete Anti-Federalist, 7 vol., ed. by Herbert J. Storing (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 2.8.4.(↩)
- “John Marshall’s Long Shadow,” Ideas are Weapons: The History and Use of Ideas, (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, NJ, 1991), 31.(↩)
- Washington to Hamilton, April 4, 1783, The Writings of George Washington: Volume 29, January 1, 1783–June 10, 1783, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1938), 292, 293.(↩)
- Quoted in Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), 9.(↩)
- Douglass Adair, “Fame and the Founding Fathers,” Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. by Trevor Colbourn (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1974), 10.(↩)
- See McDonald, 85; Hamilton to William Hamilton, May 2, 1797, Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Volume 21, April 1797–July 1798, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 78.(↩)
- Adair, 34.(↩)
- Adair, 18. See Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, Jan. 17, 1811.(↩)
- Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, Jan. 17, 1811, The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Volume 11, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1902), 168. The recent hagiographer of Hamilton has called this story “absurd.” His evidence however is a combination of strained assumptions and exaggerated circumstantial references, as will be shown in a later post.(↩)
- Storing, 2:105–6.(↩)
- Ford, Essays, 285. Fabius Maximus was the Roman general who won his wars gradually through guerilla tactics. Instead of meeting superior forces head-on, he broke into small bands and executed numerous small sorties, slowly wearing down the enemy’s forces and will to fight. George Washington had used similar tactics against the British during the American War for Independence.(↩)
- There remains scholarly discussion whether or not the letters of Caesar were penned by Hamilton. While consensus for some time accepted it was Hamilton—based on primary-source evidence found by Paul Leicester Ford—a couple scholars have since undermined this position with counterevidence strong enough to force the question to remain open. (See Jacob E. Cooke, “Alexander Hamilton’s Authorship of the ‘Caesar’ Letters,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 17/ 1 (Jan., 1960): 78–85.) The worst part of this debate is that Ford’s primary source evidence was apparently destroyed in a library fire, and thus are not able to be re-entered into the discussion. This allows would-be Hamilton apologists the leverage of further skepticism.(↩)
- Storing, 2:107.(↩)
- Storing, 2:108–9.(↩)
- Ford, Essays, 291.(↩)
- See Douglass Adair and Martin Harvey, “Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesmen?” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 12/2 (Apr. 1955): 308–329.(↩)
- Quoted in Adair and Harvey, 316n10.(↩)
- Quoted in Adair and Harvey, 316n10.(↩)
- Adair and Harvey, 316.(↩)
- Adair and Harvey, 317.(↩)
- Adair and Harvey, 316.(↩)