Acton Institute Powerblog

Alexander Hamilton and American nationalism, in his time and ours

In one of the most significant American political developments in some time, over the past five years many conservatives have embraced nationalism. This shift has not only reset the contours of debate, but it has directly influenced economic and foreign policy.

Historically, American nationalism has come in many flavors. “New Nationalism,” which former President Teddy Roosevelt espoused in 1912, grounded itself in progressive policies that were to be implemented by federal agencies. In other instances, American national identity has been distinguished by traits that have little to do with government. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations” to address difficulties, he implied, by contrast, that many other peoples tended to expect governments to solve their problems.

Despite these differences, any discussion of American nationalism will reliably surface one name in particular: Alexander Hamilton. As his many biographers have established, Hamilton’s ideas and actions were shaped by several, often incompatible schools of thought. The same biographers, however, regularly use the word “nationalist” to describe his outlook.

Contemporary American nationalists aren’t shy about citing Hamilton as a Founder who can lend legitimacy to their policy preferences. (In one article, for example, Senator Marco Rubio invoked Hamilton to promote policies commonly associated with economic nationalism.) In truth, however, Hamilton was a different kind of nationalist from those who claim that mantle in our time. Some of the differences are more subtle than others; yet, taken together, they raise questions about whether today’s nationalists can rightfully take Hamilton as their patron saint.

Who’s a Nationalist?

Today’s self-identified American nationalists don’t agree about everything; but they have much in common, especially in what they oppose.

Most obviously, the new nationalists are “anti-globalist.” They have a deep suspicion of supranational political projects—like the European Union—that seek to dilute national sovereignty. They are skeptical of America’s engaging in nation-building around the world, and they resist making sudden military interventions to resolve challenges in foreign affairs.

The new nationalists are “anti-globalist.” They have a deep suspicion of supranational political projects—like the European Union—that seek to dilute national sovereignty.

On the economic side, most present-day American nationalists have major reservations about liberalizing trade. Free trade, they argue, has benefited China at the expense of the United States, and has compromised national security. Like many Americans before them, they insist that tariffs and industrial policies should be used extensively to protect specific industries, bolster others, and spark innovation that, they believe, would not otherwise occur.

On the domestic front, today’s nationalists present themselves as the voice of those who, they claim, have been net losers from globalization, and who have borne too much of the costs of overseas military deployments for too long. They also argue that America is fracturing under internal pressures like identity politics; a business world increasingly enthralled to woke capitalism; a left that fosters ideological agendas—like the 1619 project—to promote myths about American history; and many public officials’ refusal to enforce immigration laws.

Too many conservatives, the new nationalists insist, have proved ineffectual at addressing these challenges, or shown little interest in the millions of Americans who have experienced their sharp end. To the extent that it purports to represent America’s forgotten men and women, today’s nationalism has a populist dimension

National Institutions, Higher Goods

Many conservatives who do not consider themselves “nationalists” would affirm parts of this agenda. Conservative hostility to supranational schemes, for example, was well in place long before 2015. Some of the same conservatives would nonetheless maintain that there is no fundamental conflict between being a patriotic American and favoring free trade.

American patriotism was central to Alexander Hamilton’s political creed. An immigrant from the West Indies, Hamilton was not emotionally invested in any particular state. Much of his agenda was driven by his concern that Americans’ deep local loyalties—which led many to regard their state as their “country”—would undermine the fragile unity that marked America during and after the Revolution.

This fear of Hamilton’s is a key to understanding his nationalism. Hamilton doubted the ability of a loose confederation of often bickering states to acquire sufficient political and economic strength. America needed to be able to defend itself in a world of emerging nation-states, one of which, Revolutionary France, was aggressively pursuing an ideological cause that Hamilton regarded as dangerous to freedom, civilization, and religion.

Nevertheless, Hamilton did not view the nation as the supreme, overarching good that trumped values like liberty and justice. In his view, America was to be a new type of nation, one that served normative ends higher than the country itself. In The Federalist, No. 1 Hamilton identified the purposes of the proposed national constitution as: to preserve “the true principles of republican government” and to provide “additional security . . . to the preservation of that species of government, to liberty, and to property.”

Hamilton did not view the nation as the supreme, overarching good that trumped values like liberty and justice. In his view, America was to be a new type of nation, one that served normative ends higher than the country itself.

An Enlightened Mind

Republicanism, liberty, property—this is the language of the late eighteenth century’s enlightened “republic of letters” that bound together individuals across countries. It drew upon specific currents of Enlightenment thought, as well as ideas associated with natural rights discourse and early-modern Protestant natural law thought that were then widespread in Northern Europe.

This perspective expressed what George Washington called a “growing liberality of sentiment,” which transcended national boundaries and involved attachment to universal values. Hamilton hoped that the American nation would embody these values as an example to others of what humanity was capable. Few modern-day American nationalists place this theme at the core of their discourse.

Hamilton’s ideas also differ in important ways from the more populist aspects of today’s nationalism. He distrusted popular feelings and movements. His idea of constitutional order embodied a conservative element that resisted the overriding of liberty and justice in the name of “the people.” Popular sovereignty and the popular will were, he held, very different. Hamilton sought to give shape and structure to the former while resisting the impulses of the latter.

Here Hamilton’s thinking was influenced by the idea of the law of nations or ius gentium. By the eighteenth century, this notion had acquired systematic expression in works that Hamilton carefully read, such as Emer de Vattel’s Droits des Gens (1758). The ius gentium contained universal standards of conduct and justice that different nations had gradually and independently discerned over time. It was generally agreed that all civilized states should adhere to them—whatever a particular nation’s rulers or people might prefer.

Hamilton certainly wanted America to be a great nation—one distinct from others, and able to manage the realities of domestic and international politics on equal footing with powerful, modernizing countries, like France and Britain. But America’s greatness depended little, in Hamilton’s estimation, on whether it followed popular sentiment. In fact, the nation’s greatness would often require making political choices that might contradict most Americans’ opinions at a given moment.

These aspects of Hamiltonian nationalism sit uneasily with some of the priorities and traits of today’s American nationalism. But, to be fair, few contemporary nationalists have cited these dimensions of Hamilton’s thought; their attention is more directed to his political economy.

Public Finance, Foreign Capital

Hamilton’s economic ideas reflect several influences. They include Louis XVI’s finance minister, Jacques Necker; the mercantilist Malachy Postlethwayt; and the prophet of free markets, Adam Smith. With good reason, Hamilton is typically described as an economic nationalist. A closer examination of two dimensions of Hamilton’s economics, however, illustrates why one must qualify that label considerably.

The first dimension concerns public finance. Hamilton decisively resolved post-Revolutionary America’s multiple debt problems through his Assumption Plan and the establishment of a national public debt. His purpose in part was to facilitate a national integration which diminished excessive particularism on the part of the states. He also believed that strong public finances were indispensable for securing national independence and for developing a dynamic commercial republic.

But Hamilton also aimed to enhance America’s attractiveness to foreign capital investment: an objective realized to an extent beyond everyone’s expectations. Hamilton believed that international capital markets were not something for Americans to fear, let alone avoid. According to him, foreign investors and bankers, in pursuing their self-interest, could greatly benefit America and Americans. This is not the view of someone who distrusted the free flow of capital across borders; it is distinctly anti-mercantilist.

A Conditional Free Trader

The second dimension of Hamilton’s economic thinking concerns the government’s intervention in the economy. Economic nationalists invariably cite his famous 1791 Report on the Subject of Manufactures as an American precedent for industrial policy and skepticism about free trade.

Once again, Hamilton’s position is more complicated than many often suppose. His proposed interventions were not on anything like the scale of the wide-ranging schemes of today’s economic nationalists, let alone those of the New Deal or the Great Society.

Hamilton’s Report also supported interventions that spurred private enterprise to embrace manufacturing; but that support was highly conditional. He saw such measures as politically necessary, especially in terms of giving America the capacity to defend itself without having to rely excessively on imports of manufactured goods, particularly in the realm of military technology.

But no less than Adam Smith had already affirmed that the goal of national security can provide a political exception to his principle of free trade. Indeed, Hamilton’s views on trade were not as distant as many believe from those of free marketers of his time and ours. The economic commentary in his early pamphlets indeed was decidedly mercantilist. Yet by 1782, perhaps as a consequence of reading Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Hamilton was affirming that any “violent” attempt to defy what he called, in The Continentalist, No. V, “the fundamental laws” of trade would “commonly miscarry.” To this extent, he wrote, “the maxim” that trade regulates itself “was reasonable.”

Hamilton did not regard this maxim as exceptionless. The world, he noted, was dominated by highly mercantilist states that were geared to fight wars. He consequently did not believe that laissez faire was necessarily optimal in this world, let alone for an America in the embryonic stages of its national development.

That said, Hamilton was, as historian and Hamilton biographer Forrest McDonald stated, “emphatic in his commitment to private enterprise and the market economy.” He generally favored free trade. He was no autarkist, and he treated tariffs primarily as a federal revenue source. It is also hard to see how Hamilton could have countenanced anything like our welfare and administrative states, let alone an American economy in which combined government spending amounted in 2018 to 37.8 percent of GDP.

None of this is to claim that Hamilton was “not really” a nationalist, or that he was a closet libertarian. Nation-states, Hamilton believed, were here to stay. He also wanted a strong federal government with “energy.” Hamilton was, however, far more of a late-eighteenth-century, Anglo-American liberal in his politics and economics than most realize. That, at a minimum, should cause today’s American nationalists to pause before they too quickly claim Alexander Hamilton as one of their own.

This article first appeared in Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and has been republished with permission. 

Samuel Gregg

is director of research at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.