Saturday, 31 May 2014

The US: autocracy and tolerance, ever since the founding fathers. And the men who inspired them

Jon Meacham, in his fine biography, tells an anecdote of Thomas Jefferson’s about a meeting with his colleague and nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. At the time Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson Secretary of State in George Washington’s first administration, though they were already becoming political adversaries. 

Hamilton called at Jefferson’s lodgings.

... Jefferson had decorated the walls of his quarters with a collection of portraits that included Sir Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Sir Isaac Newton, all men of the Enlightenment. Hamilton asked Jefferson who they were: “I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them,” Jefferson recalled.

Taking this in, Hamilton paused, thinking. After a moment, he broke his silence.

“The greatest man that ever lived,” Hamilton said, “was Julius Caesar.”

Julius Caesar, military autocrat, inspired Alexander Hamilton
The story matters not only for what it says about the two men, but for what it reveals of the two currents that have always battled with each other in the United States, down to our days.

Jefferson was the author of significant works on politics and the philosophy of government; most notably, he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton was the leading writer of the Federalist Papers, spearheading the campaign to convert the loose confederation that won independence from Britain into the tightly structured United States that persist today.

Both men had accepted political responsibility when called on to serve, but Jefferson had never been a soldier. In fact, his blackest moment came when as Governor of Virginia he retreated in front of advancing British soldiers and was accused by opponents of not doing enough to defend his State. Hamilton, on the other hand, had been an aide de camp to Washington during the War of Independence and arguably his leading adviser (certainly, he would have argued it).

Both were thinkers, both were men of action. That makes it all the more interesting that they chose objects of admiration who were so different.

Of Jefferson’s trinity, perhaps the most influential was Locke. In Two Treatises of Government he wrote:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions: for being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into this world by his order, and about his business, they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are made for ours.

Reason is derived from God and is the bedrock of the rights of Man. Remind you of anything?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s true that it’s hard to reconcile a view that there can no subordination of one man to another with the ownership of slaves, and Jefferson was a major slave owner. That has long been the great unresolved and probably unsolvable paradox of Jefferson’s existence.

A little later, Locke wonders about considers what power one man may have over another who has committed some offence. He can have:

... no absolute or arbitrary power, to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will; but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint.

That’s a principle that deserves reasserting: punishment is to be calm and reasoned, and its aim must be reparation and deterrence, not hotheaded vengeance. Some of that thinking emerges in the US Bill of Rights, particularly in the Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

John Locke, apostle of reason and government by consent,
inspired Jefferson
Locke’s spirit presided over the very foundation of the United States. But Hamilton didn’t recognise his portrait, and instead gave his admiration to a wholly different man, Julius Caesar. 

Caesar turned a rotten and corrupt Roman Republic into a vehicle for his personal ambitions and by doing so, ultimately undermined what little was left of its republicanism. If he failed to take imperial power himself, it was only because he was assassinated first, but by then he had created the conditions that would sweep his adopted son Octavian to power as the first Emperor Augustus.

The great drive behind his ascent had been his military prowess. He had stormed through Gaul (with even a brief incursion into Britain) and crushed all his enemies.

So Hamilton chose the soldier and autocrat. Jefferson chose the man of moderation and of government by consent.

And aren’t those the two trends that have run like golden threads through all American history to today?

The successors of Hamilton are the gun lobby, worshippers of the armed warrior. They sing the praises of the men and women of the armed forces, strong, brave and powerful. They cling to their firearms, even at the cost of the lives of the innocent. They like fierce punishments, the 900-year sentence when they can’t be granted an execution. Their influence ensured that Chelsea Manning was subjected to treatment that even the authorities eventually found excessive.

The successors of Jefferson stand for the subordination of interest to law, to the treatment of all men and women as equal because they are all human. They care for the warrior too, but not just when powerful and victorious, but also when they’ve returned broken, incapable of re-assimilating, living rough and desperate for help. They try to moderate the behaviour of government, and plead for its authority to be limited to respect the rights of the citizen. They understand why Edward Snowden won’t return to face a US court, while a public interest defence is barred to him, against charges carrying a sentence heavier even than Manning’s.

The great unanswered question is which of these trends will ultimately predominate, Jefferson’s or Hamilton’s, Locke’s or Caesar’s. On that question, the jury is still out. Sadly, for all of us.


Awoogamuffin said...

I suppose its a testament to the complexity of these men, or the weak understanding I have of American history, that I actually see Jefferson and Hamilton in almost an opposite light when it comes their legacy.

My understanding is that Hamilton was part of the (somewhat more) egalitarian North, pretty much self-made and one of the New Yorkers / New Englanders who so impressed Washington with their independence and technologically minded attitude. Jefferson, on the other hand, was part of the land-owning, aristocratic South, who later hated Washington for betraying their cause.

Hamilton wanted a strong federal government because he saw how inter-state bickering almost cost them the war of independence. He believed in a stronger government that could tax the people for defense (boo!) but maybe also infrastructure, education and health (yay?). Jefferson would rather the government stayed out of his business, and taxation should remain low, perhaps leading to Grover Norquist and his stupid pledge.

So I feel that the government-fearing, gun-toting South has much more to do with Jefferson (don't forget the second amendment came from Madison, a Jefferson ally - not that I don't admire the bill of rights!) than Hamilton, though like I said, I might be completely wrong.

David Beeson said...

I don't think you're completely wrong, and there's a lot to be said for your view of the two men. However, I wouldn't want to throw out the states's rights view as completely misguided: I'm not keen on the centripetal tendency towards excessive national power in most countries. Just because States' rights became associated with the South and slavery doesn't mean that the cause in itself is necessarily bad.

Certainly I agree that the willingness to invest in national projects is a big plus on the Federalist side, and therefore Hamilton's. But I don't like the militarism; I don't like the willingness to suppress dissent in the name of national security (the Aliens and Sedition Act, for instance); and I don't like the worship of wealth as a badge of merit.

For all the contradictions of his own position regarding slavery, I still feel that Jefferson was much the more committed democrat. I think Hamilton would have been more than willing to see Washington serve for life, and perhaps even have an inherited Presidency.