BOOK REVIEW: Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons From a Misunderstood Founder by Christian Parenti (New York: Verso, 2020)
Alexander Hamilton’s legacy has undergone a radical shift among historians over the last twenty years—never mind among the broader public (thanks, Broadway!). In that way, the title of Christian Parenti’s reassessment of Hamilton is as appropriate as reassessing Hamilton is en vogue.
It is his purpose, writes Parenti, to correct a long-held misunderstanding of Hamilton’s “profoundly statist economic” thought—a body of ideas which directly contradict, “and directly attack, the prevailing orthodoxy of extreme laissez-faire, the market-uber-alles fundamentalism that is the leitmotif of Wall Street, big business, politicians, academia, and the vast majority of America’s center-right pundits.” According to this telling, Hamilton has long been misappropriated by a caricatured Wall Street and robber baron-esque cabal; wrongfully used as a poster boy for what is, in reality, naked greed.
In this Parenti is hardly radical, adding his voice to a growing chorus of historians attempting to reposition Hamilton as the intellectual forebearer not of pure capitalism, but of centrally-directed economic planning. Indeed, in a way it is entirely conventional, serving as another example in that most quintessentially American tradition of attempting to claim one or more of the Founding Fathers for one’s political cause.
Parenti most focuses on Hamilton’s Report on the Subject of Manufactures. It was never acted upon by Congress, but it is a comprehensive depiction of the modern economy and nation that Hamilton envisioned—a landscape of both the economic powerhouse that he desired and the one that ultimately transpired.
But to think of the Report, or Hamilton’s economic thinking in general, as “radical,” as Parenti does, is at best a stretch. The irresistible weight of Hamilton’s public and private writings, including and especially The Report on Manufactures, is dispositive proof that Hamilton wasn’t attempting to create anything “radical,” or even particularly novel. He was instead implicitly adapting the model of the British financial, manufacturing, and commercial behemoth and applying it to the United States (or at least trying to), a country whose resources gave it the potential to dwarf the old country’s economic empire:
’Tis certain, that various objects in this country hold out advantages, which are with difficulty to be equalled elsewhere . . . and under the increasingly favorable impressions, which are entertained of our government, the attractions will become more and More strong.
Parenti trains his spotlight most keenly on Hamilton’s “Means proper,” which, in Parenti’s words, were “a set of policy tools for government intervention in the economy.” These included tariffs, bounties, subsidies, infrastructure development, and other forms of positive government action.
By Hamilton’s own admission though, these “Means proper” were not the children of his own mind, brilliant though it was. Nor were they radical. In Hamilton’s estimation, the United States needed to borrow from the best examples elsewhere: “In order to a better judgment of the Means proper to be resorted to by the United states, it will be of use to Advert to those which have been employed with success in other Countries.”
Through the long, detailed course of his Report, Hamilton references British examples of bounties (“Much has been done by this mean in great Britain”), public highways and waterways (“There is perhaps scarcely any thing, which has been better calculated to assist the manufactures of Great Britain”), and manufacturing (“To [the cotton mill] is to be attributed essentially the immense progress, which has been so suddenly made in Great Britain”) and others in the Report ten times.
Paired with his previous Report on Public Credit and Report on a National Bank, which also extolled the examples of Great Britain (and, in the former, the thinking of French Finance Minister Jacques Necker), Hamilton’s endgame was to apply the preexisting economic genius in the western world to the new nation and its unlimited economic potential.
None of this is to say that this book isn’t worth reading—it very much is. Parenti’s exegeses of Hamilton’s economic thought as treasury secretary in chapters eleven through thirteen are superb. Whether you conclude that Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures is “an interventionist call to arms, an elaborate justification of state planning and regulation” as Parenti does, or more a blueprint for how a proactive federal government could foster the conditions for both macro economic growth and individual fulfillment as I do, this segment of the book is apropos for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of Hamilton’s thought and only has an hour to gain it.
So good are these chapters, in fact, that they allow the reader to forgive Parenti his bizarre comparison of Hamilton to Lenin and his chapter-as-a-parenthetical diatribe against Jefferson in the penultimate of the book.
This tract would also be recommendable for a reader interested in the broader economic history of the War of Independence and Confederation Era, which comprises the majority of Radical Hamilton. At many points Hamilton seems to get lost in this discussion, at best a footnote to the broader history being discussed, but it does provide an excellent context for the economic world that Hamilton operated within—and that caused him to pursue a vision that some might later describe as “radical.”
The one big missed opportunity is Parenti’s too-brief treatment of a “two-month mysterious illness” that would cause an “’epistemological rupture between the young Hamilton and the intellectually mature Hamilton” in the winter of 1777. Parenti’s suggestion that this nearly-fatal episode in the young colonel’s life forged the Hamilton history has known and debated ever since is a compelling advance in our attempt to understand what made our first treasury secretary tick:
From his swirling fears, frustrations, and fever emerged a new, ruthless clarity and the outline of his mature political and economic theories. Gone from that point on was the romantic boy democrat; in his place, the brutally pragmatic nationalist.
This portion of the book is all too brief alas, but it is easily the highlight of a book that is, in general, worth the reader’s time.
For example, see Nancy Bradeen Spannaus,Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2019) and my review: Geoff Smock,”Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics,” Journal of the American Revolution. January 15, 2020 allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/hamilton-versus-wall-street-the-core-principles-of-the-american-system-of-economics/.
For examples, see Richard Brookhiser, What Would the Founders Do: Our Questions, Their Answers (New York: Basic Books, 2006) and Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).