May 11, 2016

Hamilton and Hume vs. Jefferson

Brad DeLong outdoes himself here with an incredibly learned and fluent account of why Jefferson opposed Hamiltonian policy:
Let’s start with Jefferson the ideologue, Jefferson the agrarian, Jefferson the person who above else was scared of corrupt imperial monarchical authoritarian autocratic London.
Jefferson was a very smart guy, was a very forward looking guy. 
Jefferson also tended to believe his teachers, and his teachers had taught him a particular version of ancient history – call it the republican virtue tradition, right, that once upon a time there had been a Roman republic, and it was virtuous because it was composed of small farmers who ploughed their own land, and lived simply and ate porridge and loved freedom and would rebel against kings or foreigners or anyone else who tried to take control of their lives. 
And as long as the basis of Rome was the small farmer, who really didn’t want to be in government, say Cincinnatus – if you named Cincinnatus to be dictator to command the armies of Rome, he would come, and he would command the armies of Rome in their wars against their foes because he loved the republic. But as soon as he possibly could he would abandon Rome itself and go back to his farm and go back to his plough.
That’s what he really wanted to do. And indeed, there’s no doubt that this had a huge influence on America in the generation of the founding. 
We have a city called Cincinnati, for heaven’s sake. We had a Society of the Cincinnati, made up of George Washington’s army officers during the Revolutionary War.
Against this, against this belief that the only way to have a virtuous republic in which people were free was to have small holding farmers dominate, against this, in Jeffersonians’ imaginations, was imperial Rome or imperial London. The Rome that had conquered the Mediterranean Basin, in the process acquired millions of slaves, handed out those slaves to the politically powerful oligarchs of Rome who then got their enormous estates on which they lived lives of luxury. 
As they lived lives of luxury they lost their concern with the republic, they lost their republican virtue, they lost their ability to stand up to foreigners and to would-be kings. And the whole system comes crashing down with the wars of the first Century BC, and then with the ascent of first Julius Caesar and then the Emperor Augustus who stabilises the situation, who keeps Rome powerful, who keeps Rome rich — but who makes Rome not free. 
'Say what you want about decadence, but at least it's an ethos.'
That was how Jefferson was taught Roman history had gone, and Jefferson’s teachers said that’s what’s happening to imperial Britain in his day, in the late 18th Century. That’s what’s going on in London now, as trade grows and commerce grows and manufacturing grows and corruption grows and aristocracy grows, and the wealth of the elite grows.
And the remnants of political freedom that still remain are, Jefferson and company thought, about to be stomped into oblivion. That’s why Jefferson and company made the America Revolution, in response to insults and exactions from the British mother country that were quite small relative to the size of the American economy of the day, or indeed that were quite small relative to the taxes that other people had to pay in other countries.
But they thought it was a matter of life and death to get out from under this growing imperial structure. 
'Smash the imperialist threat to our agrarian paradise!'
And then no sooner do they win independence but Jefferson turns around, looks at New York, Philadelphia, looks at Hamilton, and says by heaven’s sake, they’re trying to do the same thing to us here. 
Also this week in the political implications of economic structures, this fine rundown on Hume in The New York Review of Books includes this interesting note:
Adam Smith wrote that Hume was, so far as he knew, the first writer to argue that manufacturing and commerce tend gradually to produce greater liberty and security for citizens.

I'm still turning it over in my mind, but a few thoughts:

  • The Civil War was complex, but not too complex to be framed as the industrial/financial Northeast vs. the agrarian South.  I'm a fan of Jefferson, but I suspect he would have been a Confederate.
  • The agrarian lifestyle is less appealing when you don't have people doing the work for you.  This interesting essay concludes with the thought that "it's hard to find many people, including self-professed conservatives, interested in a return to a life of manual labor on the land."
  • You know who else thought the rural agricultural life promoted moral virtue and distrusted urban financial centers?  Haven't read it, but I've seen a couple of good reviews of this book.
  • The Rome that survived - Byzantium - was built around the kind of imperial urban center that Jefferson hated.
  • When I lived out in Harvard, Mass. I learned a bit about the local history.  Several utopian groups had moved out there over the years, looking to get themselves back to the Garden.  Some of the Shaker buildings are still there.  But these experiments dwindled and faded into history.  Boston remains right where it has been, however.
It's a trap

This reminds me a little story.  The "Square House" the Shakers moved into had been built by a man named Shadrack Ireland, who, mirabile dictu, now has his own Wikipedia page.  If anyone deserves one it's old Shadrack, who not only convinced a bunch of girls to move to the country with him, but also...

...claimed that he would not truly die but would be resurrected. He ordered his followers not to bury him when he died, but to await his resurrection. The circumstances of his death in September 1778 were recorded by a former follower, Isaac Holden. Holden learned the details when he went to visit the Square House, not knowing that Ireland had died. The evening of his death, Ireland appeared changed but calm and serene. He washed himself as usual, and said to Mrs. Cooper and Sister [?] Nabby, that "the Lord hath down with me and I have completed all the work he sent me to do but don't be [hurt] for I am a [going] but don't bury me for the time is very short God is coming to take the church." Ireland then went upstairs, knelt under a window, and prayed for the "hundred & fiftifour thousand" concluding by saying, "father I am but [past] do thy will". He then laid down on the bed and died. 
Ireland's body was left as he had ordered until the smell became so bad, that he was put in a long white box in a corner of the cellar and covered with lime. His body remained there until July 1779, when his followers, David Hoar and Abijah Worster, buried him in an unmarked grave in a cornfield. David Hoar then led the group for a while. 
Many of Shadrack Ireland's followers were converted to Shakerism by Mother Ann Lee, who then took over the Square House. Ann Lee later anathemized Ireland and would sometimes refer to his presence as an "evil spirit". At one time, she even claimed to have banished him to hell.

These rural utopian things rarely work out.  I'll stick with the city for now, although one day I may return to pretty Harvard...now that they have proper coffee there.

2 Comments:

Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBmTdJ4XTfs&list=RDmBmTdJ4XTfs

May 12, 2016 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Viceroy De Los Osos said...

Oh I love Hamilton. Can you get tics?

May 31, 2016 at 5:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home