America’s Success Story: From Hamilton to Trump

Donald Trump’s promise to “bring back jobs from overseas” (particularly from China) is perfectly in accord with the Hamiltonian approach, which in the 19th century became known as the American System. George Washington, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln were all on board, and Teddy Roosevelt carried it into the 20th century when the U.S. became the world’s leading industrial power before the Rough Rider left office. That strength won two world wars and the cold war while creating a broad and deep middle class that became the envy of the world. But in recent decades, the system has been abandoned as politicians replaced statesmen in the nation’s capital, allowing transnational interests to run “free” and abandon domestic development. Trump understands that America needs to use the same tools to stay on top that it used to reach the top.

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By William R. Hawkins | November 28, 2016

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Despite its long run and immense popularity, the Broadway show “Hamilton” has not instilled much knowledge of the policies and outlook of Alexander Hamilton into its cast. If it had, the cast members would have embraced rather than confronted Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended their show. The incoming administration of Donald Trumpet is committed to rebuilding the American economy, creating jobs and rekindling national “greatness.” These were also the priorities of Alexander Hamilton; and the policies President-elect Trump outlined during his campaign are similar to those advanced by Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who served in the cabinet of the first President of the United States. But then Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who imprudently attempted to lecture Pence (a former congressman and current governor), has nothing but contempt for the concept of national progress. It has been reported that during the campaign Dixon asserted that “America has never been great.”

One of the seminal documents of American history is Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures” written in 1791. In it, Hamilton urged a program of “internal improvement” (what we now call infrastructure) to promote the nation’s growing commercial base. Citing Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Hamilton argued that “good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of a country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighborhood of the town. They are, upon that account, the greatest of all improvements.” And, while Hamilton applauded the states’ efforts in this regard, he did not believe they alone could fund what the nation needed; which were projects that would knit the entire country together. Today, of course, the networks that span the continent are much more extensive.

Trump’s campaign website promised to “Pursue an ‘America’s Infrastructure First’ policy that supports investments in transportation, clean water, a modern and reliable electricity grid, telecommunications, security infrastructure, and other pressing domestic infrastructure needs.” As part of this plan, and consistent with his desire to bring (and keep) jobs in America, any such program needs to include strong “Buy America” provisions for the equipment and materials to be used in construction. Trump has already made this explicit in regard to steel. There is broad, bi-partisan support on both sides of the aisle in Congress for such a program, as there is among the general public (except apparently on Broadway).

Infrastructure was to support the real centerpiece of Hamilton’s report, manufacturing. He was looking ahead at the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution that was dawning in England. He did not want American independence weakened by remaining dependent on British goods. American producers would need protective tariffs to gain the benefits of a growing domestic market. Here, Hamilton broke with Adam Smith on the merits of “free trade.” Such a policy might fit England’s strategy, but it did not serve the needs of the United States. Even before the revolution was over, he had written his famous “Continentalist” essays in which he had stated, “There are some who maintain that trade will regulate itself [but] this is one of those speculative paradoxes . . . rejected by every man acquainted with commercial history.”

Richard B. Morris in his biography of Hamilton observed that his “brand of conservatism meant holding to the tried and proven values of the past, but not standing still….He could scarcely be expected to allow government to stand inert while the economy stagnated or was stifled by foreign competition.” Another of Hamilton’s biographers, Forrest McDonald has argued:

While rejecting laissez-faire, however, Hamilton was emphatic in his commitment to private enterprise and the market economy. Primarily this commitment was moral, not economic. Hamilton believed that the greatest benefit of a system of government-encouraged private enterprise was spiritual – the enlargement of the scope of human freedom and the enrichment of the opportunities for human endeavor.

As a nationalist, Hamilton gave priority to the freedom and opportunity of his fellow Americans.

Donald Trump’s promise to “bring back jobs from overseas” (particularly from China) is perfectly in accord with the Hamiltonian approach, which in the 19th century became known as the American System. George Washington, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln were all on board, and Teddy Roosevelt carried it into the 20th century, when the U.S. became the world’s leading industrial power before the Rough Rider left office. That strength won two world wars and the cold war while creating a broad and deep middle class that became the envy of the world. But in recent decades, the system has been abandoned as politicians replaced statesmen in the nation’s capital, allowing transnational interests to run “free” and abandon domestic development. Trump understands that America needs to use the same tools to stay on top that it used to reach the top.

That leftists, consumed in equal parts by ignorance and decadence, cannot understand the world around them is not surprising. Unfortunately, there are some on the putative Right who are not in much better shape intellectually when it comes to Trump’s movement. A center of this bewilderment was The Weekly Standard, the flagship of what passes for “official” conservative thought, as shallow as that may be. In the November 7 issue, editor William Kristol – the titular head of the “Never Trumpers” penned the column, “A Populist-Nationalist Right? No Thanks!” It was a short, intellectually confused piece. His description of traditional conservatism was not at all opposed to anything Trump was saying on the stump – or has said since being elected. Kristol’s undefined line between his views and the “populist-nationalism” he saw as a threat was that he believed in a more “liberal form of conservatism,” an odd statement since most of the previous criticism of the Trump movement by the “official right” was that Trump’s record had not been reliably conservative in the past; that he was too close to liberal Democrats in New York.

By “liberal” one assumes Kristol means the classical liberalism that emerged in the early 19th century, mainly in the British Isles and France. What else would justify Kristol’s claim that his creed “while pledging allegiance to the American nation, also does so to principles of liberty and justice for all.” It has sometimes been fashionable, but always wrongheaded, to claim that today’s conservatism is just yesterday’s classical liberalism; what is now called libertarianism. True libertarians as well as true conservatives disagree with this assertion, knowing that the intellectual roots are different. If I had been alive in 19th century Britain, I would have been a Tory not a Liberal; a follower of Disraeli and Salisbury, not Cobden or Gladstone. The Victorian era is arguably the finest moment in Western civilization.

To be fair, The Weekly Standard has given some space to more favorable views of Trump. After the election, it even sent out a statement to readers – in an attempt to keep them, declaring:

Trump’s victory has many dimensions. Not the least of them is his election was part of a broad Republican triumph. Republicans kept control of the Senate, a feat that once had seemed impossible since they had 24 seats at stake and Democrats only ten. Trump didn’t split the party. He strengthened it.

And he did so by cracking the “blue wall” with working class votes.

Of note is an essay by Edward Short “Disraeli, Trump and One Nation Conservatism” (Nov. 11). Short looks back at Disraeli’s novels where he described a Great Britain that was divided into two nations, rich and poor; “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy.” This chasm is the basis for the Left’s strategy of class warfare to destroy society. Benjamin Disraeli rejected the kind of country club conservatism that has so long gripped the GOP establishment, a creed that “offers no redress for the present, and . . . no preparation for the future.” He advocated the reintegration of society, a “one nation conservatism” which later came to be known as Tory Democracy. Disraeli thus pushed for reforms to improve the lot of workers, helping them in time to join the middle class. As Short put it:

According to Lord Blake, Disraeli’s finest biographer, “taken together,” these reforms “constitute the biggest installment of social reform passed by any government in the nineteenth century,” though he is right to stress that they were not meant to be any repudiation of laissez-faire conservative orthodoxy. On the contrary, they were passed to make more substantive state intervention unnecessary. They gave the working class the means to be self-reliant, not dependent on state subsidy.

That is why a commitment to national economic growth and job creation for American citizens, the tenets of Trump’s domestic policy, is so vital to a successful conservative movement today. Populist nationalism is the most inclusive of principles, with the result being a much broader foundation for the maintenance of traditional values, entwined with patriotism. From Hamilton to Trump, it has been the Right that has most consistently worked to “make America great.” On offer to the American people is a social contract balanced between rights and duties, work and rewards, which provides the basis for a successful and harmonious society that can endure. Those who lack such a wide vision are unable to conserve anything against the constant onslaught of sophistries from the Left.


William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.