Mark A. R. Kleiman and Brad DeLong are having an interesting discussion on their blogs, concerning Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective views on the French Revolution. Naturally, this also involves the influence their views had on the early Republic.
I agree with DeLong and Kleiman — Jefferson’s views on the French Revolution have always seemed strange to me. Sure, having come out of successful revolt and established a newly formed “republic,” it’s easy to see how one could approve of the French starting their own revolution. But it’s always seemed weirdly inconsistent to me that Jefferson, given his fairly refined sensibilities and regard for science and arts, could approve of the revolution once it began to consume itself in anti-intellectual hatred and violence.
But I’m not a huge Hamilton admirer. This, despite the fact that his defense of an effective centralized government basically prefigures much of today’s de-Federalized regulatory state. It’s in this latter sense that it’s easy to practice a Whiggish history and say, “Hamilton was right,” purely because we ended up today looking very Hamiltonian and not very Jeffersonian. But, of course, it didn’t have to turn out that way. The strength of his centralized and oligarchical tendencies may describe our country fairly well today, but it was markedly out of place for a newly born republic, and likely would have led to constitutional monarchy in fairly short order. The institutions of self-rule without aristocracy simply weren’t entrenched very deeply (Kevin Phillips would say they still aren’t).
Kleiman is quite correct, in my view, emphasizing the importance of the slowness with which our institutions have evolved. Even during those eras where great changes seem to occur quickly, the groundwork both legally and socially has often been laid for decades. Examples are legion — slavery, the New Deal, civil rights. And this is all to the good, given the manifest lousiness of the human ability to predict future consequences. Careful experimentation is not merely a “conservative” virtue, it’s the virtue of anyone who prefers order to chaos, even those whose notion of order includes a healthy dose of redistributive economic justice.
And in this sense, I believe that we display in good measure the legacy of John Adams. Adams was no friend to the plutocratic holdovers of Hamilton, nor Jefferson’s largely fallacious agrarianism. Adams was a careful experimentalist, in my view. Much like FDR, he was a pragmatist, guided by an inherently “conservative” belief in keeping alive the good things and changing those which needed to be changed, and adjusting as he went. His presidency is marked by a terrible act — the Alien and Sedition Acts, for which he justly deserves condemnation — but his career in public service is also marked by success after success in helping create and secure the new republic.
Like DeLong, I find myself more of his temper, and even more importantly, I look around wishing either party was still committed to sober, realistic experimentation guided by liberty and justice. There’s no Adams in the upcoming election, but there’s at least one Hamilton, and that’s a very sad thing in my book.