Hamilton’s Report on Human Nature
The great insight of Alexander Hamilton is that all serious nations take serious measures on behalf of their own security and prosperity. This is what good governments do. There is a clarity here that is absent in our current partisan debates, if only because Hamilton unapologetically offers good government as a foundation for republican government. To the extent that Americans today accept that foundation – and it is not clear to me that we do – Hamilton’s argument still has relevance today.
It is important to notice that Hamilton goes out of his way to make it seem as if he is not arguing that manufacturing is better than agriculture. He begins by conceding “that the cultivation of the earth” has “an intrinsically strong claim to preeminence over every other kind of industry” (Hamilton Writings, 649). Agriculture is the “immediate and chief source” of human subsistence; it is the “principal source” of materials for other industries; it is “most favorable to the freedom and independence of the human mind”; and, perhaps, it is “the most conducive to the multiplication of the human species” (651). The question, then, is not whether to have agriculture, but whether to have only agriculture. It is not whether manufacturing is better than agriculture, but rather whether manufacturing plus agriculture is better than agriculture alone.
Today, this seems almost self-evident, and, consequently, it is for this essay that Hamilton is often praised as being the most farsighted of the Founders. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who famously praised those who “labor in the earth as the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people” (Jefferson Writings 290), and who wanted our factories to remain in Europe, Hamilton imagined a more robust and self-sufficient American economy. His report explained that encouraging manufacturing would offer a “greater scope for the diversity of talents which discriminate men from each other” and would expand the “field of enterprise” (Hamilton Writings 659). Both of our rival modern virtues are here, diversity and enterprise, and both seem to work on behalf of that goal of every nation, economic “development,” especially underdeveloped nations. It is here where Hamilton is at his most attractive to moderns. Today, who is against development? And who could be against diversity?
Jeremy D. Bailey holds the Ross M. Lence Distinguished Teaching Chair and has a dual appointment in Political Science and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His research interests include executive power, constitutionalism, and American political thought and development. His current book project is The Idea of Presidential Representation: An Intellectual and Political History. His major publications include James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection (Cambridge University Press, 2015), The Contested Removal Power, 1789-2010 (University Press of Kansas 2013, coauthored with David Alvis and Flagg Taylor), which was named a 2014 “Outstanding Academic Title” by Choice, “The New Unitary Executive and Democratic Theory,” (American Political Science Review 2008) and Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power (Cambridge University Press 2007).