Culture

We’re Not on the Brink of Civil War. Here’s Why.

Detail of Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull, c. 1805 (via Wikimedia)
Alexander Hamilton said it first: As a nation, we are united by our desire to make money off one another.

Lately, we have heard lamentations from public intellectuals that the bonds of our union are fraying. It is worse now than at any point since the 1850s! And of course we all know what happened next . . .

Nonsense. Our union is all right. It may not be the happiest of moments in our nation’s history — though it is far from the least happy! — but the state of our union is strong.

To me, this whole argument illustrates that we need a better class of public intellectuals — the current crop seems not to understand the origins of our country, the logic animating the Constitution, or most of the intervening history between then and now. And it is not for nothing that America to these folks is always on the precipice of greatness or disaster depending on the party affiliation of the current occupant of the White House.

To everybody else, I would say simply: Keep calm and trust Alexander Hamilton.

To explain myself, let me back up a moment and quote John Jay from Federalist No. 2, regarding the natural unity of the United States and her people:

It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. . . .

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

With all due respect to the most excellent Jay, this was just not the case. The nation that Jay was describing in this essay simply did not exist in 1788 when he wrote this essay. That is not a critique of Jay. The Federalist Papers were meant to persuade undecided voters and delegates. Let’s just say that he was being . . . ahem . . . aspirational.

The truth is that America then, as now, was hotly divided along religion, class, and ethnic lines. Moreover, the bonds of shared sacrifice during the Revolutionary War had started breaking by 1788 — just as the bonds forged after 9/11 seem today to have broken, too. And unlike today, it was nearly impossible to traverse the country from north to south via land. It would have been easier to sail from Boston to London than travel by land from Boston to Charleston.

This lack of internal cohesion was reflected in the impotence of the government that predated the Constitution: the Articles of Confederation. These established a “firm league of friendship” between the states. The problem was that the states were not really friends with one another. So the whole country was falling apart by the time the Constitutional Convention met in 1787.

The Constitution was an effort to frame a government for a unified people who did not really exist. And one of the main problems on the minds of the Founders during the 1780s was how to bring these diverse, stubborn, parochial people together.

Which brings me to Alexander Hamilton. His political theory is, as I have written about in other forums, deeply problematic in many respects. His temper was not well suited to statesmanship, either. He had a unique capacity to needlessly drive people apart from one another. Yet he was virtually alone in seeing the key to holding this fragile union together: economic integration. Hamilton understood that, more than virtue, civic duty, religion, or shared sacrifice, it was the prospect of making money with one another that could bring Americans together.

From my perspective, the quintessential Hamiltonian entries in the Federalist Papers are not No. 70, on vigor in the executive, or No. 78, on the courts. Rather, they are No. 11 and No. 12, which lay out his vision of the role of commerce in a national republic. In Federalist No. 12, he writes:

The prosperity of commerce is now perceived and acknowledged, by all enlightened statesmen, to be the most useful as well as the most productive source of national wealth; and has accordingly become a primary object of their political cares. By multiplying the means of gratification, by promoting the introduction and circulation of the precious metals, those darling objects of human avarice and enterprise, it serves to vivify and invigorate the channels of industry, and to make them flow with greater activity and copiousness. The assiduous merchant, the laborious husbandman, the active mechanic, and the industrious manufacturer, all orders of men look forward with eager expectation and growing alacrity to this pleasing reward of their toils. The often-agitated question, between agriculture and commerce, has from indubitable experience received a decision, which has silenced the rivalships, that once subsisted between them, and has proved to the satisfaction of their friends, that their interests are intimately blended and interwoven.

Here, Hamilton makes a compelling case that if groups of people recognize that they can make money from interacting with one another, they will come together. Their interests will ultimately be “blended and interwoven,” even if they have different religions, regional dialects, or professions.

This is the great genius of Hamilton on full display, and his brilliant theory furnishes a compelling explanation for why the American union has persisted for so long. Our mutual success depends on the union itself, such that our fates are now so intertwined other that it is impossible to separate them. We can be Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, or atheist. We can be black, white, or Latino. We can be Northern or Southern. We can be liberal or conservative. We can have any number of professions. But so long as we continue to appreciate that our own personal prosperity depends on the prosperity of those with whom we may otherwise disagree, we shall remain together.

This is one reason that the Civil War had an economic component, although the dominant issue was of course slavery. The North and the West had been rapidly expanding and industrializing through the first half of the 19th century, integrating the regional economies. But the South remained a world unto itself, and much of its wealth was generated by exporting cotton to Europe. Indeed, one of the main reasons the South reckoned that it could successfully rebel is that the European powers would miss southern cotton exports so badly that they would broker a settlement.

Nothing like the South of the 1850s exists today. America is well integrated economically. So Hamilton’s old logic is fully in force: Mutual economic gain remains the keystone of the national union.

To put matters bluntly, we do not have to like one another, so long as we continue to make money off one another. That is what will keep us together.

Viva Hamilton.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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