Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 8

Part 7

Part 6

Part 5

Part 4

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

There is a perception that Hamilton and the Federalists were proponents of mass concentration of power, akin to the present-day Democratic Party. Yet, Hamilton articulated precise restrictions on federal power in his confutation of Jefferson’s Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank. “As Hamilton said more than once,” Holloway writes, “the federal government is sovereign only in relation to its proper objects(p. 93). Referring back to Max Edling’s thesis, the “proper objects” in question indicate the international and intraunion Constitutional mandate of an autonomous federal government complementary to the collective state governments. But, Holloway is swift to point to a critical understanding of Hamilton’s: in order for the federal government to fulfill “its objects,” it then requires the ability, or the means, of doing so. This did not signify, however, the federal government possessed unchecked authority to do as it desired, again as the Democratic Party favors; Hamilton argued for and outlined fixed limits on national power.

First, “the means chosen must be both ‘requisite’ and ‘fairly applicable’ to the ends of the powers delegated.” In other words, the means to a particular “object” must be both appropriate and relevant. Second, the Constitution unequivocally enumerates what the federal government can and cannot do and as such, is inhibited by ‘restrictions and exceptions’ that are ‘specified in the Constitution.’” Finally, once more demonstrating the Judeo-Christian influence displayed in Farmer Refuted, Hamilton makes clear there are unambiguous boundaries beyond which secular government cannot contravene. Specially, government is constrained, at the very least, by the boundaries of morality (p. 93) (Whether Hamilton trusted in the virtue, or morals, of people is immaterial; Hamilton would still contend government is constrained by such morality regardless).

There is a related query raised by this line of argumentation; namely, the nature of “sovereignty” itself. It is incredibly abstruse political theory and difficult to follow, but Hamilton’s thinking can essentially be summarized as power is divided in the United States under the Constitution. The states claim sovereignty over some matters, and the federal government sovereignty over other matters. The same logic that Jefferson proffered to place state sovereignty over federal sovereignty, as opposed to each enjoying their own “proper objects,” could as readily work in reverse, to subordinate state sovereignty to federal sovereignty (not to keep harping on current political concerns, but as we see today). Thus,

unacceptable and ultimately absurd consequences would follow from holding that sovereignty cannot be present where power is divided or limited. “To deny that the Government of the United States has sovereign power as to its declared purposes and trusts, because its power does not extend to all cases, would be equally to deny, that the state governments have sovereign power in any case; because their power does not extend to every case.” After all, the Constitution imposes limits not only on the federal government but also on the states…. If opponents of the bank were inclined to deny the sovereignty of the federal government, they would also have to deny the sovereignty of the states. Such a denial, however, resulted in an unacceptable absurdity. If division of power excludes sovereignty, then the United States would exhibit “the singular spectacle of a political society without sovereignty, or of a people governed without government” (p. 92).

Notice the distinction Hamilton makes. He is not insinuating anarchy, for anarchy is the absence of government and rule of law. No, Hamilton is communicating something so illogical it’s never occurred in history: a functioning government in that it exists and is recognized with its corresponding rule of law, yet lacking to any claim of legitimacy or right to operate over the people that recognize it as their government…. It is incomprehensible.

Therefore, so Hamilton’s response goes, Jefferson is wrong and the states cannot claim sovereignty over the federal government, or vice versa; nor are both equally illegitimate. Rather, within their respective “objects,” each has complete sovereignty. And as a result, just as “neither Jefferson nor other critics of the bank would have ventured to deny that states possess a sovereign power to erect corporations,” so too the federal government, because as was conveyed earlier, if a government possesses “proper objects,” then it follows government requires the means of ensuring those “objects” are met. Otherwise America is simply a “political society without sovereignty” or “a people governed without government.” Furthermore, it would be entirely hypocritical, self-serving, and inconsistent to apply this logic to the state governments at the exclusion of the federal government.

Fundamentally, when one considers the divide between Hamilton and Jefferson as it first fissured in earnest over the constitutionality of a national bank, perhaps the following analogy helps to clarify matters.

When Jesus commanded to perform the various corporal and spiritual works of mercy, He never prescribed a specific methodology to do so. Humanity was tasked to reconcile its rational faculties with the historical reality of Jesus, and act in each situation accordingly.

It can be argued this is not unlike how Alexander Hamilton viewed the Constitution. Hamilton concluded morality, reason, and what could be called “common sense” were to be reconciled by Americans to the guiding “teachings” contained within the Constitution, much as Catholics use the same to reconcile the teachings and historical reality of Jesus, as well as the inspired word of God contained in the Bible. The Constitution grants the federal government the power to tax, for instance, but it fails to prescribe an explicit means to facilitate taxation. On the other hand, it could be argued Thomas Jefferson was the Protestant, the sola Scriptura-ist – the “literalist.” Just as Protestants have to make an extra-sola Scriptura argument to justify sola Scriptura itself (among others), Jefferson had to make extra-Constitutional arguments to support the majority of his positions. As an example, Jefferson “sought to impose a particular understanding of the standards by which the president should decide whether to exercise the veto” (pp. 85-88 for a discussion of Jefferson and the presidential veto). Nowhere does the Constitution specify standards for a presidential veto, merely that he has the prerogative to do so; nevertheless, Jefferson attempted to make such a Constitutional argument just the same. In such instances Jefferson is operating more like Hamilton or, to stay with the analogy, a Catholic, than with what he claims to believe.


I’ve changed the title and ceased referring to these posts as “reviews” because they aren’t properly reviews. Instead, I am now calling them “Commentaries.” I will write up a more traditional, summative review once I’ve finished the book.


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