Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 4

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

The more I study Alexander Hamilton (and, yes, Thomas Jefferson) and the Early Republic, the greater my appreciation and respect for him grows. Too, the more canards are easily discarded…which begs the question why they are so readily perpetuated in the first place, but I digress.

Consider Hamilton’s letter of May 1790 to George Washington, urging the latter to veto Congressional Back Pay legislation. Because of the dire financial circumstances, during and after the Revolution, most that served in the cause had received little to no financial compensation for their efforts. Former soldiers in Virginia and North Carolina (though they were not the only ones, but the legislation in question arose specifically in response in to these particular soldiers) were selling the rights to the back pay owed them by the federal government for their service. Reasons varied: some distrusted the government would ever have the means to pay them; some were in dire financial circumstances themselves and required immediate cash; some were looking for a “get rich quick” scheme and bought and sold these back pay rights; and so forth.

Congress decided this sort of buying and selling of back pay rights left the original right’s holder, i.e., the individual soldier, prone to preying, unscrupulous speculators, so legislation was passed stipulating “where payment had not been made to the original claimant [the original soldier] or his representative, it could only be made to such claimant or to ‘such person or persons’[the so-called speculator(s)] who could produce a power of attorney, attested to by two justices of the peace of the county in which such person or persons resided, ‘authorizing him or them to receive a certain specified sum’” (p. 47).

One of the reasons Hamilton urged Washington to exercise his veto authority is he believed Congress had breached the separation of powers. Now, for someone that is supposed to be a “monocrat” and concentrator of sovereignty, faithfulness to the separation of powers should not be high on Hamilton’s list of priorities, but Holloway demonstrates that, in fact, it is. “Hamilton agreed that fraud, when ‘properly ascertained,’ invalidated a contract” (“contract,” meaning, the legal transaction of selling and purchasing back pay rights). Yet Hamilton argued the power of “ascertaining” fraudulent transactions resided within the judiciary because only in a legal proceeding can “the parties be heard and evidence on both sides produced.” Lacking the judicial process, “surmise must be substituted to proof, and conjecture to fact(p. 49). What Congress was doing, then, with its Back Pay legislation was usurping the Constitutional prerogative of the judiciary branch of government, at worst. At best, it was operating under laudable intentions, but without proof, to impugn an entire demographic of their motives.

The implications of Hamilton’s logic stand the test of time. Hamilton’s preoccupation with the sanctity of property (which I discussed in Part 2) and the devotion to separation of powers (discussed here) are just as applicable today as they were in the Early Republic. Hamilton was acutely sensitive to the undermining of the federal government. If one branch breached the separation of powers, in his mind the entire edifice would fall. And there’s a certain logic to such thinking. If the people don’t trust their government, they behave…well, let’s look at two examples. Hamilton’s fear with the Back Pay legislation was alienating any segment of the citizenry, especially after casting aspersions on said segment’s motives without a shred of evidence. Today, consider the court system – look how belligerent present-day Americans are toward the Supreme Court because it is legislating. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Anyways…. More reading.


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.