Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 13

In Chapter 11 Holloway shifts from the domestic to the international with the French Revolution. New to me was the revelation Alexander Hamilton was not an immediate opponent of said revolution at its outset. He wasn’t a proponent of it either, but his vehement opposition would not come until 1792/93. For an individual often maligned as a monarchist this is a shocking disclosure. Even for someone reticent about revolution in general, his early willingness to “wait and see” indicated the overarching concern for liberty and justice Hamilton valued almost above all else, politically. This concern for liberty and objectively ordered human flourishing engendered within Hamilton a desire to hope for the best of the events in France…but expect the worst.

In short, Hamilton’s Augustinian perception created his bleak outlook. While, as Holloway remarks, he “approved of the movement to establish liberty in France” (p. 208), he was very much afraid that once roused, the people could not be checked – the principle fear of Hamilton and the Federalists, again reflecting Saint Augustine’s theological understanding of humanity. Interestingly, Hamilton is also highly critical of the intransigence of France’s nobles, making them equally at fault. Summarizing Hamilton, Holloway writes, “The people were inclined to demand too much, and the nobles were inclined to give too little” (p. 209). While many still propagate the notion Hamilton was a lackey to the “elites,” this is further evidence he was more than willing to call everyone to account in the cause of justice regardless of their status.

Although anxiety over the American “plebiscite” was ever-present among Hamilton and the Federalists, they were ultimately balanced out (for a time at least) by the fact America’s “patrician” class did not behave with the obstinacy of their counterparts in France. For example, whether Hamilton was serious about his suggestion of the President serving for life pending good behavior, and regardless of its merits, such a proposal gained no traction regardless. The point being, while delegates such as James Madison and James Wilson proposed what we know as a Popular Election to determine the President, a compromise was reached with implementation of the Electoral College so the people have an indirect say. In other words, the plebiscite wasn’t simply cast aside (which some assert), but was considered, vigorously so, unlike in France, and a middle-ground was forged in an attempt to curb the worst extremes on both sides, the very thing Hamilton was seeing in far-off France: the people “demanding too much,” and the nobles “giving too little.”

Hamilton likewise castigated the leaders of the French Revolution, but castigated for possessing a worldview inauthentic to “‘human nature’” and spearheading an irrational and subsequently doomed cause (p. 210). Contrasted with America’s leaders – even the Unitarian rationalist Jefferson – the difference couldn’t have been more stark to someone like Hamilton. America’s leaders not only went out of their way to justify and ground their revolution in religion, but relatedly, in the natural law tradition unique to the Christian West and the related comprehension of the nature of Man. This natural law tradition was the entire rationale for revolt to begin with! The French rationale, meanwhile, was the subjective notion of their own autonomous reason, as John Courtney Murray characterized it.

Similarly, what finally transitioned Hamilton into the aforementioned opposition was its “‘atheism’” (p. 212). Hamilton contended the French abandonment of, and assault on, religion and Christianity was an affront to their “‘ancestors’” and “‘reason’” itself. Here, Hamilton conspicuously referenced the Christian tradition that built and sustained France and the whole of Europe and affirmed its relationship to reason – the Divine Logos. This is all the more noteworthy today given Europe’s rejection of this heritage, so much so it rather infamously makes no mention of it in the charter document of the European Union, and instead opts for a vague reference to the “religious inheritance” of Europe from which the “inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person” originate from….

Consequently, while many, such as Thomas Jefferson, argued the French Revolution was a continuance of the American uprising (and still do), Hamilton thus indicated there was “‘no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France’” (p. 212). For those who downplay the significance of Christianity and religion in the American Revolution (and the founding generally), they need to consider the Revolution’s contemporaries and how Christianity and religion was the litmus test to distance ourselves from the nominally same cause in France. If there was any doubt, Hamilton elucidated Americans are “‘a sober temperate and humane people, friends of religion, social order, and justice, enemies to tumult and massacre, to the wanton and lawless shedding of human blood’” (p. 213).

Perceptively, I believe, Holloway posits atheism was a tipping point for Hamilton because, no longer were the means illicit, but so too were the actual goals now. For Hamilton, the attack on religion was an assault on reason because it rejected the wisdom tradition had to offer, regardless what an individual may hold about faith. Atrocities such as the regicide of Louis brought “ignominiously to the block,” of which Hamilton also devoted fair space in his letter, are additional components of this hubris, this untethering from tradition and the past. It’s no coincidence Hamilton links these two concurrently: regicide and atheism.

What we see in this chapter is a desirous Alexander Hamilton for the cause of liberty and human fulfillment, yet an Augustinian-infused one that expects the worst of the French plebiscite, because, well…they’re the plebiscite. But the French nobility and “philosophers” are equally guilty: the nobility for their stubbornness and the so-called philosophers for their disordered leadership. And in the end, Hamilton would reject the events in France over the assaults upon Christianity and religion, which he considered assaults upon reason and history, respectively, because of its disregard for the wisdom of the past.