Book Review: Hamilton's Curse, by Thomas DiLorenzo
Thomas DiLorenzo has written a basic introduction to the effects of Alexander Hamilton’s policies on the United States, placing Mr. H in a role unfamiliar to the average graduate of a typical United States high school. It is an interesting read, and certainly different from most political histories you have read.
Mr. DiLorenzo begins by casting Hamilton in a light not often taught in American Government classes – Hamilton as a scheming, heavily political actor who brought about a heavy-handed government quite different from the principles he espoused in the Federalist Papers. To be honest, this interpretation is fair but incongruous, in that it is quite different from what I was taught in high school. However, it is difficult to differentiate Mr. D’s portrayal from the historical record. Hamilton, from what I have read recently, was a bit more ambitious than the author of the Federalist Papers portrayed in high school government. He wanted power, and often got what he wanted.
Jefferson, the most famous resident in Charlottesville, can do no wrong in DiLorenzo’s eyes, at least insofar as the argument between centralized and diffused power is concerned. Jefferson favored a light federal government, with power diffused in the direction of those who would deal with it most often – that is, in the direction of the people. Hamilton favored a strong central government, and the policies he implemented and favored while Treasury Secretary laid the foundation of the American Empire, as DiLorenzo argues. Those foundations are three.
First, what could be described as implication, the political theory that the federal government holds powers implied by its explicit powers but never enumerated, therefore implicit. Second, a central bank, which would provide for the expansion of monetary supply necessary to finance Hamilton’s Empirical ideal for America. Third, mercantilism, or the preference of government towards merchants via favorable tax policies and tariffs. Each of these, DiLorenzo argues, helped tear down the Jeffersonian view of limited government and build the Hamiltonian vision of a British-like empire, greater than its predecessor. Jefferson and his successors had their time in the limelight, but it ended with the death blow known as the Civil War. The body didn’t hit the floor until 1913, which DiLorenzo refers to as the “Hamiltonian Revolution” of that year. The Hamiltonian cause was advanced by Lincoln, sealed by Wilson, and made permanent by Franklin Roosevelt.
DiLorenzo has made a good outline of a libertarian argument, but falls short in some areas. For example, on page 169 he writes “The immediate results [of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913] were disastrous for America. These new funding mechanisms allowed Woodrow Wilson to plunge America disastrously into the European war, a war that provided no benefits to America but exacted a tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure” – as if the Zimmerman Telegram had nothing to do with things. The book could have been twice as long as its 209 pages and just as easy to read; trimming the book for brevity’s sake has resulted in weaker arguments, especially in the last chapter. That being said, it is a good introduction to the effects of centralizing relatively unlimited governmental power.
This is not a book for libertarians. DiLorenzo’s arguments are at many times weak and flawed, which means that a libertarian reading this book would have his beliefs reinforced poorly, instead of challenged and supported by well-founded reasoning. Nor is this a book for liberals, who would dismiss it as the rantings of a right-wing kook who favors a repeal of the 13th Amendment (even though DiLorenzo would probably favor a repeal of the 14th Amendment). This is a book for conservatives, especially those disappointed by the recent election and wondering where the Republican Party went wrong. Those who hold their nose while voting for McCain (like me) will find a good starting point for reexamining their political foundations. Although he argues poorly against the current state of affairs in some sections, it is still highly readable and easily understandable. The result is a set of correct conclusions arrived at via incorrect but useful reasoning. I would give it 3.5 stars out of 5, with a recommendation that you borrow it from the library or a friend of you can’t find a used copy.