It's All About The Hamiltons

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 17, 2010

It's All About The Hamiltons

A couple days ago, I quoted a bit from Dana Milbank's column, where he showed that Tea Party honcho Dick Armey's historical knowledge is less than firm:

A member of the audience passed a question to the moderator, who read it to Armey: How can the Federalist Papers be an inspiration for the tea party, when their principal author, Alexander Hamilton, "was widely regarded then and now as an advocate of a strong central government"?

Historian Armey was flummoxed by this new information. "Widely regarded by whom?" he challenged, suspiciously. "Today's modern ill-informed political science professors? . . . I just doubt that was the case in fact about Hamilton."

Alas, for Armey, it was the case. Hamilton favored a national bank, presidents and senators who served for life and state governors appointed by the president.

As a historian, Armey was all hat and no cattle. But at least he had a good hat -- a "downright stylish and manly" Stetson 200X beaver, which he donned for the audience.

Rick Hertzberg, who is not a historical illiterate, fleshes this out a bit more:

By the way, having state governors federally appointed was Hamilton’s fallback position. He actually favored eliminating the states altogether and replacing them with freshly-drawn administrative districts of roughly equal population. This would have been an excellent idea for many reasons, one of which is that it would have avoided the absurd business of cities (e.g., New York) that are stuck in a multi-jurisdictional “tri-state area.”

No doubt Armey is equally unaware that Hamilton favored a federal “negative”—that is, investing Congress with the power to nullify state laws at will. Madison was on board with a federal negative, too. Jemmy was also against the two-senators-per-state nonsense. He argued that states with bigger populations should have more senators, an idea he called “proportional representation.”

You won’t find this stuff in the Federalist Papers, which were written after the Constitution’s text was a fait accompli. Once the deals were done, Hamilton and Madison (and Jay) loyally sucked it up and presented a united front. But what they wrote for post-convention public consumption tells you very little about the government they would have designed if they hadn’t had to make so many compromises with hard-core slavocrats and wee-state paranoids.

And TNR alum Noah Kristula-Green captures a great photo at yesterday's Tea Party Rally:

Of course, you could probably dig up an anti-government-sounding Hamilton quote if you really tried, but this isn't a very good one. Hamilton is defending "a zeal for firmness of government" and opposing the "zeal for people's rights." The protester probably likes the line because she thinks "people's rights" means a right to health care. But that's not what Hamilton was getting at.

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posted in: jonathan chait, new york, dana milbank, alexander hamilton, dick armey, rick hertzberg, congress, new york

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