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American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy

American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy

by John Lamberton Harper

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Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) was an illegitimate West Indian emigrant who became the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. American Machiavelli focuses on Hamilton's controversial activities as foreign policy adviser and aspiring military leader. In the first major study of his foreign policy role in 30 years, John Lamberton Harper describes a decade of bitter


Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) was an illegitimate West Indian emigrant who became the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. American Machiavelli focuses on Hamilton's controversial activities as foreign policy adviser and aspiring military leader. In the first major study of his foreign policy role in 30 years, John Lamberton Harper describes a decade of bitter division over the role of the Federal government in the economy during the 1790s and draws parallels between Hamilton and the sixteenth century Italian political adviser, Niccolò Machiavelli. Harper provides an original and highly readable account of Hamiltonas famous clashes with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and his key role in defining the U.S. national security strategy. John Lamberton Harper is Professor of Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center. He is the author of America and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1945-1948 (Cambridge 1986), winner of the 1987 Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies, and American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and Dean G. Asheson (Cambridge 1994), winner of the 1995 Robert Ferrell Prize from the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. His articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including The American Historical Review, The Journal of American History, The Times Literary Supplement and Foreign Affairs.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Reaffirm(s) Alexander Hamilton's standing as one of the greatest of the American Founding Fathers. Recommended." R.C. Cottrell, California State University, Chico, CHOICE

"The book repays a reading...its nuance is enlightening." Kevin R.C. Gutzman, Western Connecticut State University, H-Net

"....Harper concentrates on Hamilton's role in foreign policy. He also wants to set straight all those Jefferson lovers and the school of historians - John Ferling, David McCullough, et al. - who never gave Hamilton his due or, worse, gave him a place in history as the 'manipulator and cad.' The twentieth century was surely Jefferson's century. But that's because of what Jefferson stood for - liberty and equality - not for what he actually accomplished, argues Harper....[I]n the end, though, Harper links Machiavelli and Hamilton neatly with his own worldview. Hamilton is the inspiration for those who want a US foreign policy today 'less grandiose and ideological.' Neocons beware." Weekly Standard

"...American Machiavelli [is] remarkably well-written, given Harper's background as an academic. Whereas Chernow delved up Hamilton's personality, Harper chooses instead to focus on Hamilton's propinquity to the great Florentine diplomat and philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli." The Plain Dealer

"Amid the current revival of interest in Alexander Hamilton, American Machiavelli offers at once the freshest and cleverest contribution to the reappraisal of America's first realist statesman and state-builder. John Lamberton Harper's Hamilton is no amoral cynic in the crude sense with which we disparage men and measures as Machiavellian. Rather, Hamilton appears here as a shrewd and subtle judge of the national interests of a fledgling Republic, seeking to navigate the tumultuous currents of the 1790s much as Machiavelli sought to chart the course that his beloved Florence should follow amid the turmoil of the early sixteenth century. By juxtaposing Hamilton's concerns with Machiavelli's, Harper provides a new and provocative context within which to consider recurring dilemmas in the conduct of American foreign policy." Jack Rakove, Coe Professor of History and American Studies, Professor of Political Science, Stanford University

"Harper's premise—that we can better understand Alexander Hamilton's character, vision, and career, in all their rich complexity, in the light of the Florentine diplomatist and thinker Machiavelli—offers a fascinating point of departure for this revisionist study. By exploring the convergence of biography, intellectual history, and the larger geopolitical context in each man's life, Harper offers a fresh look at both Hamilton and the American Revolutionary project of the late eighteenth century. The result is, at one and the same time, a compelling (and largely flattering) partial biography of America's often forgotten Founding Father and a detailed reassessment of American politics and diplomacy during the turbulent decade of the 1790s." Drew R. McCoy, Jacob and Frances Hiatt Professor of History, Clark University

"A penetrating, provocative study of the brilliantly controversial founder. Hamilton might not have embraced the comparison with Machiavelli, but he certainly endorsed—and in fact embodied—many of the Renaissance realist's views on the nature of individuals and states. Harper's account is especially welcome in the increasingly Hamiltonian—dare one say Machiavellian?—current phase of American foreign policy." H.W. Brands, author of The First American and What America Owes the World

"This is the best book on the origins of American Foreign Policy since Felix Gilbert's classic To the Farewell Address. Harper has incisively delved into the mind of Hamilton and the circumstances that shaped his political thinking in general as well as in foreign policy. He has illuminated strains of thought that still shape this nation's course in the world." John Milton Cooper, Jr., E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"...a judicious interpretation of the key events in the history of Hamilton's foreign policy and an intriguing interpretation of how Hamilton's approach corresponded to Machiavelli's analysis of events in his own time." The Journal of Southern History, Jerald A. Combs, San Francisco State University

"American Machiavelli is a very effective and interesting account of the foreign policy of the Federalist era and of Hamilton's significant contribution to it. It is made all the more effective by Harper's heavy reliance on primary sources. It may not be accessible to all readers, but I highly recommend it for those especially interested in the subject." Gregg L. Frazer

"Harper's contention that Hamilton governed as a Machiavellian is not an original point. But what is original here is Harper's illumination of the nature of that connection and the larger similarities in the shared understanding of realpolitik that characterized both men. By seeing Hamilton as a state-builder and by connecting his thoughts on state building back to Machiavelli's very similar teachings, Harper has provided a fresh way of understanding the complex Hamilton. Additionally, by focusing on Hamilton the statebuilder, Harper has emphasized a sometimes overlooked aspect of his career, but one which is consonant with other studies emphasizing his quest for fame and glory as a driving passion." New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century Todd Estes, Oakland University

"...truly original is in its explicit paralleling of Hamilton and the sixteenth century Florentine politico Niccolo Machiavelli." -Kevin M. Gannon, JOURNAL OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC

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American Machiavelli
Cambridge University Press
0521834856 - American Machiavelli - Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy - by John Lamberton Harper


The twentieth century belonged to Thomas Jefferson. One of Washington, D.C.'s most prominent monuments is consecrated to the Sage of Monticello. As for his historic rival, Alexander Hamilton, there is no Palladian temple, only a run-of-the mill statue on the south side of the Treasury Department.1 If the point were to commemorate their respective contributions to the building of the country, Hamilton, arguably, would have the monument and Jefferson a mere statue. He was as responsible as anyone for the establishment of the American union: the consolidation and funding of the national debt, the tax system, the customs service, and the first Bank of the United States. Jefferson, his ally James Madison, and their followers did all they could to sabotage Hamilton's program of developing these sinews of national strength.

The key to Jefferson's popularity perhaps lies less in what he accomplished than in what he so eloquently spoke for: liberty and equality. There has also been a great deal of deliberate promotion. It was Franklin Roosevelt, after all, who put Jefferson's face on the five-cent piece and built the memorial. FDR wrapped himself in Jefferson's mantle, and helped to make him the patron saint of the New Deal and modern liberalism. Even as they adopted Hamiltonian methods with gusto during the Great Depression and after World War II, Democrats cast the elitist and "economic royalist" Hamilton as the villain of the piece. The tenders of the Jefferson flame included a group of prominent historians, Claude Bowers, Dumas Malone, Julian Boyd, Merrill Peterson, and Adrienne Koch, whose semihagiographical treatment of Jefferson and sometimes-lurid portrayal of Hamilton was for many years the mainstream view.2

Hamilton became a Republican Party icon after the triumph of the Union in the Civil War and the darling of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and other proponents of an assertive, martial foreign policy at the turn of the century. The Hamilton statue was erected by a conservative Republican president, Warren G. Harding, and his multimillionaire treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, in 1923. Since World War II, Hamilton has not been without able conservative champions, for example, Clinton Rossiter and Forrest McDonald.3 But the Republican Party dropped Hamilton as a symbol after the 1930s. Postwar American conservatism, by and large, has been either libertarian (in reaction to New Deal liberalism) or hostile to a secularized industrial society. Hamilton was neither of those things. Along with the animosity of Jeffersonians and the abandonment of Republicans, another burden on Hamilton's reputation has been the contempt of "Adamsites." In the 1950s, Russell Kirk, an admirer of John Adams, dismissed Hamilton as a pseudoconservative. Following in the footsteps of Adams, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, and his great-grandson Henry Adams, a postwar school of historians, including Manning J. Dauer, Stephen G. Kurtz, John Ferling, and David McCullough, have kept alive the view of Hamilton as a manipulator and a cad.4

If the twentieth century was not particularly kind to Hamilton, what are the prospects for the twenty-first? In recent years Jefferson's stock has fallen, for reasons that have little to do with Hamilton but have tended to buoy his reputation. One commentator has asked, for example, whether someone who favored transporting African Americans back to Africa is an appropriate hero for a multicultural society. Subtler revisionists have had a field day with Jefferson's many contradictions and hypocrisies.5 If Jeffersonian liberalism is one of the sources of a foreign policy promoting economic globalization and the universalization of democracy, it is natural that skeptics of such an approach, favoring a less grandiose and ideological U.S. strategy, have turned to Hamilton for inspiration. By the same token, it is not surprising that those hoping to base U.S. predominance on unchallenged military power should look to a statesman who took a serious interest in military questions, and foresaw the rise of the United States. The 1990s witnessed a renewed and sympathetic attention to Hamilton on the part of conservative scholars and commentators, in particular.6 If the number of recent publications dealing with him is any indication, a kind of Hamilton revival is underway.7

It is reassuring but slightly unnerving for a historian to discover that he is in tune with the Zeitgeist: interest in Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers has grown in the context of post-Cold War uncertainty, but are there new insights to be gleaned? The answer is that the new literature, like the old, is mostly hostile or partisan. Relatively little recent attention has been paid, moreover, to Hamilton's foreign policy role and ideas.8 The time is ripe for a balanced study of that subject, one that does not minimize the foreign policy differences between Jefferson and Hamilton,9 that takes seriously the arguments that Hamilton was emotionally tied to Britain and a driven, manipulative character, and that sees his prescriptions as clearly superior to those of his opponents, but with troubling implications over time. Regardless of the attention he has received, Hamilton remains a paradoxical and elusive personality. His early life is poorly documented. He produced prodigious amounts of letters and public documents, but no personal memoirs or diary. And there is the persistent feeling of life imitating art.

The student of Hamilton is sooner or later bound to ask whether his subject is not the stuff of a Stendahl or a Dickens. The breathtaking, semitropical setting of his early years recalls the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Defoe. His is the story of a gifted boy, born in precarious circumstances on the tiny British leeward island of Nevis on January 11, 1757 (according to some, 1755).10 None-too-robust, auburn-haired, with eyes the deep blue of the surrounding Caribbean, he is determined to realize the great destiny he imagines for himself beyond the horizon. Thanks to native genius, benefaction, and good luck he overcomes seemingly insuperable odds to success.

Hamilton's life-cum-tour-de-force inevitably invites comparisons with the story of another wisp of a boy born twelve (or fourteen) years later on the island of Corsica, whose meteoric course intersected Hamilton's own in the late 1790s. Both Hamilton and Napoleon had petty noble connections through their fathers, mothers known for their beauty, and an early penchant for the artillery, the most intellectually demanding branch of the army. In the lives of both there was a fundamental connection between the marginality of their places of birth and the grandness of their dreams. It is no coincidence that Jefferson, Adams, and their disciples saw Hamilton as "our Buonaparte," an interloper, military adventurer, and menace to the values of the American Revolution.11

Studying Hamilton I have come to a different conclusion: a more compelling and revealing parallel is with an Italian born exactly three centuries before Napoleon: Niccolò Machiavelli. Naturally, this begs the question "Which Machiavelli?" Much ink has been spilled over the contradictions between the writer of The Prince, a manual for rising authoritarian rulers, and that of the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, an exhaustive guide for republicans.12 Thirty years ago Isaiah Berlin identified more than a score of arguments concerning Machiavelli. These included the theories that The Prince was in reality a satire, that its author was a humanist anguished by the need to divorce politics from ethics, a cold and morally neutral scientist, a passionate patriot, a conscientious Christian, or else a man inspired by the Devil. This last was the view of Elizabethan dramatists and scholars and, more recently, Professor Leo Strauss.13 Since Berlin's essay still more interpretations have appeared, including one that sees Machiavelli and other Renaissance thinkers as embodying the ancient ideal of civic humanism. In reply, followers of Strauss have portrayed him as the self-conscious prophet of "modernity," a fundamentally pernicious figure who broke with both Christianity and the Greek view of politics as the arena for the development of man's nobler faculties rather than (as in the modern case) the containment of his animal nature and the satisfaction of his material needs.14

This book's Machiavelli is closer to Berlin's own, more sympathetic, view. Machiavelli's implicit point was that there is not a single, intelligible system of morality, but (at least) two distinct and incompatible moral worlds; let us call them the Christian and the Roman republican. In choosing the latter, Machiavelli was driven by the vision of a "strong, united, effective, morally regenerated, splendid, and victorious patria."15 My view is that Machiavelli's radical ideas and purposes must be understood first and foremost in the context of his times, including the corruption and decay of the Catholic church, the debilitating rivalries and internal weakness of the Italian states, and the political-military catastrophe that befell the peninsula after 1494. If he was a prophet, his basic message was regeneration. As with all prophets, his call was directed in the first instance to the people of his day.

There are a number of views, moreover, of Machiavelli's connection, or lack of it, to the Anglo-American political tradition. The most famous of these is that the Machiavelli who influenced the American founding was not the prophet of a dynamic and powerful patria, but the vigilant citizen who feared the destruction of the republic by corruption and saw civic virtue (corruption's antidote) as dependent on a land-based economy and a robust civilian militia. According to J. G. A. Pocock, Machiavelli (as reformulated by the English republican writer James Harrington) inspired the so-called "Old Whig" and "Country Party" opposition to the late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century British state, with its standing armies, funded public debt, and systematic corruption of parliament by the crown. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the American Whigs drew on the same "Machiavellian vocabulary" to explain and oppose British rule in America and then Hamilton's attempt to build a British-style power state.16

A complementary argument is that there is a distinctive Anglo-American tradition in foreign policy arising out of conditions of insularity and relative security: "This [the Anglo-American] was a philosophy of choice . . .which was bound to be ethical, over against a [continental] philosophy of necessity, in which forces beyond moral control were believed to prevail." According to another commentator, "Americans have never accepted the principles of Europe's old order, never embraced the Machiavellian perspective." For an authoritative voice, when all is said and done, American thinking about foreign affairs bears the stamp of the British liberal and evangelical tradition, with its belief in progress, human rights, and the eventual brotherhood of man. The same tradition (Woodrow Wilson was its great American exponent) informs the belief in the possibility of "the end of history," that major conflict will subside once the entire world has been integrated into a liberal world economy and adopted democracy as its creed.17

A recent, thought-provoking analysis makes a sharp distinction between "continental realism" and the American or Hamiltonian variety of realism: "when the Hamiltonians came to consider the foreign policy interests of the United States, they came up with a radically different list of interests than those drawn up in most of the chancelleries of Europe. European powers were surrounded by jealous and powerful rivals, and their relations alternated between war and armed truce. European states were forced to understand their interests primarily in military terms." Inspired by the British example, Hamiltonians put freedom of the seas, access to markets, protection of U.S. industry, sound finance, and a "special relationship" with the United Kingdom on their list of interests. Hamiltonians were (and are) prone to the "intoxicating vision of a win-win world order" based on expanding trade and international law.18

This book has a different thesis. The outlooks of Hamilton and the Hamiltonians, on the one hand, and of the "continental realists," on the other, overlap to a greater degree than the conventional wisdom would have it. Hamilton and his followers were concerned with land power and the European balance; they believed in the inevitability of interstate conflict and the necessity of heroic leadership - the hallmarks of "continental realism." (By the same token, a continental power like France was preoccupied during much of its modern history with supposedly "Anglo-American" concerns like internal economic development, naval power, and empire overseas.)19

In short, Hamilton and Machiavelli, the father of continental realism, inhabited the same moral and intellectual world, one where emerging states had to adapt themselves to the law of the jungle and to look to successful models to survive. Hamilton's view of human nature, politics, and statecraft was strikingly similar to Machiavelli's, but the affinity runs deeper than ideas to the level of character. They shared a set of visceral likes and dislikes; in particular, they deplored the "middle path." Despite their reputations, neither had the temperament of a cold-blooded realist. Hamilton remarked, "my heart has always been the Master of my Judgment." Of Machiavelli it has been said: "He could be emotional, and the storms of passion could throw all caution to the wind."20 At another level, Hamilton personifies Machiavelli's famous model of leadership, the parvenu "new prince." At times it seems as though Hamilton were acting a series of roles scripted for him by Machiavelli: soldier, adviser to the executive, aspiring prince in his own right.

This begs another question: how did the American Founder come to resemble the notorious Florentine? No person is an intellectual carbon copy of another, especially when they are separated by centuries, cultures, and continents. Hamilton did not identify himself with Machiavelli and would probably take umbrage at the notion that he was a conduit for his ideas. The "teacher of evil" (in Leo Strauss's words) and presumed atheist was not much revered in the eighteenth century, the heyday of deism and of belief in natural rights. In Hamilton's America, "God's ultimate authority over both the universe and the affairs of men was questioned, if at all, only by a very few." Of the Revolutionary generation, it appears that only the frank and feisty Adams admitted to having learned from Machiavelli.21

And yet, as a discerning scholar observes, "It is unlikely that anyone as well read as Hamilton would not have read Machiavelli," though equally unlikely that he would have admitted any debts. What is certain is that Hamilton and Machiavelli steeped themselves in classical and contemporary history and drew often-identical conclusions about human nature and politics. It is probable, moreover, that Hamilton absorbed Machiavelli through the words and deeds of contemporaries who had studied him carefully. An historian notes the following:

Debts acquired at second hand remain debts whether we are witting or not; and despite his well-earned reputation as a teacher of evil, Machiavelli exercised a species of intellectual hegemony over republican thought in the eighteenth century exceeded by none but John Locke.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume and King Frederick the Great of Prussia, though hardly republicans, were pupils of Machiavelli. Hamilton studied both.22

There is a second, though until now entirely overlooked, reason for the uncanny resemblance: their similar life experiences. Both were diplomatic-military advisers in the aftermath of upheavals that gave rise to popular governments. Both struggled with the problem of designing and safeguarding their fledgling republics in the context of internal divisions over the use of force, of controversial alliances, and of constant external peril. Both towered above most of their contemporaries intellectually, but were unable, partly because of their suspect origins, to attain the highest offices. Despite, or rather because of, their extraordinary abilities they suffered the slings and arrows of vindictive enemies and the myopia of ordinary mortals. Each was driven by a vision of national greatness, but destined for personal disenchantment and defeat. As the reader will see, Hamilton did not mechanically imitate Machiavelli. Not every situation Hamilton faced had a precedent in Machiavelli's career or had been analyzed in Machiavelli's writings. Nonetheless, Hamilton was an "American Machiavelli" both in the sense that his ideas were similar to those of Machiavelli and that he resembled Machiavelli, the flesh-and-blood human being.

The author's intellectual home is at the intersection of biography, diplomatic history, and the history of ideas. Thus, this book is intended to be not a complete but rather a "partial biography" of Hamilton. It focuses on his foreign policy outlook and role in the 1790s, a dangerous decade in which Americans split into bitterly divided camps over a pair of recurrent questions: What is the proper relationship of the United States to the world of European power politics, and is it destined to be a great power in the traditional meaning of the term? Hamilton's career during those years suggests that American foreign policy has been more "continental," more guided by a "philosophy of necessity," more geared to self-aggrandizement, than Americans, with their short memories and deep belief in their own exceptionalism, prefer to believe.

This should give us pause. It should prompt us to ask whether Hamilton is our true guide for the early twenty-first century. But it is not meant as a negative judgment. Had it been otherwise in the 1790s, the history of the United States as an independent nation might well have ended soon after it began. The argument is intended as a plea to Americans to transcend their characteristic solipsism, their inability to appreciate the world beyond their own borders or to see themselves as others see them. One of Hamilton's Machiavellian gifts was his ability to acknowledge the selfish, power-seeking elements in his country's behavior and to take into account the impact of American behavior on others and thence on ourselves. Perhaps not since the 1790s has such a capacity been as important to our security and well-being as it is today.

For nations as well as individuals seeking to gain insight into their futures, rarely has there been better advice than the words inscribed above the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi: γνω θι σεαυτον (gnothi seauton). Know thyself.



© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

John Lamberton Harper is Professor of American Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of America and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1945-1948, winner of the 1987 Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies, and American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan, and Dean G. Acheson, winner of the 1995 Robert Ferrell Prize from the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations. His articles and reviews have appeared in The American Historical Review, The Journal of American History, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, Survival, World Policy Journal, SAIS Review, and other publications.

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