Superficial observers often mistake as novel political phenomena what are in fact reappearances of longstanding, deeply rooted propensities. Ten years ago, the Tea Party movement provided a striking example of this error. Many reporters and pundits spoke of the Tea Party as if it were some strange and baffling new development in American politics. Who ever heard of people protesting massive government spending? In fact, the Tea Party was immediately recognizable as Jeffersonian in character, manifesting a suspicion of centralized power that can be traced all the way back to the American Founding.
More recently, this kind of misunderstanding has appeared in relation to the recent rise of nationalism in American politics, propounded most vigorously and successfully by President Donald Trump. Many commentators have denounced this movement as dangerous and alien to the American political tradition, linking it to the insanely imperialistic, immoral, and immensely destructive nationalisms of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, today’s American nationalism is instead a reappearance of the moderate, liberal nationalism of the American Founders, most famously manifested in the thought of Alexander Hamilton.
Consider the striking similarities. Today’s American nationalists contend that trade and manufacturing should be regulated in the nation’s interest—that is, with a view to making the country, as a whole, strong and prosperous. Hamilton famously defended the same approach in the Federalist and in his celebrated Report on Manufactures.
Today’s nationalists hold that our foreign policy should be guided by American interests, and not by a misguided and dangerous altruism that involves the country in regime-change wars aimed at establishing new liberal democracies. Hamilton defended similar ideas at the time of the Founding. Writing as “Pacificus” in defense of President Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation, Hamilton admonished his readers that nations ordinarily (and rightly) pursue their own interests, and that they rarely (and seldom wisely) depart from that rule to perform acts of disinterested benevolence. Hamilton also condemned the revolutionary French government’s efforts to overturn monarchy and impose republicanism by the sword on the rest of Europe—an effort he characterized as contrary to “the freedom of opinion of mankind.”
Despite these obvious indications of intellectual kinship, the estimable Samuel Gregg, writing at Public Discourse, admonishes us that Hamilton was really “a different kind of nationalist from those that claim this mantle in our time.” He questions “whether today’s nationalists can rightfully take Hamilton as their patron saint.” Gregg, to be sure, is not a “superficial observer” of the kind discussed above. He has wide and deep knowledge of the American, and of the larger Western, intellectual and political tradition. Nevertheless, while we yield to no one in our respect for Gregg, a consistent voice for sobriety and sense in economics and politics, we think he errs here. He has gone astray partly by overlooking some relevant aspects of Hamilton’s thought, and partly by implicitly mischaracterizing today’s American nationalism.
Contemporary American Nationalists Do Not Reject Hamilton’s Principled Universalism
Gregg suggests that Hamilton was more of a universalist than today’s nationalists. Hamilton “did not view the nation as the supreme, overarching good that trumped values like liberty and justice.” Like George Washington, Hamilton believed in universal values that America should aspire to embody as an example to other nations. Furthermore, Hamilton believed in the binding authority of an international “law of nations,” which established principles of justice that all nations must respect.
Everything Gregg says here about Hamilton is correct. Nevertheless, he creates an erroneous impression of conflict between Hamilton and today’s American nationalists, because there is no reason to think that the latter reject the principled universalism of the former. Gregg mentions Senator Marco Rubio as one of our contemporary nationalists. Rubio, however, has never presented the nation as the supreme good, denied the universality of America’s founding principles, or rejected the idea of a law of nations establishing principles of justice that all countries must observe. On the contrary, his political rhetoric has been consistently characterized by the opposite (Hamiltonian) ideas.
Nor is there any daylight on these issues between Hamilton and today’s most famous, strenuous, and successful defender of American nationalism, President Trump. Trump has never suggested that America is a supreme good, more compelling than considerations of liberty or justice—only that it is our country and therefore entitled to our special care. Trump’s rhetoric—both formal and informal—is replete with references to the universal validity of American principles and to America’s duty to observe them as an example to the world. He has repeatedly affirmed, like Hamilton the nationalist, that America must protect its own interests; but he has also repeatedly acknowledged, like Hamilton the proponent of the “law of nations,” that countries must pursue their interests in ways that respect justice and fairness toward other countries.
Gregg is no doubt correct that today’s American nationalists do not put these universal principles “at the core of their discourse.” This is not, however, because they reject them. It is rather because they believe—with some justification—that the importance of the American nation, and our special obligations to it, have been overlooked or improperly diminished in the last couple of generations.
Hamilton, Too, Endorsed a Special Love of Country as Politically Wholesome
For their part, neither Hamilton nor the other leading Founders rejected a special commitment to one’s own nation as inconsistent with respect for universal truths or universal principles of justice. On the contrary, they indicated that such a special commitment is perfectly normal and, indeed, the duty of conscientious citizens and their elected representatives.
Speaking in defense of the Constitution at the New York ratifying convention, Hamilton observed that there “are certain social principles in human nature from which we may draw the most solid conclusions with respect to the conduct of individuals and communities. We love our families more than our neighbors: We love our neighbors more than our countrymen in general.” Thus, Hamilton concluded, the “human affections, like the solar heat, lose their intensity as they depart from the center, and become languid in proportion to the expansion of the circle on which they act.”
It follows, from Hamilton’s account, that human beings will love their own country more than they love the rest of the world. Later at the same convention Hamilton made this clear, and actually endorsed a special love of country as politically necessary and wholesome. “The safety of a republic,” he noted, depends on, among other things, “that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.”
Hamilton was not alone in affirming such ideas. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, warned his fellow citizens against improper and imprudent attachments to foreign nations. He admonished them that, as “citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, in some ways the most liberal and universalist among the leading founders, emphasized the importance of a patriotic attachment to one’s own country. Writing to Elbridge Gerry in 1799, Jefferson averred that, the “first object of my heart is my own country. In that is embarked my family, my fortune, & my own existence.” “I have not,” he continued, “one farthing of interest, nor one fibre of attachment out of it, nor a single motive of preference of any one nation to another, but in proportion as they are more or less friendly to us.”
The “Populism” of Today’s Nationalists Is in Fact Little Different from Hamilton’s Commitment to Self-Government
Gregg correctly notes that today’s nationalists depart from Hamilton in relation to the question of “populism.” The nationalists of the moment embrace populism, while Hamilton, who consistently emphasized the necessary role of what we now call elites in economics and politics, probably would have rejected it. Nevertheless, Gregg goes too far in claiming that “America’s greatness depended little, in Hamilton’s estimation, on whether it followed popular sentiment.” Hamilton was, as Gregg himself acknowledges, a proponent of the Constitution as establishing republican self-government. Writing in the Federalist, Hamilton noted that such a government need not and should not submit to “every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may” express. Nevertheless, he acknowledged in this same context that, the “republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs.”
Once again, there is no important difference here between Hamilton and today’s nationalism in American politics. Although they invoke the idea of populism, the current nationalists do not claim that the government should obey every passing whim of the people. They rather complain that, over a period of many years, the government has pursued polices—especially in the areas of trade and foreign affairs—that are not in the people’s interest, and that the government has persisted in promoting these policies despite clear and recurring signs of public dissatisfaction.
Contemporary Nationalists Are Defending Economic Liberty and National Security Just as Hamilton Did
Finally, Gregg argues that Hamilton’s economic nationalism must be understood within the larger context of his economic thought. Hamilton defended a certain kind of economic nationalism in his Report on Manufactures, contending that America needed to foster the development of its own manufacturing base in order to possess within itself the supplies needed for military defense. This was especially a concern to Hamilton, Gregg notes, in view of the fact that America at the end of the eighteenth century faced a world of “highly mercantilist states that were geared to fight wars.” Nevertheless, Hamilton was also generally a defender of private property, free markets, and international trade.
All of this is perfectly true as an account of Hamilton. It is, however, unsatisfactory as an effort to establish an important difference between Hamilton and today’s American nationalists. War is still possible, and America has been involved in several in recent decades. Prudence still dictates that the necessities of military supply be available within the country, so that foreign rivals cannot hold them hostage in the event of war. The world today does not lack at least one powerful, aggressive mercantilist nation whose trade policies seem designed to strengthen itself and to weaken the United States. Such concerns—and not a mere enthusiasm for regulation for its own sake—are staples of the discourse of today’s economic nationalists.
Moreover, today’s economic nationalists are, like Hamilton, generally defenders of markets and economic liberty. Again, Gregg mentions Marco Rubio as a recent proponent of economic nationalism. Rubio does not reject economic liberty, however, but has spent much of his public career defending it. America’s most prominent economic nationalist, President Trump, is also the country’s most strident critic of socialism.
Hamilton’s Liberal Nationalism: Respect Universal Justice, but Love One’s Own Country First
None of this is to say that Hamilton would endorse the policy agenda of contemporary American nationalists. It is impossible to say how he would judge the circumstances of the early twenty-first century, which differ significantly from the situation that he faced as a statesman. It is to say, however, that the kinds of arguments made by today’s nationalists are not very different in principle from the kinds of arguments that Hamilton made in his own day.
If we think only with the categories dominant in our own time, it will seem strange to speak of a “liberal nationalism.” If we think beyond the present, however, and pay attention to the Founders, we see that liberal nationalism is possible. Such a nationalism will acknowledge universal truths and principles of justice, while still affirming our primary responsibility for the well-being of our own nation. It will defend economic liberty, while at the same time acknowledging the need in some areas to regulate foreign trade, with a view to the nation’s power and prosperity. This liberal nationalism is not an innovation but is deeply rooted in our political tradition. It is as American as Alexander Hamilton himself.
Carson Holloway and Bradford P. Wilson are co-editors of The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton, volumes one and two (Cambridge University Press).