A review of American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy, by John Lamberton Harper

Alexander Hamilton is finally getting his due. The 200th anniversary of his death in the famous duel with Aaron Burr brought with it a major exhibit on his life and times at the New-York Historical Society; efforts to treat the Grange, his home in Harlem, with the same respect as Thomas Jefferson's Monticello; and a spate of books on his statesmanship and political thought. While Ron Chernow's biography has been getting the most attention, my vote for the best recent book on Hamilton is John Lamberton Harper's American Machiavelli

Scholars of American political thought and American foreign policy have largely ignored the founders' significance for the understanding of the latter. Indeed, Harper's "partial biography" is the first book-length study of Hamilton's foreign policy since Gilbert Lycan's now dated Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy: A Design for Greatness (1970). It may seem odd that Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, not Secretary of State Jefferson, is usually regarded as the architect of early American foreign policy. Yet like the struggles between the State and Defense departments in our own time, interagency squabbling was common in Hamilton's, with Hamilton eventually winning most of the contests for Washington's ear. With a deep affinity for the American realist approach to foreign affairs, Harper, Professor of Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center, brings greater strategic coherence to Hamilton's foreign policy than Lycan did, and strives to prove that American foreign policy is not hopelessly entangled in the frequently hypocritical and self-deluding moralism that he attributes to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, and possibly George W. Bush. 

Harper associates this moralistic streak in American foreign policy with the recurring tendency of Americans to oscillate between the extremes of self-imposed isolation on the one hand, and efforts to transform the world in their image, even by force of arms, on the other. By contrast, Harper sees Hamilton as both tougher and more moderate (in foreign affairs at least) than his peers at home. In an America that continually deluded itself into thinking it could be an exception to Old World political concerns like the balance of power, Hamilton was the most vigorous spokesman for "continental realism." Ultimately, however, Harper finds the source of Hamilton's foreign policy not in Talleyrand or Pitt but in Niccolò Machiavelli.

Conceding that there is scant evidence that Hamilton ever read Machiavelli, Harper still makes a strong case for the Florentine's indirect influence, especially through the writings of David Hume. Perhaps most compellingly, Harper demonstrates systematically that Hamilton addressed many of the same diplomatic and strategic problems that Machiavelli faced in Florence and that he described in republican Rome, with Hamilton often drawing nearly identical conclusions. The two shared many premises, including a pessimistic view of human nature, the fickleness of human faith (and thus the unreliability of alliances), the need for a strong executive, and the self-defeating tendencies of political half-measures, i.e., playing both ends against the middle only to be crushed by the extremes.

Harper's chapters on the Nootka Sound crisis, the debate over neutrality at the beginning of the French Revolution, and the Jay Treaty capture Hamilton's prudent efforts to build the strength Americans needed for war (while avoiding war as long as possible), and merit careful study. Perhaps the best chapter is on Washington's Farewell Address, which arguably might be called Hamilton's Farewell Address. Hamilton drafted and redrafted it in accordance with his understanding of Washington's mind, the need to rescue Washington's reputation from the bitter partisanship of the 1790s, and the utility of using Washington's fame to make a lasting mark on American foreign policy.

Unfortunately, Hamilton's concern not merely with American interests but with American justice does not show up much in Harper's account. For example, when Harper writes that Hamilton endorsed the common 18th-century "scheme of natural rights" out of "a mixture of youthful conviction and deference to contemporary political correctness," one wonders why he has stripped Hamilton of any moral depth, and far worse, dismissed the fundamental principles on which the nation was founded as just another sad bout of American Puritanism. Yes, Hamilton spoke and wrote passionately about natural rights as a sixteen-year-old revolutionary in his essays "A Full Vindication" and "The Farmer Refuted." But those rights are central to his arguments for clemency toward defeated Tories in his later Phocion essays, and in The Federalist are the ends that the American Union is meant to secure. Together with John Jay, Hamilton founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, the kind of effort on behalf of natural rights that even Thomas Jefferson was unwilling to make, at least so long as freed slaves might live in Virginia rather than Liberia. Revolutionary France's betrayal of those rights, as Hamilton understood them, was essential to his critique of French foreign policy in his most famous essays on foreign affairs, Pacificus and Americanus. Like all of the American Founders, Hamilton without natural rights is like the United States without the Declaration of Independence, a body without a soul.

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The root of Harper's problem appears to lie in his understanding of Machiavelli, a realist to be sure, but boasting a ferocity and savagery that Hamilton, along with most Americans of his generation, deeply opposed. We hear nothing in Harper's account about assassinating popes, murdering one's own, brother or child, seizing power in a coup d'etat, keeping it through acts of state-sponsored terrorism, conquering the world, or even genocide, all of which Machiavelli seemed to advocate, according to the necessity of the times. The result is a sanitized Machiavelli, the kind a modern realist can have to dinner, without having to look at his bloody hands. Machiavelli assumed states have no choice but to molest or be molested. Thus, they must try to conquer the world, if possible, by whatever means (that is what Machiavelli meant byvirtù), in order to be safely glorious—a view that naturally leads to a Hobbesian state of war among states as well as individuals. Throughout his political career, Hamilton stood against Machiavellian princes—like Aaron Burr—completely liberated from any political principles, and against Machiavellian republics—like France in the 1790s—preaching universal liberty but seeking universal empire. For the founders in general and Hamilton in particular, natural rights gave a substantially different cast to their understanding of morality and interest in foreign affairs. 

The principles of all the founders were much more Lockean, or more broadly speaking, Grotian, than Harper lets on, with our natural state being peace—although, absent the correct institutions and policies, that natural state can quickly devolve into a state of war. Moreover, the Lockean law of self-preservation and self-defense, with its prudent anticipation of danger at a distance, would take precedence. While advocating every prudent measure required for national security, Hamilton believed natural rights imposed duties on states to preserve the peace unless compelled to war by some fundamental interest (like securing New Orleans to preserve the American Union against France, Britain, and Spain, a view which might, in extreme circumstances, justify even preventive war). Thus Hamilton, the arch-nationalist, defended Vermont's secession from the state of New York as both an accomplished fact not worth the cost of changing and an exercise of the right of revolution Americans invoked to justify independence in 1776. Had New York gone to war to recover Vermont, as some proposed, Hamilton implied it would have sacrificed liberty to the golden calf of power and dominion. The case would have been different, however, had Vermont remained outside of the Union and allied with England. Then, Hamilton argued, saving the Union would have required war to force Vermont into the Union. 

There is, then, a distinctive American approach to foreign affairs which, as Nathan Tarcov has argued, blends statesmanlike prudence with natural rights principles. That unique approach lies somewhere between the radical realism of Machiavelli and the radical moralism of Immanuel Kant. Sadly, while seeking to oppose Wilsonian idealism (the clearest American example of Kant's radical moralism), Harper naïvely sacrifices America's genuine natural right principles.

Readers need to be careful when Harper writes that Hamilton followed Machiavelli in learning how "not to be good," a formula that is at the core of Machiavelli's thought but not Hamilton's. They might mistakenly associate Hamilton, despite his lifelong struggle on behalf of American principles, too much with the authentic Machiavelli traditionally understood as a "teacher of evil." Politically sober readers might turn away from Hamilton in disgust, thus depriving themselves of one of this country's sanest voices on foreign affairs. Such a result would also be unfair, because Hamilton was as much an American Hume, Smith, Locke, Blackstone, or Montesquieu—not to mention all those Greeks and Romans he used for pen names—as he was an American Machiavelli. Although politics frequently involves trade-offs not merely between interests, but also among competing moral principles, Hamilton never once said he or anyone else at any time had to learn how to do evil to serve the cause of the state, much less his own ambition. He refused to learn how not to be good. In that sense, he was actually an anti-Machiavellian. 

Which is not to deny that Hamilton and his contemporaries were capable of learning a trick or two from Old Nick. A strong case can be made that Jefferson, Madison, and other founders profited much from Machiavelli's ill-gotten wisdom, either directly or indirectly. Jeffersonian vigilance, for example, has deep roots in Machiavelli's efforts to turn sheeplike citizens into wolves policing the state against tyranny with a "little rebellion now and then," and Madison's famous theory of "opposite and rival interests" (what we call pluralism today), not to mention Adam Smith's invisible hand, has an uncanny resemblance to the public benefit Machiavelli saw arising from the self-interested conflict between Roman plebs and patricians.

John Lamberton Harper's "partial biography" may only tell part of the story, but it does point us toward a forgotten moral and political universe, a different, philosophically richer, and perhaps better approach to foreign affairs than what is taught or practiced in America today.