My book Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder (Verso, 2020) offers a reinterpretation of the American Revolution, examining the political economy of the war effort, the postwar slump, and the plethora of violent social and economic conflicts of the 1780s. The book also reads the U.S. Constitution as an economic document that lays the foundations of a developmentalist state empowered to plan, invest, produce, and guide an economic transformation. I also show how, despite active sabotage by the small-government-advocating Jefferson and Madison administrations, the utility of the developmentalist state had to be embraced for the country to industrialize and survive.
Robert Ovetz’s review of Radical Hamilton avoids most of this and in the process misrepresents both the facts and the argument. He charges me with attempting “to reframe Hamilton as an eco-warrior whose 1790s financial plan is a ‘greener means proper’.”
Environmental problems never entered Hamilton’s thought. Had they, we can assume he would have been ready to sacrifice the environment to achieve development and secure sovereignty. Only briefly do I connect Hamiltonian political economy to the modern environmental crisis by suggesting that an accurate understanding of government’s role in driving forward the first industrial revolution will be useful in the green re-industrialization demanded by the climate crisis.
The term “means proper” does not come from Hamilton’s “financial plan,” as Ovetz misidentifies it, but rather from Hamilton’s almost totally ignored industrial plan, Report on the Subject of Manufactures. The distinction is important because that 30,000-word blueprint for government-driven industrialization is a central focus of my book. Yet, the review never even mentions it.
Ovetz claims that I “assert” Hamilton was an anti-imperialist proto-dependency theorist. I do not “assert” anything but I show how Hamilton’s advocacy of economic planning in the face of crisis resonates with modern struggles:
Hamilton’s defensive developmentalism, though in no way socialist, nonetheless had an anti-imperialist or at least postcolonial tinge, and in that regard anticipated some of the challenges later faced by the socialist experiments in the twentieth century. A more symmetrical comparison can be drawn between Hamilton’s project and that of Simón Bolívar. Like Hamilton, Bolívar was a liberal nationalist with a political vision of continental scale, rooted in the quest for development, sovereignty, and a strong central government.
By repeating the old democracy-vs.-aristocracy framework, Ovetz falls into dichotomous, moralistic thinking that confuses scale for political content. He implies that the U.S. Constitution’s centralization of power was inherently undemocratic because the states, being smaller, were necessarily more accountable, democratic, and progressive.
In reality, most state governments were controlled by cliques of corrupt, self-dealing local elites. Many of them opposed the new U.S. Constitution because it would impinge upon their undemocratic prerogatives. This elite fear of Big Government was summed up succinctly in 1818 by Congressman Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina when he wrote: “If Congress can make canals, they can with more propriety emancipate.”
Ovetz claims that during the Revolution “most of the states” rewrote their constitutions to make them more democratic, and as part of this they “created unicameral legislatures.” In actual fact, 11 of the 13 states possessed bicameral legislatures, complete with aristocratic upper houses, and had since the late 1600s.1
Ovetz falsely claims that most state constitutions “abolished” the veto. In reality, none of the colonial era states had the veto. But between 1776 and 1787, 3 states added the veto; and by 1792 that number had increased to 6. The trajectory is the opposite of that asserted in the review.2
All of these bicameral state legislatures had property qualifications for voting and office holding, a fact the review attempts to minimize. Half the state constitutions required voters and officeholders be Protestants.
By contrast, the U.S. Constitution includes no property qualifications, religious restrictions, nor restrictions on the basis of race or gender, for voting and federal office holding. The Constitution, as I explain in Radical Hamilton, “also did away with various forms of judicial caprice, specifically ‘bills of attainder’—legislative acts in which a person or group could be declared guilty of an offense and punishment imposed, often without a trial. The first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantee a set of legal protections for the individual against the state and, by extension, for social movements seeking to shape the state.”
Ovetz also claims that the state constitutions “abolished” judicial review. In reality, the early state constitutions, just like the U.S. Constitution, never explicitly included judicial review. Thus, it could not be “abolished.”
Judicial review is an “implied power” established through legal interpretation. Only in 1803 was it solidified by the judicial jujitsu of Justice John Marshall’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison. In that case, Marshall (a staunch Federalist) ruled for the Jefferson administration on the specific merits of the case, but in the process established the Supreme Court’s right to determine “what is the law” and thus, to Jefferson’s consternation, prevented the executive branch from acquiring that power.