The Elitism of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton theorized how wealthy elites would be chosen. In Federalist 30-36, he discussed the general power of taxation, and took up the question of who would likely be elected to represent the people. He introduced the discussion by saying that a common objection to the Constitution was that the different classes of the people would not be adequately represented, and therefore there would not be a “due sympathy between the representative body and its constituents.” Hamilton dropped the hammer on this objection. He wanted to make sure that this idea was forever vanquished. In Federalist 35 He said:

This argument presents itself under a very specious and seducing form; and is well calculated to lay hold of the prejudices of those to whom it is addressed. But when we come to dissect it with attention, it will appear to be made up of nothing but fair-sounding words. The object it seems to aim at is, in the first place, impracticable, and in the sense in which it is contended for, is unnecessary.

He then proceeded to “dissect” the argument, but I ask that you keep in mind that those who objected to the system of representation were right to do so. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows it. Present-day Americans have a very low opinion of the members of Congress. Our representatives do not represent us. Here, paragraph by paragraph, is Hamilton’s dissection:

The idea of an actual representation of all classes of the people, by persons of each class, is altogether visionary. Unless it were expressly provided in the Constitution, that each different occupation should send one or more members, the thing would never take place in practice. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants, in preference to persons of their own professions or trades. Those discerning citizens are well aware that the mechanic and manufacturing arts furnish the materials of mercantile enterprise and industry. Many of them, indeed, are immediately connected with the operations of commerce. They know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchant than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments, without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless; and that the influence and weight, and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal to a contest with any spirit which might happen to infuse itself into the public councils, unfriendly to the manufacturing and trading interests. These considerations, and many others that might be mentioned prove, and experience confirms it, that artisans and manufacturers will commonly be disposed to bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.

In this first paragraph we see Hamilton’s low regard for the lower classes. It is amazing to me that he first disparaged the intellect and abilities of mechanics and then patronizingly said that they were at least smart enough to know that the “merchant is their natural patron and friend.” And if that were not insult enough he added that these lower class Americans, recognizing their own inadequacies in the deliberative affairs of men, would be inclined to “bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend.” I know that such a situation would not have force today, and I doubt it did then. He then closed this part of his dissection with this flat statement: “We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.” And that, to Hamilton, was that—businessmen should hold power. Next he said:

With regard to the learned professions, little need be observed; they truly form no distinct interest in society, and according to their situation and talents, will be indiscriminately the objects of the confidence and choice of each other, and of other parts of the community.

In this second paragraph he dismissed the learned professions as if they were less useful than a hill of beans. But he admitted that here and there, and from time to time, some of them might win a seat in the House.

Nothing remains but the landed interest; and this, in a political view, and particularly in relation to taxes, I take to be perfectly united, from the wealthiest landlord down to the poorest tenant. No tax can be laid on land which will not affect the proprietor of millions of acres as well as the proprietor of a single acre. Every landholder will therefore have a common interest to keep the taxes on land as low as possible; and common interest may always be reckoned upon as the surest bond of sympathy. But if we even could suppose a distinction of interest between the opulent landholder and the middling farmer, what reason is there to conclude, that the first would stand a better chance of being deputed to the national legislature than the last? If we take fact as our guide, and look into our own senate and assembly, we shall find that moderate proprietors of land prevail in both; nor is this less the case in the senate, which consists of a smaller number, than in the assembly, which is composed of a greater number. Where the qualifications of the electors are the same, whether they have to choose a small or a large number, their votes will fall upon those in whom they have most confidence; whether these happen to be men of large fortunes, or of moderate property, or of no property at all.

In this third paragraph he finally conceded that people of property (the Framers, for example) could be admitted to the halls of Congress based on their ability to gain the confidence of the voters. This concession was not granted to the more numerous lower classes.

It is said to be necessary, that all classes of citizens should have some of their own number in the representative body, in order that their feelings and interests may be the better understood and attended to. But we have seen that this will never happen under any arrangement that leaves the votes of the people free. Where this is the case, the representative body, with too few exceptions to have any influence on the spirit of the government, will be composed of landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions. But where is the danger that the interests and feelings of the different classes of citizens will not be understood or attended to by these three descriptions of men? Will not the landholder know and feel whatever will promote or insure the interest of landed property? And will he not, from his own interest in that species of property, be sufficiently prone to resist every attempt to prejudice or encumber it? Will not the merchant understand and be disposed to cultivate, as far as may be proper, the interests of the mechanic and manufacturing arts, to which his commerce is so nearly allied? Will not the man of the learned profession, who will feel a neutrality to the rivalships between the different branches of industry, be likely to prove an impartial arbiter between them, ready to promote either, so far as it shall appear to him conducive to the general interests of the society?

In this fourth paragraph he declared that the representative body “will be composed of landholders, merchants, and men of the learned professions.” And he declared that these men will look out for themselves and for the interests of the mechanic and the manufacturer and for society in general. I suppose that this has happened sometime in our history, but it has not been the rule. Normally, the men we send to Congress tend to pursue their own interests, and most of them are professional politicians—a class that Hamilton did not mention in his dissection.

If we take into the account the momentary humors or dispositions which may happen to prevail in particular parts of the society, and to which a wise administration will never be inattentive, is the man whose situation leads to extensive inquiry and information less likely to be a competent judge of their nature, extent, and foundation than one whose observation does not travel beyond the circle of his neighbors and acquaintances? Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of the people, and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow-citizens for the continuance of his public honors, should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations, and should be willing to allow them their proper degree of influence upon his conduct? This dependence, and the necessity of being bound himself, and his posterity, by the laws to which he gives his assent, are the true, and they are the strong chords of sympathy between the representative and the constituent.

In this fifth paragraph, he naively claimed that the men who are elected to office will do the right thing, but of course in the preceding paragraphs he had already ruled out the mass of the people from ever having the opportunity to serve because they were not capable of knowing what the right thing is.

But those who have been elected to office have not done the right thing. Factions are in power everywhere. The constitutional system provides no mechanism for choosing representatives who will work for the common good. Some will, some won’t, and based on a review of our history, elections have not, and will not, provide the answer. So the Framers stripped the people of their power, and relied on a defective method for choosing their representatives. Not a very good start—and certainly not a democratic start.

Hamilton and Madison were not alone in their elitism. According to many sources, one of the favorite sayings of John Jay, the third co-author of the Federalist essays and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”

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