The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy by Jay Cost, Basic Books, US $27.00, Pp 256, June 2018, ISBN 978-1541697461
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worked together to frame the Constitution but fell apart soon after the birth of the new republic. Their relationship became bitter over the meaning of the republic’s founding document. Madison gave more importance to the republican principles while Hamilton thought that economic growth was more important than the republican principles. Historians have supported one or the other viewpoint since then. In The Price of Greatness, Jay Cost argues that both of them were right and their quarrel shows the fundamental paradox at the heart of the American experiment. Both of them accepted corruption as a necessary cost of economic growth. This is the trade-off that made the United States the richest nation in the world but fractured its politics.
Jay Cost says that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton belonged to a political movement in the 1780s that was founded on three basic principles. The first principle was a commitment to a liberal government, which emphasized the protection of individual rights. Thomas Jefferson argued in the Declaration of Independence that “governments are instituted among men” to secure certain “unalienable rights,” including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason, added the protection of property to the list. This view of the ends of government was heavily influenced by the writings of English philosopher John Locke.
Second, the 1980s movement was part of the tradition of republicanism or self-government. As Cicero put it, “the commonwealth is the concern of a people, who are associated with one another through agreement on law and community of interest.” In the Republican conception, liberty has less to do with protecting property and more to do with the proper construction of the state. Citizens in a republic are free because they are governed by laws that they themselves have a hand in making and not by the whims of an arbitrary sovereign. Typically, Jay Cost says that republics were thought to be unstable – easily corrupted from their proper form into a tyranny (misrule by a king), or ochlocracy (misrule by the mob). Philosophers had concluded that a secure government required mixing the republican principle of majority rule with some other form, like monarchy, to create a balance between factions of society as a bulwark against decay. French philosopher and historian Montesquieu, who was widely read in the United States at the time, had argued that Great Britain – which balanced the democratically elected House of Commons against the aristocratic House of Lords and a hereditary sovereign – was the one system in the modern world founded on the spirit of liberty. The Founders, however, had rejected the mixing of classes or estates in government and sought to found a stable republic solely on the principle of majority rule.
Third, both Madison and Hamilton were nationalists, arguing that the thirteenth states had to bind themselves more firmly together if the ideal of liberalism and republicanism were to be secured. Jay Cost says that this view was more practical than moral, as it involved a question of how to achieve the shared principle of liberalism and republicanism. It was also much more controversial. Though most Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed in general on liberalism and republicanism, they disagreed on the nature of the union. The Anti-Federalists, having just thrown off the shackles of a distant government in the Revolution, were not too keen on sanctioning another one. Plus the Federalists were arguing against the conventional view of republicanism, which held that a smaller republic was preferable because the citizenry would be more homogenous and better able to keep an eye on their representatives. Nevertheless, Jay Cost says, the miserable experiences of the 1870s – an impotent national Congress combined with selfish and often illiberal states – had convinced most Americans that a firmer union was necessary.
Jay Cost argues that the very first sentence of the preamble of the US Constitution introduces a constitution grounded in the principles of liberalism, republicanism, and nationalism. The preamble of the US Constitution proclaims, “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” In other words, Jay Cost says, the thirteen states were to form a single nation, governed by the people for their own benefit, under the condition that certain rights cannot be abrogated. As quarrels between Hamilton and Madison illustrate, Jay Cost argues that republicanism and nationalism are also in conflict with one another – in their day and in our own. Jay Cost concludes that this is the paradox at the heart of the Constitution. Just as a circle cannot be squared, our nationalist ambitions cannot always be reconciled to our republican scruples.
The Price of Greatness is an insightful and compelling untold political history of the first decade of the United States. Jay Cost provides new perspectives on how the US Constitution was framed and on what its framers’ intents were. He convincingly shows that many of our present political problems can be traced back to the foundational documents of our nation and how those documents were framed. With his unchallengeable academic credentials, Jay Cost actually reinterprets much of our independence history. It is a required reading to understand the principles, politics, and practices of our founding fathers like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.