Book review: How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America, by Brion McClanahan

Alexander HamiltonAs entertaining as Lin-Manual Miranda’s Hamilton is, an unfortunate side effect has been American youngsters idolizing a man that has done an immense amount of damage to the American legal and political system. While Brion McClanahan’s new book How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America isn’t going to compete in popularity with the Broadway musical’s hip-hop songbook, it is a welcome remedy that clearly articulates Hamilton’s impact on American government.

McClanahan discusses the impact Hamiltonianism had on American politics through four key figures in American history: Hamilton himself, John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Hugo Black. Of course, Hamilton is the key figure in this narrative; McClanahan demonstrates him as the key mover behind American nationalism. John Marshall, as the first chief of the U.S. Supreme Court, uses Hamiltonian arguments to further the nationalist cause. Joseph Story, although a Supreme Court justice, solidifies the nationalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution primarily through publishing a three-volume treatise on the document. Finally, Hugo Black, as a Supreme Court Justice in the 1960s, finalized the dominance of nationalist Constitutional though through a series of rulings that applied the Fourteenth Amendment to the activities of the states.

Throughout the book, McClanahan shows that these men had two things in common: they each sought to establish and maintain a national government, inconsistent with how the U.S. Constitution was structured and presented to state legislatures at the time of its adoption, and they were duplicitous in how they carried out their work.

The tone of the book is established right from the beginning. McClanahan pulls no punches when discussing Hamilton’s tactics while the Constitution was being designed, debated, and ratified:

Hamilton spoke out of both sides of his mouth. Put simply, he often lied, particularly when it came to defending federal power. Hamilton would craft a narrative of constitutional authority that would fit his agenda, but that narrative was often at odds with the story he spun when the Constitution was in the process of ratification. In 1787 and 1788, Hamilton sang a tune of federal restraint and limited central authority. When backed into a corner by Jefferson or James Madison after the Constitution was ratified, Hamilton would often backtrack and advance positions he favored during the Philadelphia Convention, namely for a supreme central authority with virtually unlimited power, particularly for the executive branch. This Hamilton was the real Hamilton, but the real Hamilton would never have been in a position to direct the future of the United States had he not been part of a disingenuous sales pitch to the states while the Constitution was being debated and ratified.

McClanahan is at his best when he supported well-constructed arguments by referring to a wide variety of original sources. Simply put, he knows his original sources. He uses them, and the arguments he articulates, in a nuanced and comprehensive manner.

In short, this is an excellent book that demonstrates how Alexander Hamilton and his fellow travelers throughout history moved American politics away from the decentralized general government, as articulated and originally understood in the Constitution, towards a national government. Lovers of American history, and American culture, would do well to read this brief yet powerful book.