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Alexander Hamilton: A bit of a wonk, a master administrator

A U professor’s new book sheds light on Hamilton’s brilliance and continuing influence on public administration.

Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry book mentions me
I will lay down my life if it sets us free
Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy

— Excerpt from “My Shot” a song in the musical “Hamilton”


Lin-Manuel Miranda provided a rollicking 180-minute summary of the life, contributions and political conflicts of founding father Alexander Hamilton in his hip-hop Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

Professor Richard Green.

One thing the musical doesn’t quite capture: Hamilton’s enduring influence on the shape and scope of governing—which is what professor Richard Green aims to do in his new book “Alexander Hamilton’s Public Administration.”

The book, newly published by the University of Alabama Press, explores how Hamilton’s thoughts and experiences about public administration theory and practice shaped the nation and continue to influence government today. Green considers Hamilton the nation’s chief administrative theorist and craftsman; Hamilton, he says, established the institutions and policies that brought the U.S. Constitution to life.

One reviewer described the book as especially timely for those who want a deeper understanding of the U.S. presidency, separation of powers and federalism. In this interview, Green, a professor of political science and public administration, discusses what we should know about and can learn from Hamilton.

You have great timing given that many more people now have some familiarity with Alexander Hamilton, thanks to the musical.

I am very fortunate with the timing of this. I was working on it before I even knew about the play. I put this book together seeking to explain both Hamilton’s theory of government, which involves his philosophy of what the American republic should be as well as his theory and practice of public administration under the new Constitution. The two are inextricably linked.

Why are you interested in Hamilton?

Thirty-five years ago I wrote my dissertation on him at Virginia Tech. The faculty there were very strong on writing about the founding period. I had always been interested in that period so it was an easy choice. I was a political science undergraduate at Wisconsin in the mid-70s and got my MPA degree at Colorado. From there my interest in the intellectual roots of public administration grew to the point where I decided to pursue a doctorate in the field.

The reason Hamilton stands out is that he was the founder who paid the most attention to the role of public administration under the new constitution. Everybody else was talking about how we should check government, how we should keep it under rein and all that. But how do you get anything done, how do you bring policy to reality—for whatever policies you are going to choose?  The American people would also want their government to effectively achieve important ends. He was the one who thought and knew most about that among the founders.

You describe Hamilton as the country’s first top bureaucrat. Tell us more.

Our founding fathers were classically trained and educated so they understood the principles and the theories of government and the process of governing, but few of them had any real immersion in doing it because in large part they’d grown up under royal governors and the British administration. And they were also revolutionaries, and thus were increasingly marginalized as we moved toward independence.

A lot of them did not really understand the mechanics of how one runs a government and makes policy come to reality. Hamilton thought more about that than virtually any other founder. He was focused on how do we actually put together an administration and run it.

He was brilliant in his ability to explain things and argue key points, and so charismatic in his speaking that his opponents lived in fear of his presence.

Hamilton was a man of many different talents. He is known principally, to most people. as a founding father and one of the authors and expounders of the Constitution in the Federalist papers. Many also mistakenly think he was president. Though an able politician in his own right, he chose instead to take the position of Secretary of the Treasury because he knew that the new government had to build and stabilize an American financial system before almost anything else could be done effectively. Through treasury operations he could monitor and influence developments in all other departments. In the process, he became President Washington’s most trusted administrator.

He also was a leading lawyer of the period. His jurisprudence played a vital role in fashioning his theory and practice of public administration. He was the most ardent advocate of what we call liberal interpretation, or “broad construction” of the Constitution. Hamilton viewed the Constitution and the laws of the national government as a platform upon which to launch ambitious plans for the public good. These included institutions and policies designed to promote a robust and diverse political economy, a stable financial system that would use public credit to stimulate economic growth, and an effective system of military and foreign policy to protect and enhance the growth of the nation.

 What was Hamilton’s role in and view of our first federal administration?

With Washington’s support, Hamilton almost singlehandedly designed the early institutions of the new government, preparing exhaustive and detailed proposals and reports to Congress, where he relied on James Madison and other close Federalist allies to pass the required organic and enabling legislation. Much of the new government’s administration reflected Hamilton’s genius. He helped establish and run the first great departments: the Department of War, the Department of State and, of course, the Treasury Department, which was the biggest institution of the new national government. It employed some 500 people spread among the 13 states. By contrast, the departments of state and war initially employed fewer than five people.

By the time Hamilton left the treasury in 1795, it had tripled in size and then by the end of the decade, in the 1800s, it employed some 3,000 people. From there on, the administrative state by necessity grew due to wars, depressions and economic development of the country.

Hamilton’s vision and plans for the new republic were, of course, very controversial and a threat to many founders who wanted mainly to preserve the status quo of a patrician-led, states-oriented republic. The controversy continues to this day in modified form, with arguments over states-rights versus federal powers to act in support of the economy, and over the play of various rights and interests in society. Because of Hamilton’s political and bureaucratic prowess, he was able to put in place a legal framework and institutions that would make his vision of a complex commercial republic a reality as the nation developed.

How did Hamilton view this form of government?

Hamilton believed the American people would accept nothing other than a republican form of government. He therefore committed to helping craft a republican design capable of effective administration in terms of protecting individual rights and promoting the general welfare primarily through a robust and diverse political economy. He read thoroughly in the literature of that emerging science, and he synthesized many of its insights to form a distinctly American approach.

In his view, a commercial republic was based primarily on protecting the rights of the populace and enhancing their commercial prospects so they could make their own way in life. Republics are based ostensibly on rule by the people, so you want to make rights and liberties of people meaningful by providing all kinds of opportunities for them to see their way in life. If you don’t, you are going to have a very restive audience, facing dire need, and they are not going to tolerate the people who are governing them for long.

Most of the founders believed in the idea that this would be a government limited largely to enhancing the material prospects of the populace. A limited government in their minds meant that the Constitution would delegate specific powers to governments and all other powers remained with the people. This was not a government that was going to shape souls, not one committed to achieving some notion of an ultimate good in life. That should be left for the people to pursue as they saw fit through their private and social institutions.

You mentioned Hamilton was the first true bureaucrat—and a good bureaucrat, at that. The value of a good, functioning bureaucracy also is a theme of your book, right?

Yes,I hope to help people gain a greater appreciation for those things that public administrators put in place and maintain, most often quietly and unobtrusively, behind the scenes. That’s the biggest part of what we call public trust.

You learn how important that public trust is when, for example, people in Flint, Michigan, learn their utility pipes are poisoning them, or when parents discover their kids aren’t getting a good education in their public schools or when the air we breathe is so filled with microparticles that we’re all going to have heart and lung problems. The recent shutdown of the federal government for an extended period last winter highlighted for many people just how important its policies and administration really are to the nation and states.

This does not mean that we should be uncritical of our governments. We should always be suspicious of power and watchful over those who wield it—but a majority of officials out there are just very quietly doing a job that we count on them to do every day and if they don’t do it, we are in a world of hurt.

Not everyone bought into Hamilton’s ideas, though.

Hamilton’sbrilliance and intensity sometimes got him into trouble. He was a bit of a wonk, and was oftentimes too straightforward in his politics and his opponents used that against him very effectively at times. His opponents often accused him, with President Washington, of secretly trying to administer the new government as a monarchy. The political tactics of the day were just as vicious and divisive as what we see today.

Hamilton was not a supporter of a monarchy for Americans and a thorough reading of his many letters and papers easily proves it. But he was also not dogmatically devoted to republics as the only way you could run things. He greatly admired the mixed form of the British government system, but believed a government had to be fitted to a people, much like you’d fit a coat to a person. You had to tailor it. He said there were some societies where a benevolent despot or an aristocracy would be the best suited to their people. This runs against the grain of those Americans who think other nations should copy our way of governing.

 What do you hope the book adds to today’s political dialogue?

Well, first, I hope the book helps readers understand that the founders argued vociferously about the meaning of the Constitution’s many clauses. The Constitution was contested in its meaning from the very beginning and it has remained so ever since. So there is no one right approach to determining its meaning.

Second, I want people to know that Hamilton was a major voice for a robust role for the federal government. Conservatives today who want to argue the federal government should play as little role as possible and that states’ rights to govern should prevail sound much like anti-federalists—except when it comes to the military. Then they act like advocates of “big government!”

Hamilton wanted an ambitious and powerful national government on both fronts. He believed the national government must play a central role in building, supporting and regulating the political economy. He believed federal regulation was a necessary complement to the economic system because he did not believe markets effectively regulated themselves over the long run.

Finally, I hope that some insights from the book will filter back into our political talk because so much of Hamilton’s thought remains relevant.

The founding of most nations and cultures is “normative” in the sense that people treat them as authoritative sources of insight and believe their founders were great people who deserve our admiration. This is fine to a point, I share that admiration, but it is also important to understand that they were subject to the same human foibles as “normal” people and that much of that history reveals a much grimmer reality than we might want to admit.

I like helping people get beyond the worship and develop a more sober understanding of what these people actually said and did, what they failed to do, as well as what they succeeded in achieving. Then we might be able to better appreciate the nature of their successes, disagreements and failings, and that many of these remain in play today.

This book explains Hamilton’s place among our founders—what he contributed to the debates of the day and how he fashioned a workable theory and practice of public administration under the new Constitution. Because he was a controversial figure, his legacy is often muddled by distorted characterizations, many of which survive to the current day. I try to set that record straight and to explain as thoroughly as possible what he really said and did.

I’m not suggesting we all become ardent Hamiltonians. But if we are going to understand who we are today and how things got to where they are, then Hamilton must figure very prominently in our thinking.