Alexander Hamilton is most famous for a fight. A fight that lasted mere seconds, a two-bullet battle with a casualty count of one — Hamilton himself.
And though Hamilton’s notorious duel with Aaron Burr may have been the most notorious fight of his remarkable life, it was certainly not the most consequential.
In The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy, columnist and historian Jay Cost examines the most prolonged — and enduring — war that Hamilton waged: his decades-long political wrestling match with James Madison.
Cost’s account is no sensationalist portrayal of two of America’s most respected Founding Fathers. The Price of Greatness offers no soap opera or smear campaign.
Instead, Cost reviews a political struggle worthy of study for its own sake. Speaking with The American Spectator, Cost referred to that struggle not only as a “personality clash” and “fight about ideas” but also as a “Protean battle … a fight over what kind of a country we are going to be.”
The Price of Greatness begins with a brief definition of three guiding principles of the founding: a liberalism that emphasized individual rights, a republicanism that focused on self-government, and a nationalism that stressed unity among the states.
How were these three basic values to interact in the new republic? In the 1780s, the question remained open. Old friends Madison and Hamilton began to craft divergent views of what America ought to look like, the former leaning toward what Cost labels “republican balance” and the latter favoring “national vigor.” The inevitable friction between those visions sets the stage for the rest of the conflict the book describes.
In his first two chapters, Cost expounds on each of Madison’s and Hamilton’s ideals, contrasting Madison’s “great desideratum” of letting the government serve as a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire” with Hamilton’s conviction that influence must serve an essential function in government. What follows in the chapters beyond is the history of how the philosophical disagreements became policy debates.
The 1790s brought the first direct confrontation between Madison and Hamilton. Economic policy was at stake and the two fought over both federal assumption of state debt and the establishment of a national bank. Madison criticized his colleague’s proposals as one-sided — a critique that would become the common thread in the rest of his conflicts with Hamilton.
After reaching compromise on domestic policy, Madison and Hamilton turned to foreign affairs, again finding themselves opposing each other. The main fight concerned the young nation’s relationship with Great Britain. Would a close alliance with the naval superpower (Hamilton’s proposition) help or hinder America’s economic growth?
Ultimately, the country adopted the more independent Madisonian approach during the years of the Jefferson administration and careered toward the War of 1812. Madison, Cost writes, had “erred on the economics,” while Hamilton had “misjudged the politics.”
Where did the two go wrong? According to Cost, Madison underestimated the importance of commerce and the threat that a commercial power like Great Britain could pose. But just as importantly, he failed to adequately address the question of how a government is to function in a modern economy. Hamilton, on the other hand, was shrewd enough to craft his own plan for federal interaction with the market.
Cost told the Spectator that Hamilton didn’t “get his ideas out of whole cloth” but instead “took the economic policies of Robert Walpole of England and Jacques Necker of France and repurposed them for the American context.”
When asked of the significance of Hamilton’s response to Madison, Cost replied, “Hamilton had found something essential to nationalism: unless you want a socialist totalitarian government, the government can’t do everything by itself.”
But while Hamilton deserves credit for, as Cost adds, bringing “the notion of subcontracting in as a tool of economic development,” he was not as clever a politician as he was an economist. Indeed, Hamilton’s vision of lasting peace with Britain never materialized, though he would not live to see himself proved wrong.
Even after Hamilton died in 1804, his disagreements with Madison would continue to shape national development. Cost weaves the thread of Hamiltonian economics through the charter of the Second National Bank and the protective tariffs of the 1820s all the way to the nullification controversy that would precipitate the Civil War.
Though the debate on the national bank has ceased to be a political issue and conflicts with the British crown have long been put to rest and qualms about cotton tariffs are firmly in the rearview mirror, the relationship between Madison and Hamilton lives on in American polity. Their fight was indeed a fight over who we were going to be, and, as Cost told the Spectator, “we are still asking ourselves that question.” What better place to look for answers than the beginning?