Jefferson, Hamilton, and the French Revolution

In which I speak up, tentatively, for Jefferson as against Hamilton and Tocqueville as against Burke.

Brad DeLong admires Hamilton more than Jefferson, and disapproves of the French Revolution. It’s taken a while for the Jeffersonian indoctrination I received in public school to wear off, but I’m more and more sympathetic with DeLong’s viewpoint.

And yet …

Hamilton wanted the country run on the fundamentally oligarchic/plutocratic principles of the then-British constitution. That was consistent, as Jefferson’s agrarianism wasn’t, with the flourishing of the American economy. But if it hadn’t been checked first by Jefferson and Madison and then by Jackson, it would have had pernicious political and social consequences, of which the Sedition Act was an early warning.

Jefferson’s egalitarianism was mostly pretense, as any slaveholder’s would have to be. Still, the democratic, republican, and egalitarian principles he espoused were in the long run the right ones, as against Hamiltonian plutocratic oligarchy with strong hereditary elements. (The Society of the Cincinnati imagined itself as the future nobility of a monarchic United States.)

The current trends in income inequality, and their political expression through campaign finance, remind us of Tocqueville’s warning about the risk wealth poses to democracy. That, even more than the character and managerial flaws of George W. Bush, ought to be the issue in this election.

As to the French Revolution, of course any civilized person must regret the death of La Rochefoucauld, and even more so the death of Lavoisier. (“The Republic,” said the judge, “has no need of genius.”) And the degeneration of the Republic into tyranny was astonishingly swift, doing damage to French political culture that endured for more than a century.

But the power of the French nobility — which, unlike the English nobility, was a large caste — and of the hierarchy of the French church weren’t going to dissipate overnight. The summoning of the Estates that led to the Revolution wasn’t some liberal whim on the part of Louis XVI: it was forced on him because the nobility and clergy refused to give up their privileges against taxation, thus bankrupting the state.

DeLong, speaking in the voice of Burke, thinks the French intellectual elite made a mistake in trying to impose democracy suddenly rather than letting it grow slowly. But was there any process happening, or likely to happen, in France that would have allowed democracy to grow? Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (“The Old Order and the Revolution”) documents the process by which the Bourbons had systematically extirpated institutions of local self-rule.

As to the brutality of the Revolutionary political process, much of it has to be blamed on the fact that foreign powers, more or less at the invitation of and with the assisance of the monarchists, invaded France. Our Revolution, fighting a much more distant opponent, had an easier time of it, and yet the extent of emigration and confiscation turns out to have been roughly equal in the two cases. (Tarring and feathering and riding on a rail wasn’t as bad as guillotining, but it was plenty bad enough, and it was standard Patriot practice in dealing with recalcitrant Tories.)

To say, then, that the American Revolution started on better principles and had a better outcome than the French Revolution is as much a commentary on the situations of the two countries as on the prudence of the leaders of those revolutions. We did indeed have a remarkably good draw from the deck, but we started — as Brad points out — from a much better place.

A Frenchman of 1787 asking “How do we get to a working republic?” might have received the old Vermont answer: “You can’t get there from here.” Was it, in historical terms, a Bad Thing for the French to attempt a revolution when they did? Chou En-lai was right: it’s too early to tell. Would it have been better to let France develop into another Prussia? Perhaps.

But to imagine that France could have chosen to walk the slow road to democracy and civil equality is, I submit, to imagine the impossible.

And to imagine that a series of Federalist victories, especially in the election of 1800, would still have led to a United States in which it was, as it actually is, somewhere between impolite and irrelevant to ask about the social status of someone’s grandfather seems to me equally far-fetched. As it was, the clash between the Federalist Marshall and a series of Democratic-Republican (and then Democratic) Presidents made the country what it became, for good and ill.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Jefferson, Hamilton, and the French Revolution”

  1. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams on the French Revolution

    Mark A. R. Kleiman and Brad DeLong are having an interesting discussion on their blogs, concerning Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective views on the French Revolution. Naturally, this also involves the influence their views had on the early Republ…

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