It’s Hamilton vs. Jefferson All Over Again

When General Lee handed Ulysses S. Grant his surrender and my ancestors went home in defeat, there was reason to believe that one of the great unresolved conflicts over the meaning of the American experiment had been laid to a bloody rest.

I’m not talking about slavery, and it did not in fact prove to be the end. The most important original argument over American’s identity was best encapsulated in the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.

Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.

In the years after the American Revolution Northern states began a shift toward Hamiltonian capitalism. Over strenuous Southern objections those states and the Federal government wherever possible, began chartering banks, building canals, expanding ports, and laying railroad tracks. You can’t develop a coal industry in Pennsylvania if you can’t ship the product to New York. Building that infrastructure would require more organization and capital than individuals could fund on their own, but would yield massive benefits to a wide swath of the country.

Southerners struggled to block most Federal expenditures for infrastructure. President Jefferson himself dismissed the Erie Canal as “little short of madness.” His fellow Virginian, President James Madison, vetoed an effort to fund it. It was eventually financed by New York State. It brought massive new wealth to the Great Lakes basin and solidified New York City as the commercial capital of the nation.

It brought nothing to the South.

My Southern ancestors lived quiet rural lives. The harshest and most dangerous labor in their world was performed by slaves, giving them a sort of borrowed dignity regardless of whether they owned any slaves themselves. Religion was paramount, followed by family, clan and country. Their agricultural model and warm climate left them free from the need to organize any meaningful government beyond basic police and courts.

There were trains and factories, but few of them. Southern states resisted any organized industrial planning and fought federal efforts to build infrastructure. When Civil War came they never had a chance. The Jeffersonian model didn’t just leave them trailing in factories and railroads. As James Webb pointed out in his book, Born Fighting:

With only one-third of the white population, the south had nearly two thirds of its richest men and a large proportion of the very poor…In 1860 seven eighths of [foreign] immigrants came to the north…In the north, 94% of the population was found to be literate by the census of 1860; in the south barely 54% percent could read and write. Roughly 72% of northern children were enrolled in school compared with 35% of the same age in the south.

Their martial spirit made them formidable fighters, but they were lousy at coordination and unable to match the North’s infrastructure advantages. They were plowed under by the massive organizational power of a capitalist civilization. They lost because they had built a weaker system.

Wars don’t necessarily change cultures. The South has experienced waves of Federal Reconstruction, including the post-war occupation, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet my people have never openly confronted the central question that still hangs in the air.

Will we decide – deliberately – to join a modern capitalist nation with all the complex responsibilities and spectacular benefits it brings, or will we continue to cling to the dead vision of The Confederate Dream?

Now we have fielded a Republican Congress which is determined to burn down the Hamiltonian Republic that has emerged since the war and return to a “simpler” time. Along the way they would damage (or even destroy) the benefits we’ve gained from our reluctant capitalism. If you want to know what a Neo-Confederate political model looks like in a modern country, try to find a good public school for your kids in Mexico.

We may not think that’s what we voted for. No one can say out loud that they are fighting for the Confederate way of life, and some who embrace it may not even recognize it. You can get some hints at what’s going on if you probe Ron Paul’s fans for their thoughts on Lincoln. The weird AM radio and Tea Party rhetoric of fighting “socialism” sounds absurd, but only if you take it literally. We want to relive a fleeting moment of Jeffersonian simplicity.

The rebellion against the Neo-Confederate Revolution must start inside the Republican Party. If we fail to manage the complexity of our age, there are horrors that await. Jefferson’s world is gone, but we can still have a banana republic if we so insist.

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