James H. Read. Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. xi + 201 pp. $19.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-1912-6; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-1911-9.
Reviewed by Chris Beneke (Department of History, The Citadel)
Published on H-SHEAR (April, 2002)
America's Revolutionary War was like most wars in that it produced an unusually high degree of political unity and a pronounced sense of philosophical clarity. Those who supported the patriot cause could generally agree that the rebellion had been sparked by one particular development: government (British) power had threatened (colonial American) liberty. The solution was equally simple and widespread in its appeal. Britain's illegitimate exercise of power would have to be resisted so that liberty could again flourish. The war eventually came to an end and so did any semblance of ideological consensus. Predictably, the ensuing peace sharpened the differences that war had dulled. The difficulties only mounted with the construction of the federal government. For the founders of this republic, the challenge was to reconcile the powers of representative institutions with the liberty of a newly independent people. None of them (even Alexander Hamilton) seriously considered the reestablishment of a monarchical state. But agreement did not extend much beyond that point.
James H. Read's survey of four prominent theorist-statesmen--Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson--details the conversations that occurred during those post-revolutionary years when the task of balancing power and liberty assumed the utmost urgency. Attention to this problem may seem like a quaint historiographical relic, perhaps an artifact of the pre-Pocockian age. It was a whole three and a half decades ago, after all, that Bernard Bailyn's justly famous The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution detailed the power-liberty antinomy in colonial Whig thought. Certainly a generation of historians that prides itself on practicing the new political history would take little interest in such an old-fashioned subject (and how could any of us, who routinely accept tax advice from user-friendly computer programs, be in anyway empathetic?). But in the early national period, theorists and statesmen alike continued to frame their arguments in terms that owed a great deal to that Whiggish dichotomy. Antifederalists warned that national power would rapidly destroy all personal and political liberties unless it was severely circumscribed. Federalists in turn feared that the union would dissolve as quickly as it had formed unless the national government were permitted to exercise sufficient power.
James Read, an associate professor of political science at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University of Minnesota, began his investigation with a query that only a political scientist could love: "... is one's gain of power necessarily another's loss?" It is our good fortune that Read encountered Bailyn's Ideological Origins, whereupon his interest shifted to the question of how the Founders approached the relationship between power and liberty. The book's title, Power versus Liberty, bears the mark of a scholar trained to investigate competing ideological claims as they battle across the centuries. And, in fact, there is little sense of historical change in Read's account. He finds continuity where an historian might locate discontinuity. Perhaps more unsettling for an historically-trained audience is Read's tendency to interrogate the theories he examines, the way he tests hypotheses in impressively systematic fashion. Despite whatever reservations they might have, however, historians of the early republic should find much in this slim, incisive volume to appreciate.
Read devotes a chapter to each of his subjects, beginning with his favorite theorist-statesman, James Madison. While the text is generally evenhanded, Read clearly believes that this Constitutional delegate, congressional representative and future President got it right. And he seeks, like Lance Banning, Jack Rakove and Drew McCoy before him, to affirm Madison's theoretical consistency. Scholars have long wondered how an ardent proponent of national power could become an adamant defender of state's rights and individual liberties in just a few short years. According to Read, there never was a substantive break in Madison's thought. This Virginian's support for a more "energetic" federal government was based upon the same fundamental principles that motivated his assault on Alexander Hamilton's scheme for a national bank. Madison always insisted upon "clear boundaries to governmental power publicly agreed upon by an enduring majority of the people" (p. 28). Therefore, to him, the intentions of those who gathered at the Constitutional Convention meant less than the consent later expressed by the state ratifying conventions. To expand the federal government's powers beyond their prescribed limits did not so much violate the Founder's intentions as it did the public's trust. National power posed no inherent threat to liberty, but national power that usurped the authority assigned to the states surely did.
Like his constitutional ally-turned-political opponent James Madison, Alexander Hamilton saw no inherent conflict between power and liberty. Hamilton maintained that a judicious expansion of the former posed few dangers to the latter. However, as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton suggested that the public's trust had to be continually cultivated. Confidence in government power was something to be achieved rather than something to be honored (here Read draws a convincing parallel to Hamilton's belief that the appearance of the government's credit-worthiness "prepares the way for the substance" [p. 83]). Moreover, such confidence could only be secured when the national government was invested with sufficient power to perform its duties. Far from jeopardizing individual liberty (something, Read contends, that Hamilton actually valued), federal authority was threatened by the power of the state governments, which already enjoyed popular allegiance. Hamilton had little faith that the ethereal concept known as "popular sovereignty" could preserve national power against the greedy incursions of the states. Indeed, he was convinced that "an extreme spirit of jealousy" prevailed in the wake of the Revolution and that few would be content to see power exercised at any considerable distance from themselves (p. 64).
James Wilson always sustained the "faith" in popular sovereignty that Hamilton lacked (p. 89). As a consequence, Wilson worried a great deal less about the relationship between power and liberty than many of his better known contemporaries. Throughout his career--as a delegate to the Federal Convention, then at the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, later as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and finally in his law lectures at the College of Philadelphia--Wilson remained sanguine about the problems that so troubled Madison and Hamilton. Because all authority resided in "a single, national, sovereign people," Wilson contended, it did not really matter which particular bodies exercised political power (p.89). Governments could only control those activities which had been delegated to them. Therefore, nothing about the federal system precluded the states from sharing power with the national government, nor Congress from sharing power with the President. Nor was there any reason to make significant provisions for civil rights. A people would not dare jeopardize its own liberties.
>From Thomas Jefferson's perspective, the smallest expansion of federal power did indeed present a threat to democratic rights and personal freedoms. In every contest between liberty and power, he argued, "advantage lies on the side of power" (p. 120). Jealousy rather than trust was the appropriate stance toward government. Jefferson feared as Hamilton hoped that the American populace would gradually invest more and more confidence in the national government. As he saw it, the best counter to the usurpations of the national government (which he equated with "Power") were vibrant state governments (which he equated with "Liberty"). Of the four figures examined in Power versus Liberty, the hopelessly unsystematic Jefferson receives the roughest treatment. Read takes Jefferson to task for having conflated state sovereignty with democratic rights and individual liberty, thereby evading the difficult choices with which Madison wrestled. Perhaps, Read suggests, Jefferson only wished to "encourage political participation by giving as much responsibility as possible to local communities" (p. 149). But, Jefferson never did accord local government precedence over state government as he accorded state government precedence over national government.
Read is generally kind to his subjects, though his sympathies diminish with each succeeding chapter. As philosophers and political scientists are wont to do, Read helps Madison, Hamilton, Wilson and even Jefferson work out their theoretical tangles. Occasionally he may confer more intellectual integrity upon them than they deserve. For example, Read sees no "radical breaks" in the thought of these founders, only "creative modulations" (p. 21). However, a bit more charity might actually be warranted in Jefferson's case. Could town and village governments really have been considered viable instruments of popular sovereignty? It might be worth remembering that early republican state governments were relatively accessible institutions whose proximity to the main body of population in each state must have made them seem significantly more responsive to local concerns than the physically remote federal government. Overall, however, the chapter on Jefferson is as well-conceived and as sensible in its conclusions as the others.
Read's animus towards Jefferson is at least partly motivated by the recent political success of libertarianism. For those who have come under the sway of this ideology (whether they consider themselves libertarians or not), the contest between government power and individual liberty is a zero-sum game. By contrast, Read suggests that "national power and liberty do sometimes expand together" (p. 174). But, he notes, just because they have in the past does not mean that they necessarily will in the future. We must make our own choices. History provides valuable instruction; it does not offer easy answers. Read thinks especially well of Madison's subtle consistency, which enabled him "to consult history while rejecting many of its conventionally accepted lessons" (p. 175). Historians and non-historians alike might appreciate Read's book for the same reasons. Power and Liberty could have easily slid into a kind of reductionism that transformed "power" and "liberty" into historically transcendent concepts. Or, it could have drawn a series of patronizing political lessons. Instead, this book provides a sophisticated analysis of early national conversations over the ambiguous consequences of power, the value of federalism and the dream of popular sovereignty.
. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992).
. Some historians, it could be said, are wont to over-generalize.
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Chris Beneke. Review of Read, James H., Power Versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson.
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