Monday, August 15, 2011

Alexander Hamilton, William Blackstone and the nature of government

One of the often overlooked documents leading up to the American Revolution is The Farmer Refuted, written in 1775 by a very young Alexander Hamilton.  One of a number of critical works that set the stage for American independence, Hamilton's treatise set forth in very clear terms much of the intellectual foundation to justify the colonists' move to defend their rights against incursions by the British government.  While not an explicit call for independence, A Farmer Refuted is an excellent statement of the principles that would eventually lead the Americans to declare their separation from the British Empire.

The core of Hamilton's argument in The Farmer Refuted centers around divinely-given natural law as the core of human obligation to one another.  This natural law, since it comes from God, is not dependent on human government or human institutions for its validity, but instead stands as judge over human laws and customs.  Hamilton cites as his authority for this point not the Bible or any of the classical or scholastic writers who discuss natural law, but rather William Blackstone, the great compiler of the principles of English law.  He does this, of course, to ground his point in the firm soil of the English Constitution -- to demonstrate that his point is not some radical notion but rather is part of the traditional approach to law and morality that under girded the British Empire itself.  The natural law defends the rights of Americans as much as the rights of Englishmen because, as Hamilton quotes Blackstone, "It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times."

After his citation of Blackstone, young Hamilton then began to build an argument about the nature of government.  Since God creates human beings and sustained them, the rights of human beings are dependent upon God's natural law.  Understood by reason, which is itself a gift of the Creator, natural law allows human beings to "discern and pursue such things as were consistent with [their] duty and interest."  Critically, natural law gives to each person "an inviolable right to personal liberty and personal safety."  In the absence of government, no person has the right "to deprive another of his life, limbs, property, or liberty," or to command another person under obedience.  The one exception to this latter point, in Hamilton's view, regards the natural ties of family.

Striking directly at the British claim to be able to govern by right other than consent, Hamilton then applies these principles to the notion of government's origin.  "[T]he origin of all civil government, justly established," Hamilton proclaims, "must be a voluntary compact between the rulers and the ruled."  In such a compact, the power of government is limited in order to secure the "absolute rights" of the people.  No pedigree can substitute for the consent of the governed, "what original title can any man, or set of men, have to govern others, except for their own consent?"  To assume such power, "to usurp domination," is to break God's natural law, and thus renders such an assumption invalid.  The people have, in Hamilton's words, "no obligation to obedience" in such a situation.

Hamilton concludes this portion of his argument with another quote from Blackstone, book-ending, as it were, his position on the necessity of consent of the governed with the authority of the great expositor of the English legal system.
The principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature, but which could not be preserved in peace without that mutual assistance and intercourse which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals.
With that, Hamilton expressed in detail the fundamental principles about God, natural law and government by consent that would later be used by Jefferson at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence.  While Jefferson's formulation of those principles is well-known, Hamilton's earlier, more precise and grounded formulation of those same principles deserves greater appreciation by Americans and all those concerned with human liberty & limited government.

[Cross posted at my own blog, Ordered Liberty.]


Jonathan Rowe said...
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Brian Tubbs said...

Good post, Mark. I think Hamilton's philosophical contributions to the founding of America are often overlooked or under-appreciated.

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