Alexander Hamilton’s Warning to Fans of Trump and Sanders

Populism is in. Reason is out. That picture seems to characterize contemporary American politics. While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are campaigning for two different parties’ presidential nomination, the two men share in common an incoherent populism. Whether it’s Trump’s tirades about China or Senator Sanders’ insistence that the government can do just about everything and anything, both follow the classic populist playbook. Among other things, this involves identifying the evil-doers (China, the one percent, etc.) supposedly responsible for all our woes and proposing simplistic solutions that will be accomplished, apparently, because they say so.

This is not our first fight with Populism’s bitter battle.

After returning from the Revolutionary War in 1783, Hamilton began his legal practice in New York by defending Tories threatened with banishment and confiscation of property by populist politicians swept into office by New Yorkers determined to vent their anger on those on the Revolution’s losing side. The British had done terrible things during their occupation of New York. Yet in his First Letter from Phocion (1784), Hamilton noted that “nothing is more common than for a free people, in times of heat and violence, to gratify momentary passions, by letting into the government, principles and precedents which afterwards prove fatal to themselves.” Hamilton then highlighted the dangerous precedent that would be created by evicting and expelling an entire category of people without fair hearings and trials. Should this occur, Hamilton wrote, “no man can be safe, nor know when he may be the innocent victim of a prevailing faction. The name of liberty applied to such a government would be a mockery of common sense.”

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