Alexander Hamilton and Public Administration

Dr. Richard Green presents his book at the AHA Society’s Happy Birthday Hamilton! Celebrations. A video of the presentation can be accessed here.

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 10, 2020–Who would have thought a presentation about public administration could be so lively! Yet Dr. Richard Green, a Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the University of Utah, succeeded in doing so, in his keynote address to this weekend’s Happy Birthday Hamilton! Celebrations. The celebrations are sponsored primarily by the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society), along with the Museum of American Finance.

After the traditional graveside ceremony commemorating Hamilton’s birthday at Wall Street’s Trinity Church, approximately 50 AHA Society members and guests gathered at the John Street First Methodist Church to hear Dr. Green. He was introduced by AHA Society President Nicole Scholet.

Dr. Richard T. Green addresses the AHA Society.

Dr. Green’s presentation centered on his 2019 book Alexander Hamilton’s Public Administration (see my review). The idea of public administration – actually the public administration – was central to Hamilton’s thinking about government and political economy, he argued. Hamilton was, in essence, America’s “premier bureaucrat.” And while many Americans may consider that a pejorative term, it was in fact crucial to the goal of achieving a “commercial republic” that would unite the nation.

During the question period, Dr. Green elaborated on what he meant by a commercial republic. He said Hamilton believed that a population of diverse demographic, religious, and other characteristics could only be united through creating a “complex political economy” which created opportunities in many different areas. And that goal required a public administration that would reach, almost invisibly, into the daily lives of the population, providing the procedures, regulations, and processes by which they manage their affairs.

Dr. Green is no ivory-tower academic.  His professional role includes working directly with public servants, who come to his classes in order to get educated on their role. He has also studied Alexander Hamilton throughout his professional career, from his graduate thesis on the workings of the Treasury Dept. on.

The Federalist Papers

Dr. Green started his elaboration by discussing the Federalist Papers. Contrary to popular belief, he noted, the main thrust of Hamilton and Madison was not to elaborate the Constitution’s limitations on Federal power, but to emphasize the necessary power and reach of the Federal government. In this effort, Hamilton, in particular, was guided by his study of the European Continental political economists, such as Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Emer de Vattel, who themselves stressed the need for a complex political economy. Such an economy did not mean concentrating on serving the interests of the wealthy, Dr. Green added. In fact, Hamilton once wrote to John Laurens “I hate the wealthy;” yet he was committed to ensuring they made productive use of their wealth for the benefit of the nation.

American System founder Alexander Hamilton, a new statue at the Coast Guard Academy (Dianne Durante)

Ironically, Dr. Green added, the term “public administration” is the most common phrase in the 85 Federalist papers. Hamilton’s concept included not only branches of government but also independent agencies. A prime example was the Sinking Fund Hamilton established. The official purpose of that Fund was to retire the public debt, but Hamilton was determined that this retirement occur at a pace which allowed that debt to be used as “an engine of growth.”

The first Bank of the United States was one of the instruments of public administration.

The key to wealth in Hamilton’s view, Dr. Green said, was “public trust,” something that was totally lacking in the economic system of the fledgling United States. Yet within two years, Hamilton succeeded in creating it, Green argued. Ironically, this reversal was achieved in no small measure by the success of his public administration, the near-invisible government agents who collected taxes, and performed countless other administrative tasks. Today we hardly notice the thousands of government bureaucrats who allow the nation to function until something goes wrong—like the water system in Flint, or acid rain in upstate New York.

Blended Government

Another major focus of Dr. Green’s presentation, and the discussion that followed, was the concept of “blended government.”  Contrary to the idea that Hamilton believed in presidential power as conceived by today’s advocates of the “unitary executive,” he actually sought a system where was an overlap of powers between the three branches of government.

The examples are myriad.  For example, the Comptroller of the Currency answers to Congress, not the Treasury Department.  The Congress passes the laws, but the President has the veto. And on and on.  These “fusions” of power should improve the functioning of government, and should occur on within the arenas of specific missions.

While the huge number of members of public administration (Green estimates in the 100s of thousands today) have significant power, that is exercised in narrow arenas.

Nor are public servants, even political appointees, considered to be mere instruments of the administration.  Hamilton believed they must be “tethered” by the law; and after all, all public servants take an oath to the U.S. Constitution, not to their boss.

In Conclusion

After a lively question period, Dr. Green was treated to extended applause in appreciation for his presentation.  He then was awarded the designation of an Official National Hamilton Scholar by the AHA Society.

AHA members had the opportunity to sing Happy Birthday to Hamilton at the event’s end, when a phone connection with celebrations occurring on his birthplace in Nevis was finally able to be established. They will gather again for a full day of events at The Grange, Hamilton’s final home, on January 11, the day his actual birthday is celebrated.