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Explore the Roots of the American System

By Nancy Spannaus

June 14, 2021—One of the common questions I am asked during my classes of Alexander Hamilton’s American System is: Where did Hamilton get his ideas? In a one-and-a-half-hour presentation on June 6, I addressed that question at some length.

My power point presentation was entitled “Cameralism, Leibniz, and the American System.” It was given as part of an ongoing symposium on the history of statecraft, sponsored by the Rising Tide Foundation. A video of my talk is now available on my You Tube channel, as well as the RTF site.

Explore the Roots of the American System

Detail of Lorenzetti’s fresco Allegory of Good Government in the Town (wikimedia). The Italian Renaissance was a major contributor to the rise of Cameralism.

I first delved into the connection between the European school of political economy called “Cameralism” and the key founders of the American System of Economics back in the 1970s. The second edition of the Political Economy of the American Revolution, a book of writings co-edited by me and Christopher White, featured an essay by me outlining Cameralism’s key concepts and authors. In preparing for this recent presentation, I was happy to uncover even more about these pathfinders of “good government” and “political economy.”

In this lecture I by no means exhausted the subject of Hamilton’s intellectual ancestors. But, as you will see if you listen to the presentation, there is a remarkable continuity between the ideas and even the economic programs of the Cameralists and the great German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and those of both Benjamin Franklin and Hamilton. The study of Cameralism provides a new level of depth to the concepts of the American System, which is critical for a full understanding of its principles.

Leibniz Was the Pivot

By far the most advanced thinker in the Cameralist tradition was philosopher-scientist Leibniz, who lived between 1646 and 1716. While he only wrote two documents outlining the principles of economy (as far as we know), these contain an amazingly in-depth outline of the essential concepts for a prosperous nation. I describe them at some length.

But Leibniz himself was the heir to an earlier tradition of principles for governing, one which insisted that a government (at that time, the prince) put the welfare of the population before his own, and mandated specific economic policies to accomplish that aim. This was a revolutionary idea at the time.

Explore the Roots of the American System

A statue of Leibniz in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany.

In my presentation I emphasize both his Italian and German antecedents, concluding with his close associate Johann Joachim Becher.

Even more astounding, however, is the influence Leibniz and his ideas had in the century following his death. He and his close associates played direct roles in policy deliberations on statecraft in England, the American colonies, Russia, and Austria, as well as the German states. You even find reflections in the work of Alexander Hamilton himself.

What Creates Wealth?

If there is one theme which runs through my talk, it is this: What is the source of wealth creation? The Cameralist school firmly believed the key ingredient was man’s creative or productive power, made possible by his being made in the image of the Creator. Population policy, industrial policy, educational policy – all of these “issues” lay at the center of their prescriptions for “the science of good government.”

You can’t get any more “relevant” or “modern” than that.

There’s been a bit of a revival of interest in leading Italian Cameralists in academic circles recently. But this history is generally buried; it deserves to be widely known, as it pertains to mankind’s very ability to achieve happiness, and even survive.

I invite you to take a look at “Cameralism, Leibniz, and the American System” today.

 

 

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