Betsy DeVos appears to have no idea who Alexander Hamilton was

The Constitution does not belong to conservatives.

CREDIT: The Washington Post via Getty Images
CREDIT: The Washington Post via Getty Images

Hooboy. Where to start with this?

Let’s set aside, for a second, that the entire purpose of the agency Education Secretary DeVos leads is to use the resources of the federal government to foster better public education. Let’s also set aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of American primary and secondary school students — 90 percent — are educated by government-run schools. If DeVos plans to fight for “freedom from government,” she is in the worst possible job.


Yet DeVos doesn’t just appear to be rejecting the core mission of her agency and the foundational premise of the American education system. She also seems to have no idea who Alexander Hamilton is or what he sought to accomplish as the architect of much of America’s economic system. The early history of the United States was, to a large extent, a battle between a Jeffersonian model built on agriculture, small government, and slavery; and a Hamiltonian model built on capitalism, economic expansion, and a robust centralized government.

Hamilton’s core insight was that healthy markets and a robust manufacturing sector do not emerge from the ether so long as centralized authorities do not interfere. Rather, the vibrant economy that Hamilton helped build depends on a strong central government authority.

Fans of the musical Hamilton will remember the cabinet battle between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson regarding the former’s “plan to assume state debt and establish a national bank.”

The debt plan was an early showdown between Hamilton’s centralized vision of government and the state-based model preferred by Jefferson. After the Revolutionary War, the federal government owed $54 million in debts, while individual states owed an additional $25 million. Worse, much of this debt brought with it very high interest rates. Hamilton wanted to have the federal government assume the states’ debts, then take out much lower interest loans to pay them all off.


Thus, by centralizing the nation’s debt, Hamilton could reduce the overall amount of interest paid by the federal government and the states, and leave the nation as a whole better off.

The hitch in this plan was that some of the wealthier states had already paid their debts, and they did not relish having their citizens taxed to pay off the debts of others. Hamilton’s eventual victory was an early win for the proposition that the interests of the nation as a whole should triumph over the narrower interests of individual states.

Hamilton’s national bank proved even more transformative. As Ron Chernow explains in his seminal biography of Hamilton, the early United States was a confusing welter of state and foreign currencies. New York City, Hamilton’s hometown, “was awash in strange foreign coins bearing exotic names: Spanish doubloons, British and French guineas, Prussian carolines, Portuguese moidores.” Exchange rates varied from state to state, so “shopkeepers had to be veritable mathematical wizards to figure out the fluctuating values of the varied bills and coins in circulation.”

A national bank allowed for a standard currency. Meanwhile, it expanded the money supply and enabled reasonably easy access to credit, stimulating the economy in the process.

The question of whether the Constitution permitted Congress to create such a bank is one of the most important legal battles in American history. Hamilton’s defense of the bank’s constitutionality still forms the backbone of the modern liberal understanding of our nation’s founding document — an understanding rooted in a strong central government.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s legal arguments against the bank animated attacks on government programs ranging from the Land Grant College Act to the Affordable Care Act. Much of Jefferson’s narrow vision of the role of government was written into the Constitution of the Confederate States that waged a treasonous war in defense of slavery. Jefferson’s vision still informs the views of modern day reactionaries like Justice Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.


Indeed, the battle between Hamilton and Jefferson over the proper role of government is one of the two great constitutional fights (the other being the question of whether everyone should enjoy equal rights regardless of their race) that animated nearly all of American history. More than a century before DeVos offered her ignorant take on Hamilton’s legacy, future Chief Justice Melville Fuller described all of American political history as a battle between the two great men’s legacies.

Two great parties have always divided the people of this country . . . the doctrine of the one is that all power not expressly delegated to the general government remains with the states and with the people; of the other, that the efficacy of the general government should be strengthened by a free construction of its powers. The one believes that that is the best government that governs least; the other, that government should exercise the functions belonging to Divine Providence, and should regulate the profits of labor and the value of property by direct legislation. The leader and type of one school of thought and politics was Thomas Jefferson; and Alexander Hamilton was the leader and type of the other.

Fuller, in case this quote leaves any doubt, was a proud member of the Party of Jefferson, and as chief justice he proved every bit as reactionary as men like Thomas or Gorsuch. But Fuller’s description of our nation’s political history is apt. There was no consensus view about the proper role of government among the framers. Instead, American history is a continuous battle between Hamiltonians who see virtue in a strong central government and Jeffersonians who deem such a government illegitimate.

Secretary DeVos is famous for her weak grasp of pretty much every policy issue that she’s been asked to discuss, so her failure to understand that Alexander Hamilton was not an avatar for limited government is hardly surprising. Yet it is also indicative of a broader effort by conservatives to paper over the early political disagreements that Fuller described so well.

In a 1989 article published shortly before he became a judge, Justice Thomas wrote that “the best defense of limited government . . . is the higher law political philosophy of the Founding Fathers.” Unlike DeVos, Thomas is a staggeringly important legal thinker who claims to have unique insight into America’s constitutional history. Yet the premise of so much of his jurisprudence is that the framers were a monolith — or, at least, that they shared a broad consensus that the role of government should be strictly limited.

It’s a powerful rhetorical tactic. Wrapping their conservative legal philosophy in the cloak of the Founding Fathers allows men like Thomas or Gorsuch to legitimize sweeping attacks on longstanding legal doctrines. It’s what allows Thomas to write that the same legal arguments the Supreme Court once used to strike down child labor laws should be revived today.

But DeVos, Thomas, and Gorsuch’s claim that they have sole ownership of the framers is wrong and ahistoric. The political philosophy they cling to today was embraced by some framers and passionately opposed by others. The Constitution does not belong to conservatism, no matter how hard conservatives push a selective tale about our early history.