Donald Trump made a lot of hay on the campaign trail by decrying the foreign adventurism of previous administrations.
Trump positioned himself as the righteous outsider ready to rein in the executive overreach of his predecessors.
None of that began with Barack Obama or George W. Bush, but Americans with short historical memories readily identified illegal and ill-advised wars as a major problem in America, particularly since some of those wars were often carried on without any congressional input.
See Obama in Libya for example.
But what if the problem of executive overreach in foreign policy began long before either Bush or Obama took the oath of office? What if this problem originated in the very first administration? What if Alexander Hamilton and not Bush or Obama is to blame?
This might seem rich. Hamilton, after all, drafted George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” a message that implored Americans to avoid problematic permanent alliances with European powers.
That would seem to suggest that Hamilton was a non-interventionist.
But he wasn’t, and he didn’t follow his own advice.
Hamilton consistently violated the foreign policy directives of both Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson by clandestinely working with a British agent. Hamilton was even given a code name, Agent No. 7. We usually call that a spy and Hamilton did not let either Washington or Jefferson know he was trying to move the United States into a permanent commercial relationship with Great Britain. That would be espionage.
Hamilton didn’t stop there. His insistence on Washington drafting a “Neutrality Proclamation” was intended to keep the United States out of a relationship with France, not Great Britain, and even here he suggested Washington stretch the constitutional authority of the executive branch by issuing a proclamation.
That power is not listed in Article II of the Constitution. It had to be invented. Hamilton himself had argued in Federalist No. 69 that the president would not have unilateral control of war and peace. As in other instances, he lied.
Both Jefferson and James Madison believed Washington via Hamilton had opened a Pandora’s Box. Madison wrote several essays attacking Washington’s proclamation after it was issued. Hamilton rejoined, and their lively exchange became known as the Pacificus/Helvidius debates. Hamilton considered these essays to be his finest work next to his work in the Federalist.
Because the power of declaring war was specifically lodged in the House of Representatives, Madison argued that questions of war and peace had to be decided by Congress, not the president. The president could make treaties, but he could not unilaterally tell the world the United States was staying neutral. That smacked of monarchy.
Hamilton didn’t care. That is what he wanted in 1787. The fact that he argued against it never changed his mind that monarchy would surely come to the United States. Getting there a bit faster was not problematic.
And Washington’s “Neutrality Proclamation” set the stage for future unconstitutional actions by the executive branch, namely the engagement of American soldiers in combat without congressional authority. George H.W. Bush famously told Congress he didn’t need them to send troops into Iraq. His notification of military action was simply a “courtesy call.”
Theodore Roosevelt instigated an uprising in Colombia to gain access to land for the Panama Canal in 1903. He reasoned that Congress should debate him, not the issue. His Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was another example of unconstitutional executive overreach by a man who loved Hamilton’s vision of American everlasting glory.
Even Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was considered constitutionally dubious. While no one would question the ultimate outcome of the measure, Lincoln himself simply created the authority to issue the Proclamation out of thin air by reasoning that it would “best subdue the enemy.” Very Hamiltonian of him. Former Supreme Court Justice and ardent abolitionist Benjamin Robbins Curtis complained that the proclamation would set a dangerous precedent for future presidents. He should have been pointing the finger at Hamilton, not Lincoln.
Trump’s non-Hamiltonian foreign policy declarations while on the campaign trail were one of the reasons Americans enthusiastically supported his candidacy. They are tired of endless wars brought about through deception and unilateral executive action.
Americans want energy and activity from their president, but they also expect him, albeit half-heartedly, to follow the Constitution.
Hamilton never did, which is why his disease of big, unconstitutional government is the gift that keeps on giving. That plan works well for the political class.
They don’t have to fight the wars.