What’s with this Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, etc. stuff, anyway?

As you travel through the blogosphere you’ll occasionally run into the terms Hamiltonians, Jeffersonians, Wilsonians, and Jacksonians typically in the context of foreign policy and you may have wondered what in the dickens it all meant. In his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, Walter Russell Mead used these shorthand terms to characterize the forces that have shaped American foreign policy. I’ve written at some length about these in my review of Mead’s book Power, Terror, Peace, and War : America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, “Jacksonians, Wilsonians, and Hamiltonians at war”. I strongly recommend Special Providence. It’s an essential if you want to understand how America, without a guiding ideology or Napoleon, has come to dominate the international agenda. If you’re not inclined to read the whole book you might want to take a look at Mead’s article from The National Interest, The Jacksonian Tradition.

There’s been a couple of posts on two of my favorite blogs, Pundita and ZenPundit, that suggest to me that a table giving a quick summation may be in order.

Group Description Mnemonic Example
Hamiltonians Economic realists “What’s good for General Motors is good for the U. S. A.” George H. W. Bush
Jeffersonians Isolationists “Hands off the Western world”  
Wilsonians Idealistic internationalists “Making the world safe for democracy” Woodrow Wilson
Jacksonians Populist nationalists “Don’t tread on me” George W. Bush

I’m opened to suggestions for an example of a recent isolationist president. Private correspondence with Walter Russell Mead has suggested that a good candidate would be Jimmy Carter (as president). Since his presidency he’s clearly been a Wilsonian.

In the interests of full disclosure I would characterize my own views as Jacksonian with perhaps a soupçon of Jeffersonianism. I don’t have a Wilsonian or Hamiltonian bone in my body.

8 comments… add one
  • I’ve always thought of myself as a Marxist, of the Grouchovian strain.

  • I don’t think Bush qualifies as a Jacksonian now, though some of his advisors used to. Rice’s famous line of “I won’t have the 101 Airborne escorting children to kindergarten” was Jacksonian.

    The administration has been eating those words for years.

  • I don’t know, Dan. GWB continues to seem extraordinarily Jacksonian to me. An example is his indifference to debt. That’s a characteristically and distinctively Jacksonian position. He continues to be criticized for being a Hamiltonian while acting like a Jacksonian and talking like a Wilsonian.

  • Pundita Link

    Isn’t it refreshing and (dare I use the word?) educational to discuss politics outside the boxes of Dem-GOP, right and left? So much of what passes for discussion is simply agenda; the upshot has been a public cut off from the rich political history of this country and the storehouse of wisdom it provides. As we move into this daunting century we need to refer to the storehouse. American politics, and American foreign policy, will greatly benefit.

  • Well, Pundita, working outside the regular party boxes is second nature to me. My family ran the Republican machine in St. Louis (when there was a Republican machine in St. Louis). My dad was a card-carrying Communist in the 1930’s and the most conservative possible anti-Communist by the time he turned 50. I live in Chicago where everybody in his right mind’s a Democrat (if they want to get their trash picked up, anyway). I’d never voted for a Republican for president until 2004.

    If that’s not exposure to a diversity of political positions I don’t know what is.

  • We were known Republicans in Chicago. The precinct captain loved us because it meant he could fill those election judge slots.

    The reason our garbage didn’t get picked up was that we evicted the tenent who was selling smack to the garbageman.

    BTW, my father always claimed that the CPUSA never issued membership cards.

  • Kelly Link

    I dunno, it seems to me that Coolidge was the last perfect Jeffersonian.

    Please keep applause to a minimum.

  • Kelly, I agree with this and I originally had Coolidge in as my Jeffersonian example.

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