Sunday, August 15, 2010

Levy on Burr

Should Aaron Burr count as one of the worst Americans?  Jacobv T.Levy observes:
I keep seeing Burr mentioned for killing Hamilton, which strikes me as odd. By 1804 the latter was decisively out of power, and he would have remained so-- the reasons for Federalist decline and collapse were bigger than one man. And it was, after all, a duel, not an assassination.

Burr deserves to be on these lists as an attempted traitor, one whose plans, had they worked, would have strangled the United States in its cradle.
Levy makes three points here that I want to consider, at least one of which I agree with.

First, consider "Burr deserves to be on these lists an an attempted traitor."  I'd accept this point on its face, but I think it proposition may be more interesting than Levy understands. In narrow operational terms, it has to be correct: if they topic is worst Americans, then trying to destroy America would seem to be  relevant datum.  But I think there is more going on here.   You often hear comments like this from critics of a libertarian bent.  Yet what can treason mean to a libertarian?  If the true goal is to throw off the shackles of the state, then shouldn't we regard a traitor as one more fighter of the good fight?

I know, I know--libertarians don't really mean that.  They want the state, for all kinds of good purposes, like, say, promoting libertarianism.  But that is just the point, or at any rate a point that libertarians far too often ignore.  Not even the most extreme libertarianism is conceivable without some kind of a preexisting structure that underlies or transcends it.  Libertarian tetchiness about treason is a recognition of just that--that the "state" (call it by another name if you like, but the point remains) that the state underlies any kind of libertarianism, always and in any case.  It's an argument parallel to Hegel's argument that no "logic" can be defended or justified on its own terms.

But move on.  Levy also says that Hamilton "was decisively out of power."    I'll take it as true that he was out of power.  But what should we make of that fact?  I take it he wants us to concede that Hamilton's death was no loss.  In that wise, see how he anticipates and undertakes to rebut a possible objection.  What he says, more precisely, is that Hamilton  "was decisively out of power he would have remained so."    Elaborating his prospective rebuttal, he goes on to say that "the reasons for Federalist decline and collapse were bigger than one man."

As I say, I'll concede the narrow point--that Hamilton was out of power.  As to the rest--first, we have no reason to assume that Hamilton's political career must depend upon the Federalists--there really is no telling what road his political meanderings might have taken had the Federalists ceased to exist.  And second, we remember Hamilton not merely as a politician but as a thinker.  There are any number of people (Machiavelli, Thucydides, Trotsky) who did better thinking out of power than they ever did in.

There is of course a vast industry based on the might-have-beens in human history, seductive precisely because it is beyond the  realm of proof and disproof. My friend Don liked to say that if Mozart had lived another 20 years, we never would have heard of Beethoven (on the other hand,  Pietro Mascagni staged Cavalleria Rusticana and lived 56  more years without another hit).  Of course it is true that Hamilton might have been washed up.  But Hamilton died at 49.  Had Churchill or Kant died at 49, they would have languished as nothing more than footnotes.

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