III.4: Corruption in American Government

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Corruption in America

Who first brought corruption into the American government?

Corruption existed in Great Britain before there was an American government. Consequently, Edmund Burke, a Member of the British Parliament, wrote:

There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief. (Burke [1791] 2016, I.477)

Most scholars put a lot of blame for corruption in the American government on Alexander Hamilton. However, he was known to be personally honest and honorable. But he apparently did not share Burke’s fear of “evil men”. And perhaps he underestimated human greed.

How did Alexander Hamilton get involved in the American government?

During the War for Independence, Hamilton brilliantly handled military finances for General George Washington. Then, in the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton and Washington worked together to make the national government supreme over the states.

The Anti-Federalists in that Convention fought against the U.S. Constitution. Above all, they feared the supreme national government that Hamilton wanted. For example, one Anti-Federalist group predicted:

The representation is unsafe because in the exercise of such great powers and trusts, it is so exposed to corruption and undue influence, by the gift of the numerous places of honor and emolument at the disposal of the executive, by the arts and address of the great and designing, and by direct bribery. (Dissent, 1787)

Later, when Washington became President, he made Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. Moreover, Washington saw himself as a military man more than a political one. So he gave Hamilton his complete confidence. As a result, Hamilton probably influenced the development of America’s executive branch more than anyone, even Washington.

So how did corruption get involved in the American government?

Hamilton believed the British government was wise in practicing mercantilism. That economic theory says a positive balance of trade with other nations generates wealth. And that balance is encouraged by tariffs on foreign goods. Furthermore, Hamilton pushed successfully to use government power to channel that wealth to a moneyed class. In other words, he believed that America needed rich men to compete with European, and especially British, industry.

Thomas Jefferson took the opposite view of the British government, that it was corrupt. In fact, he passionately opposed Hamilton on every issue. Describing a conversation between them, he wrote:

Hamilton … asserted that, with its existing vices … [the British government] was the most perfect model of government that could be formed; & that the correction of its vices would render it an impracticable government. (Jefferson 1811)

Hamilton sought cooperation between the supreme national government and the moneyed class. He thought that cooperation would prevent America’s enslavement by Britain, France, or Spain. However, he made no attempt to be part of that class himself. And it’s clear he had no idea how powerful they would eventually become. In fact, today that class controls our government through lobbyists.

Is capitalism the cause of corruption?

Capitalists are necessary for civilization. But corruption happens when government fails to keep capitalists honest. And the more supreme the government’s power, the greater its temptation for influence peddling. Also, whenever government expands, it causes citizens to “shift resources away from wealth-creating activities toward the pursuit of government favors”. This shrinks the economy and reduces incomes [for everyone but the well-connected]. (Gwartney, et al, 2003)

Voting for a different party has never fixed our corrupt system. Instead, we need to reform the system itself. Henry David Thoreau, an early American philosopher, wrote:

Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. (Thoreau, [1851] 1906, p. 366)

How would you reform our system? Do you think the structure of our society encourages corruption in the American government and economy? Or do you think corruption cannot be avoided?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Burke, Edmund. [1791] 2016. “A Letter from Mr. Burke to a Member of the National Assembly; in Answer to Some Objections to His Book on French Affairs”. In The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. London: Samuel Holdsworth.

Dissent. 1787. “The Dissent of the Minority of the Convention of Pennsylvania”. TeachingAmericanHistory.org. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-dissent-of-the-minority-of-the-convention-of-pennsylvania/ (Accessed Sep. 29, 2020).

Gwartney, James D.; Richard L. Stroup; Russell S. Sobel; David A. Macpherson. 2003. Economics: Private and Public Choice. 10th edition. Kendallville, Indiana: Elm Street Publishing Services, Inc.

Jefferson, Thomas 1811. “Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 16 January 1811,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-03-02-0231. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 3, 12 August 1810 to 17 June 1811, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 304–308.]

Thoreau, Henry David. [1851] 1906. “Civil Disobedience”. In The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1906.

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