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“Great Danger of Fatal Extremes”: Hamilton on Revolutionary Excess

June 3rd, 2020 | 3 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

One of the defining features of political conservatism is a fierce commitment to the principle that the ends do not justify the means. Whenever there is popular anger at some injustice, real or imagined, the advocates of change will try to dismiss whatever lawless deeds accompany the protest by trying to constantly divert our attention back to the original injustice: “Stop talking about what I’m doing! Didn’t you see what they did to me first? Don’t you see how gross this injustice is?” We have seen this tactic over and over in the intemperate protests by many “conservatives” against the restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19; we are seeing it now again in even fiercer tones in the often-violent wave of Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd. To be sure, the two movements are very different in their motives and their logic, and I don’t want to be careless with the analogy—or to imply a blanket denunciation of all forms of protest that might technically run afoul of the law.

However, faced with such displays of righteous indignation, the authentic conservative will patiently point to the stubborn fact that in politics, as in all of human life, that if we are not careful, our responses to injustice can do more harm than whatever the original evil was, and that laws exist for a very good reason—they are not there only to be obeyed when you happen to agree with them. The most successful advocates for change—including sweeping, revolutionary change—are those who remain careful and principled in how they pursue it.

In November 1775, as the American Revolution was gaining steam, a band of the Sons of Liberty under a Captain Isaac Sears rode to New York City to silence a newspaper publisher, James Rivington, who had been pouring forth a torrent of abuse against the revolutionary movement and in favor of the British repression. They burned and looted his publishing shop and burned Rivington in effigy.

Alexander Hamilton, then a passionate patriot of just 20 years old and a fierce opponent of Rivington’s Toryism, wrote this to his friend John Jay:

“In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multitude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent, it is almost impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy. These principles, too true in themselves, are confirmed to me both by reading and my own experience, deserve extremely the attention of those, who have the direction of public affairs. In such tempestuous times, it requires the greatest skill in the political pilots to keep men steady and within proper bounds, on which account I am always more or less alarmed at every thing which is done of mere will and pleasure, without any proper authority. Irregularities I know are to be expected, but they are nevertheless dangerous and ought to be checked, by every prudent and moderate mean. From these general maxims, I disapprove of the irruption in question, as serving to cherish a spirit of disorder at a season when men are too prone to it themselves.” (Hamilton, Writings, 44)

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.