The Meeting and the Dinner: The Historical Significance of Today’s Powwow on the Bush Bailout

The meeting today between George Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama has me thinking back to the most famous meeting among three political leaders in U.S. history: the dinner between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, where these great Americans agreed that the federal government would assume $25 million in state Revolutionary War debt incurred and the nation’s capital would be moved to the District of Columbia to placate the southern states that had already levied high taxes to pay off their debts.

Try to stop laughing. I know, this sounds like the set up for one of those Letterman skits that compare speeches by FDR, JFK and Reagan to the bumbling oratory of George W. Bush. Stick with me, there is a serious point here.

The Dinner remains famous today because it set the precedent for a strong federal role in guiding and shaping the national economy. For Hamilton, the federal government’s assumption of the states’ war debt was the knot that would tie the states together in a national union. As Ron Chernow says in his wonderful biography of Hamilton, this debt assumption “created an unshakable foundation for federal power in America.”

This consolidation of federal power was controversial then and it remains controversial to this day. Jefferson stated later in his life that the debate over debt assumption was “the most bitter and angry contest known in Congress before or since the union of the states.” Jefferson complained that he was “duped” by Hamilton and he viewed his role in having brokered the deal that led to assumption as the political error that “has occasioned me the deepest regret.” As Chernow tells it, Hamilton’s victory on the issue of debt assumption led directly to the division of this country into two rival political parties, divided over the proper role and reach of the federal government.

It is no surprise that Hamilton’s vision about the need for a strong national government will prevail at today’s Meeting. That has happened repeatedly in our nation’s history: in the Civil War, the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the decision to intervene into two world wars.

But what is certainly remarkable about the federal bailout on the table today is that it is being engineered by a Republican president whose party views itself as the ideological heirs of the small federal government views of Jefferson and Madison. The modern Republican Party, built by Goldwater and Reagan, is premised on the idea of lower taxes and shrinking the federal government. Today, George Bush is seeking authority for his Treasury Secretary to assume $700 billion in private financial debt — a figure that, according to my calculation, is almost 10 times greater in terms of percentage of U.S. GDP than the Revolutionary War debt assumption engineered by Hamilton.

In pushing for a massive federal bailout of our nation’s financial system, Bush is raising a white flag in the war over the size and role of the federal government. This is the right thing to do: history has again and again proven Hamilton right in the vision he laid out for America both in the Federalist Papers and in his work as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. It is too bad this revelation happened before the financial crisis got to this point–if there had been greater federal oversight in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

If the bailout works, the Meeting today may be viewed by history as the day when the central role of the federal government in American life, first forged at the Dinner, finally was accepted by Americans across the political spectrum. At the very least, the Meeting, like the Dinner, should include a discussion about what those left footing the bill for bailout get out of the deal. After all, the southern states that had paid their war debts got the nation’s capital out of the Dinner. Perhaps the American people can get a federal government committed to protect their rights and interests, and not just the pocket books of corporate fat cats, out of the Meeting.