4 Schools of American Political Thought

4 posts


Walter Russell Meade has postulated an interesting set of definitions for the American political landscape, at least as far as the foreign policy arena goes. Rather than using the traditional left/right, Democratic/Republican models, he’s worked out four schools of “American” foreign policy thought, named after influential American statesmen who epitomize the principles of those schools. In brief, they are:

- Jacksonian
- Hamiltonian
- Jeffersonian
- Wilsonian
All four of these schools of thought have had significant impacts in the larger world. Major international organizations derive from these fundamentally American ideals.
So, what are these schools, and what do they represent?

The Jacksonian tradition is perhaps the least well-known, and certainly the least understood of the four schools of thought that Meade defines.

Jacksonians tend to be looked down upon – despite the fact that by the numbers, they appear to be the largest of the four schools. The driving belief of the Jacksonian school of thought is that the first priority of the U.S. Government in both foreign and domestic policy is the physical security and economic well-being of the American populace. Jacksonians believe that the US shouldn't seek out foreign quarrels, but if a war starts, the basic belief is "there's no substitute for victory" – and Jacksonians will do pretty much whatever is required to make that victory happen. If you wanted a Jacksonian slogan, it's "Don't Tread On Me!" Jacksonians are generally viewed by the rest of the world as having a simplistic, uncomplicated view of the world, despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.

Jacksonians also strongly value self-reliance. "Economic well-being" to a Jacksonian isn’t about protectionist trade barriers. Rather, it is about providing Jacksonians with the opportunity to succeed or fail on their own.
Looking for a Jacksonian President? Ronald Reagan was very much a Jacksonian, as is our current President, George W. Bush.


Hamiltonian doctrine is really the doctrine that pushes the economic primacy of the United States. Hamiltonians believe that a fundamental link between the government and big business is key to the survival and success of the country. They are, however, realists who believe that the US is at best primus inter pares among other nations. As a result, they believe that the US is best served by international organizations that protect fundamentally American interests. If you're looking for Hamiltonian legacies, look at things like the IMF, World Bank, NAFTA, and the WTO. Hamiltonians believe that the US should be integrated into the global economy on the most favorable terms possible, and that this above all else drives the success of the American system. Well known Hamiltonians include George H. W. Bush, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Bill Clinton.

One common misconception to be ware of is that Hamiltonian thinkers are essentially identical to the realpolitik-driven upper crust of European society. While the socialization is superficially the same, the results on this side of the Atlantic are quite different. In the common European view, national interest was most often viewed in terms of a military balance of power. In the Anglo-American Hamiltonian view, however, national interest is best served by preventing the rise of a single hostile power able to unify the opposition, while strong expeditionary forces and a similarly-strong international trading environment are used to provide the muscle of the nation's defense.


Jeffersonians are most interested in protection of American democracy on the home front, and almost as misunderstood as Jacksonians. They believe that foreign entanglements are a sure method of damaging American democractic systems, and are highly skeptical of Hamiltonian/Wilsonian projects to involve the US abroad. Hamiltonians and Wilsonians have a realistic streak, that the United States is fundamentally a state among states, if better managed. Jeffersonians, in contrast, believe that the United States is something better and different. You often find Jeffersonians protesting against­ international agreements, rather than for them.

If you had to look for a fundamentally Jeffersonian institution, look no further than the ACLU. For a Jeffersonian, an organization like that stands on the front lines of the battle to protect American democracy. There really aren't any Jeffersonian presidents in the 20th century. The Libertarian Party, however, is a fundamentally Jeffersonian organization.


Wilsonians believe that both the moral and national interests of the United States are best served by spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world. They want to see the U.S. involved on a worldwide basis with a peaceful international community based on the rule of law. Want a Wilsonian organization? Look no further than the United Nations, perhaps the ­quintessentially Wilsonian creation.

An interesting point to note is that Wilsonian values are a fundamentally American conceit, yet they have been adopted wholeheartedly by many of the ruling political organizations in Europe, especially by those most passionately interested in furthering the European Union.

Wilsonian tendancies have run through American foreign policy thought since long before Woodrow Wilson took office. The tens of thousands of missionaries sent abroad from the US in the 19th century, for example, are an exemplar of Wilsonian thinking. American Presidents have often been guided by Wilsonian thought, too. Jimmy Carter was obviously a Wilsonian. But so was McKinley when he used missionary thinking to justify annexing the Phillipines. Wilsonian views are also widely held in Great Britain, where the new version of the Labor Party and it's head, Tony Blair, exemplify Wilsonian thinking.

False. The Hamiltonian view is that protectionism is essential to guarantee American supremacy and that American business, buttressed by central banking, deserves priority over all competitors. They're the opposite of 'free traders' and they disdain internationalism. The other defining trait of Hamiltonians is a reading of Article II in a light most favorable to the Executive and a belief in the ''Imperial Presidency''. Bill Clinton, in contrast, was a welfare-state Wilsonian. Well known Hamiltonians would include Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon and (in some capacities) George W. Bush.

The description for Jacksonian does not suit W at all. In fact, these descriptions are uselessly vague and poorly drawn. I can't even remember anything about them 30 seconds after reading.

President Camacho
That's ridiculous, just because some fat proles in flyover country like to wear "Don't Tread On Me" shirts made in China they're principled "Jacksonians"...

I agree with Thomas' correction to the Hamiltonian designation and also Ash's objection to the Jacksonian profile.

In a way I'm not sure "Jacksonian" should be designated as a formal "American" school of political thought, as Jackson was basically just a practical politician who dealt with problems that were historically contingent... I'm not sure if he intended (as Jefferson and Hamilton most certainly did) for his legacy to be interpreted as the basis of a lasting political philosophy.

If "Jacksonianism" should be defined by anything, I would characterize it as the subordination of economic motives to a purely political will, even to the point of a contempt for economic "science". I also think that Jacksonianism in this sense has largely passed away from this country after the collapse of the "traditional" (Southern) Democratic Party in the decades following WWII.

Americans are all Wilsonians now-- with the exception of certain fringe elements like libertarians and paleocons who conform to either the Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian moulds. Indeed, orgs like the UN are vehicles designed to recast the entire world in the Wilsonian image.