Ideologically Opposed Foes: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

Perhaps modern Americans view George Washington as either a pioneering hero, or else as a slave-holding enabler of a wicked regime.  Either way, for those who are well-versed in early American history, the common picture of Washington’s incredibly talented and utterly unique administration includes both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, among other giants of the colonial period.  In short, Washington’s cabinet often pits a liberty-loving, states’-rights thumping Jefferson against the financial whiz, Alexander Hamilton, and his grand schemes of a much larger federal government.  But my research has led me to question these caricatures as I consulted my source material.  My natural inclination is to imagine a flawless Thomas Jefferson (who was, unfortunately, a rationalist and atheist) waxing eloquently about natural rights and the Liberties divinely granted to all American citizens, and to picture Hamilton (whose religious pilgrimage and life were both fascinating and complicated) as a conniving and manipulative Statist who sees nothing wrong with an iron-fisted Big Brother as long as there is Order.  Naturally, history was more complex and nuanced than my initial impressions and prejudices.  

The man whom some accuse of being the philosophical father of big government Liberalism, Hamilton,  also said things like: “however weak our country may be, I hope we shall never sacrifice our liberties.”[1]  Granted, Jefferson spoke more loudly and more often for the cause of Liberty; he seemed a bit more squeamish about granting great powers to the chief executive of the United States; but Hamilton and James Madison spoke more brilliantly and more effectively than anyone in defense of the proposed Constitution.  While the philosophical debates between Jefferson and Hamilton laid the intellectual groundwork for political discussion on this side of the Atlantic for the next two centuries, I posit that Hamilton, who never was elected president, did more to shape the modern West than Jefferson did.

Thomas Jefferson hoped that America’s future would be that of an agrarian Eden, and Hamilton saw the immense potential of commerce, business, and trade.  “While other members of the revolutionary generation dreamed of an American Eden, Hamilton continued to ransack British and French history for ideas” on how to modernize the nation.[2]  He saw the possibilities of strengthening America’s military, building up the navy, and funding the government by expanding the public debt.  Jefferson had a very different opinion on the matter.  He once told his Secretary of Treasury the following: “I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending, in an eminent degree, on the extinguishment of the public debt …”[3]  As one historian wrote, “the failure to discharge the debt would send America careening down ‘the English career of debt, corruption, and rottenness, closing with revolution,’ ” to use the words of our third president.[4] 21st century America has seen plenty of corruption and rottenness from the political class, but we have not yet witnessed revolution.

 Several disputes made up the relationship between Hamilton and Jefferson, including the debate over the necessity and constitutionality over a national bank.  At the heart of the controversy regarding Hamilton’s bank were two conflicting visions of the proper role of this new government.  Jefferson was a Republican who not only wrote about the supreme virtues of Liberty: he firmly believed that men “were endowed … with certain unalienable rights,” as he wrote in his famous Declaration of Independence.  Hamilton was a financial genius who gave us the modern system of banking and trade.  Because of him “the federal government [is now] in the center of the nation’s financial system.”[5]  While Hamilton was Washington’s Secretary of Treasury, and at his behest, the federal government began a program that established a “public credit” and assumed the debts of individual states.  (Think Hamilton, the musical.)

Jefferson once wrote that “Hamilton’s system … ‘flowed from principles adverse to liberty[.]’”[6]  He “began with the assumption of individual sovereignty, then attempted to develop prescriptions for government that at best protected individual rights and at worst minimized the impact of government or the powers of the state on individual lives.”[7]  Jefferson and Hamilton clearly had different ends and different goals in their respective visions of proper government, so naturally the means that they employed conflicted.  When the teleology is not agreed upon, the proper way forward will certainly be up for debate.

In his suspicion of Hamilton, Jefferson even went so far as to suggest that the former’s system of government “was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department” – Hamilton was Washington’s Secretary of Treasury – “over the members of the legislature.”[8]  And so Jefferson began to sound a little paranoid.  As one biographer observed, “The public debt, paper money, excise taxes, the alleged corruption of the Congress: Jefferson believed it all could lead to the consummate betrayal. … The ‘ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change from the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy, of which the English constitution is to be the model.’”[9]  Jefferson thus accused Hamilton and his followers of being closet monarchists who used the national debt to “[accrue] political power for themselves in tight bundles of coercion far removed from any popular restraints or public responsibilities. …”[10]  This was just one of the manifestations of their visions of government which were so incompatible.

Hamilton was indeed an Anglophile as compared to Jefferson, who was himself a Francophile.  Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton would always have America side with Britain over France.[11]  Hamilton, very different from Jefferson, said this to a British envoy: “I have always preferred a connection with you to that of any other county.  We think in English and have a similarity of prejudice and predilections.”[12]  Winston Churchill would later speak in similar terms.  But while Hamilton saw nothing wrong with the British way of life or system of government, Jefferson “knew – he felt – that America’s enemies were everywhere [and] the greatest of these was Britain, and not only during the struggle for independence.”[13]  This vision of a Fifty Years’ War with Britain colored all of Jefferson’s political views.  

In order to understand the dispute between these two pivotal politicians from the early years of the republic, perhaps it would be prudent to peer into their respective upbringings.  Jefferson and Hamilton were two very different men who came from very different backgrounds.  Jefferson’s heritage was one of wealth and privilege, while Hamilton came from a poor family, so he was forced to provide for himself at a young age.  “Jefferson was a member of one of Virginia’s most prominent families. … His early makeup thus blended aristocrat and frontiersman.”[14]  The young man who would grow up to author America’s Declaration of Independence and serve as the third President of the United States was the son of Jane Randolph Jefferson, “one of the wealthy, proud Randolphs, the most numerous family in Virginia’s planter elite”[15] and a surveyor and mapmaker named Peter Jefferson.  Thomas’s father was “An imposing, prosperous, well-liked farmer … [who] had amassed large tracts of land and scores of slaves in and around what became Albemarle County, Virginia.”[16]  Although he was not the wealthiest heir of Virginia, he does seem to have had a privileged and happy childhood and a mother and father that he would always love and respect.[17]

Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, was not “reared in tidy New England villages or cosseted on baronial Virginia estates,” like other founders; he “grew up in a tropical hellhole of dissipated whites and fractious slaves, all framed by a backdrop of luxuriant natural beauty.”[18]  Much like Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, Nevis was the tiny island in the West Indies which Hamilton called his birthplace.  It became colonized by “vagabonds, criminals, and other riffraff swept from the London streets .…”[19] Hamilton, arguably the most influential founding father never to become president, did not often speak of his childhood on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and later St. Croix when he was so influential in Washington’s Cabinet.  Even on the island he was not among the wealthy, but “Hamilton’s family,” rather “clung to the insecure middle rung of West Indian life, squeezed between plantation aristocrats above and street rabble … below.”[20]  His mother left her husband, Alexander’s father, John, when the boy was very young.  Although records are scarce, the mother and her boy seem to have made their way to the little island of St. Croix.  Although he was not yet in his teens, Hamilton was left almost completely on his own because of his mother’s death.  When Alexander was in his teens, he would make his way to America, the land of promise for this brilliant and mercurial West Indian.

Following on the heels of the Washington and Adams presidencies, Thomas Jefferson became President and was faced with an $83 million debt.  Hamilton, the recent Secretary of Treasury, was a student of modern economics.  In fact, his forward-looking vision for America included “such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges,” his opponents would say.[21]  Jefferson did not approve of Hamilton’s modern  policies, so he attempted to disassemble his national bank and slow its effects.  According to Jefferson’s political philosophy, the increase of the national debt was reckless and dangerous.  Even ten years after Jefferson left the presidency he lamented: “At home things are not well.  The flood of paper money … had produced an exaggeration of nominal prices and at the same time a facility of obtaining money, which not only encouraged speculations on fictitious capital, but seduced those of real capital, even in private life, to contract debts too freely.”[22]  Additionally, Hamilton’s Treasury Department flooded the market with paper money, “crushed all fictitious and doubtful capital, and reduced the prices of property and produce suddenly to 1/3 of what they had been.”[23]  Jefferson thought that if these effects remained, “a very general revolution of property must take place.”[24]  Our third president foresaw that the dangers of collecting the debt that will burden his children’s children.  He warned of policies “which [threaten] to saddle us with perpetual debt.”[25]  Jefferson had an immovable opposition to the economic system later championed by John Maynard Keynes.

On more than one occasion, Hamilton submitted recommendations to Congress that the Federal Government should assume the debts that the individual states had amassed.  When, as Secretary of the Treasury, he submitted his Report on Public Credit in 1790, Hamilton proposed the assumption of debt.  This led to a stalemate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists; this latter group would eventually die off and was replaced by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.  The gridlock was resolved by the Compromise of 1790, in which it was agreed that the Federal Government would assume the $83 million debt.

In the end, Hamilton seems to have championed the victorious positions, but this was a monumental debate between two colossal figures of early American history.  Their struggle became the substance of the debate between big government nationalists and those who advocate for the preeminence of states’ rights throughout the course of United States history.  The arguments between Jefferson and Hamilton had implications that stretched far beyond the life of Washington’s first administration.  Though Jefferson and Hamilton opposed each other mightily, they were both patriots fighting for the good of the country, as they defined that good.[26]

[1] Quoted in Read, James H. Power vs. Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson, Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia. 2000. 55.

[2] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin. 2005. 295.

[3] Quoted in Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1996., 194.

[4] Ellis, 194.

[5] Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, New York: Random House. 2012. 242.

[6] Quoted in Meacham, 265.

[7] Ellis, 299-300.

[8] Meacham, 265.

[9] Quoted in Meacham, 263.

[10] See Ellis, 271.

[11] See Meacham, 248.

[12] Quoted in Chernow, 294.

[13] Meacham, xxvii.

[14] Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson, New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. 1.

[15] Bernstein, 2.

[16] Meacham, 3.

[17] See Meacham, 6.

[18] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton, New York: Penguin. 2005. 8.

[19] Chernow, 8.

[20] Chernow, 8.

[21] Hamilton, 3.

[22] Jefferson in a letter to Albert Gallatin. Jefferson’s Writings, 1448.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] See Meacham, 796.

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