Saturday, December 6, 2014

Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling

Since I love, love, love history, especially American history, how could I not read a book featuring the contrast between two of America’s most influential historical figures, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton? Because Jefferson is so enigmatic and Hamilton is so good looking, yet despite what the kids will tell you today, he never became president, both present interesting character studies.

The author of Jefferson and Hamilton: A Rivalry That Forged a Nation, John Ferling notes that Jefferson and Hamilton, more than any other Revolutionary figures, shaped our great nation. “The strong central government, our system of finance, and the industrial vigor of the United States are Hamilton’s legacy. America’s bedrock belief in equality, its quest for novelty, and the continental span of the nation were bequeathed to succeeding generations by Jefferson.” In addition, some form of their historical rivalry continues to play out today as America experiences partisan clashes.

Their beginnings could not have been more different. Jefferson, heir to a large plantation, was the consummate Southern gentleman. Hamilton grew up with a single mother in disreputable circumstances. It was only the kindness of wealthy patrons who recognized something remarkable in Hamilton that allowed him to move to the continental mainland and get an education. Jefferson remained mired in history and tradition, wanting the newly formed America to be agrarian and believing slavery to be an entrenched, unsolvable problem. Hamilton knew the future American economy must be built on a strong industrial base, following the new-fangled ideas of Adam Smith and his “free market.” Hamilton was also “strikingly ahead of his time in his thinking on race.”

Jefferson definitely shaped America’s ideas on liberty and freedom. Although he couldn’t quite bring himself to apply these principles to blacks, for the white Americans, he saw the Revolutionary War all about preservation and expanding freedom and independence. Hamilton, who appeared to be much more pragmatic, knew these ideas were chimerical in a nation without a strong and secure national government. This ancient dichotomy of freedom vs. security continues today.

Although not born into the world of gentlemen, Hamilton recognized that people are inherently unequal. Therefore he desired a nation run by the best kinds of people. The will of the people and popular self-rule were not ideas that he promulgated. Meanwhile Jefferson, the consummate upper-class gentleman, fought for giving every citizen a voice in the government. He trusted the masses far more than Hamilton. 

Jefferson’s experience in a Europe undergoing the violent throes of the Industrial Revolution soured him to that form of economy. He saw the misery this caused to the common people and the grab for power by the wealthy and connected. Hamilton did not spend formative time in Europe, but saw an economy based in cities with industrial power as the only way to secure America’s place in the world as an economic powerhouse. 

It was interesting to see both men’s attitudes in respect to tradition. Perhaps because Jefferson was seeped in it, he saw the restrictiveness of blindly following the old ways. Hamilton, who was not raised in a traditional environment, “cherished the past as a weapon against radical innovation.” I believe both men were acting out of their individual experiences, both rejecting what they grew up with. This would have enormous ramifications for the newly forming United States. 

They also had strikingly different views of human nature in general. Jefferson was optimistic when it came to humanity. Hamilton had seen too much of the dark side of people not to hold “mankind in a pragmatic distrust.” He believed humankind to be easily manipulated by passion and possibly incapable of self-government. Jefferson believed that with education and the leveling of social classes, “the good in mankind would predominate.” These competing ideas of man’s basic goodness or fallenness lead to the two competing camps of liberals vs conservatives we continue to grapple with. Each view leads to radically different conclusions. 

One incident perfectly portrays the difference between the men. As Hamilton gazed at three portraits Jefferson owned, he asked the identity of the men. Jefferson responded that they were the three greatest men to have ever lived – John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sir Francis Bacon, all men of the Enlightenment. Hamilton responded that the greatest man to have lived was Julius Caesar. 

Their most heated battles came when Hamilton began to set up a financial system Jefferson believed would only benefit the wealthy. Hamilton called for a national bank and assumption of state debts incurred in the War. His basic view of humanity driven by ambition caused him to try to channel those impulses through a hierarchical society. He worried about disorder that he believed would result without a strong central government. Jefferson believed humanity’s basic goodness would manifest itself best with the greatest possible allowance for individual independence. It’s odd to me that today, Hamilton’s beliefs lead conservatives to desire more individual independence, and Jefferson’s lead liberals to desire more government control. Perhaps it’s a case of the pendulum swinging too far one way or the other. 

Both inside Washington’s cabinet and certainly once freed of the conciliatory Washington, the partisan passions of Jefferson and Hamilton led to years of fighting. Often, Hamilton showed a hot-headedness that worked against him. He pushed his views and causes to his own detriment. But because Hamilton, more than Jefferson, had Washington’s ear, it was he who really “forged the contours of the new American nation.” But Jefferson gave us our highest ideals for who we are as a people and who we wanted to become. He too became seemingly irrational at times in his fight against the monarchical tendencies he saw all too often. 

I’m grateful to both men, extreme as they were, for shaping our nation. Both contributed in mighty ways the success of our nation today. It seems the pendulum has swung far in the directions both men feared. We need a return to the ideas of these men to see how we got here, and how we can further strengthen our great country.

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