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« The Incivility of the Internet | Main | Government-Power-Civility »


Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the Great American Debate

By Angelo Lopez
November 4, 2013

These past two months have not been a great time for either the Republican or the Democratic Parties. The Republicans last month unnecessarily shut down the government and threatened to put the country in default, which has justly drawn the scorn of reasonable people. Meanwhile, the Democrats have wrangled their hands over the problems of the national exchange website that has put many roadblocks for many people who have tried to sign up for health care insurance. At the heart of the debates between Republicans and Democrats over the past few years is a fundamental difference between the two sides over the role they see the government in the lives of our American society and economy. This is a long running debate that can trace its origins to the nation's founding, when the Federalists and the Republicans fought over the power of the federal government and the power of state and local governments. A recent book by John Ferling called Jefferson and Hamilton: the Rivalry That Forged A Nation focuses on the two men that best symbolized the two competing philosophies that have animated the American political scene.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were two of our greatest Founding Fathers. Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration of Independence, a governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, our first Secretary of State and our third President, and he fought to end primogeniture, expand the reach of education in society, extend the right to vote to a greater segment of American society, and fought for religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. Alexander Hamilton was chief of staff to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, a prime mover during the Constitutional Convention and one of the main writers of the Federalist Papers, a founding member of the New York Manumission Society that helped abolish slavery in the state of New York, and the first Secretary of the Treasury that established economic policies that set the new nation on a more sound economic footing. Though these two men were great Americans who truly loved their country, they had fundamentally different visions on what they saw the American republic should be.

Jefferson wanted the United States to be a more agrarian society, made up of yeoman farmers who were economically independent. He wanted a more egalitarian society, with a weak central government and greater power residing in the states. These opinions were formed as a reaction against the aristocratic societies of Great Britain and Europe, where he saw the cities and the aristocracies stifled individual initiative and forced the great mass of the people to live in poverty and misery. Ferling would write about Jefferson's vision:

In manufacturing societies, only those at the top of the economic structure were truly independent and more or less in control of their destiny. The political system likely to evolve in such societies would be little different from those in monarchical kingdoms. In both, a "heavy-handed" executive would manage affairs on behalf of the oligarchy. The ruling elite would harbor an "unfeeling" fear and scorn for the great mass of the citizenry, "rendered desperate by poverty and wretchedness"...

...But a rural society in which the freeman were property-owning farmers stood in stark contrast to the "degeneracy" and "canker" of a manufacturing society. Whereas freedom could not long exist in a manufacturing world, not only did liberty survive among yeomen, but farming in fact kept "alive that sacred fire" of individualism, personal independence, and liberty...

...For Jefferson, the American Revolution had been about resisting the expansive, exploitative encroachments of a degenerate monarchical and oligarchical Great Britain, and erecting in independent American a republican system that safeguarded against those things that led to "corruption and tyranny." He was convinced that the best means of preserving republicanism- of "keeping the wolf out of the fold"- was through nearly universal property ownership within an agrarian state.

While Jefferson's vision of America was a backlash against the British system, Alexander Hamilton saw the British mercantile system as something for America to emulate. Hamilton saw that the British banking system and strong centralized government had led to great economic growth in Great Britain and gave the British the greatest empire since the times of ancient Rome. He saw how stock markets, banks and trading companies led the British society to a pursuit of wealth, and this led to a new moneyed class of businessmen and financiers. Ferling encapsulated Hamilton's vision of America:

There can be little doubt that the English fiscal structure provided the model for Hamilton's economic plans. Several things in his experience and way of thinking drew him to the English example, but his views on human nature were crucial. His conviction that humankind was driven by ambition, cupidity, and an insatiable lust for preeminence led him to wish to equip America not just with the means of surviving in a heartless world but also with the capability of cutting a figure in that world. For this, Hamilton understood perfectly the need for ready wealth. Moreover, his conviction that people were driven primarily by their self-centered pursuit of private interests led him to seek the means of controlling humankind's selfish propensities, lest society unravel in the face of self-absorbed avarice. He was convinced that social stability required the presence of a strong central government dominated by those at the top of a hierarchical society...

Hamilton's view was also shaped by the fact that his world was the commercial world... He saw that as commerce flourished, opportunities arose for others, so that in time they and their descendants could rise socially and economically. And he believed that it was not just the wealth generated by trade that made a commercial society commendable... Hamilton was persuaded that commercial societies produced a philanthropic, sociable, knowledgeable, enterprising people habituated to a useful work ethic. An urbanite to the core, Hamilton saw that commerce nourished cities, and cities in turn brought people together where they intermingle in productive ways. Cities were incubators of consumerism, the arts, education, inventiveness, and enlightened thinking... Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton was not one to see cities as blights on humanity or to eulogize yeomen

One can see echoes of the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson in the debates between the Democrats and Republicans today. The Tea Party activists of the past few years share Jefferson's fear of a strong federal government reaching into the lives of ordinary Americans and advocate stronger state and local control. Tea Partiers reject the Hamilton argument for a strong federal government controlling the economy. Obama and the Democrats are more closely aligned to the Hamiltonian views of a strong central government involved in shaping the economy. As a liberal Democrat, I've seen how our capitalist system goes through these boom-and-bust cycles as human greed and a groupthink mentality can create economic bubbles that burst and destroy the finances of the poor and the middle class. As a result, I'm sympathetic to Hamilton's view that the government should regulate those propensities that might lead to such economic instability.

Liberals and conservatives can find things in both Jefferson and Hamilton that they can sympathize with. Though liberals may not sympathize with Jefferson's small government views, they may sympathize with Jefferson's desire for a more egalitarian society, his fight for religious tolerance, his worries about the economic inequalities that result from a commercial society, and his fight for civil liberties. Conservatives may not agree with Hamilton's views on a strong federal government, but they may agree with Hamilton's assessment that strong consumer society can best guarantee the maximum economic liberty for the most people, and that a strong military is necessary to protect our liberties in a dangerous world.

Here are more books on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson:

One Nation under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe by Robert Wright

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton: A Defining Political Debate by K. Anthony Scott

Jefferson Vs. Hamilton: Confrontations That Shaped A Nation by Noble Cunningham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon Wood

The Hemmings of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

A youtube video lecture on the difference between Jefferson and Hamilton

Peter Robinson speaks with Ron Chernow about Alexander Hamilton

A Jon Meacham lecture on Thomas Jefferson


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