Bohemian Tangents

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Jefferson and Hamilton, Part III: The Prevalance of Partisanship, The Elusiveness of Objectivity

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Recap: The rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton was important enough to cause political parties to be formed in spite of the fact that these were considered “factions” at that time, a sign of grown men not being able to come together, govern, and get things done. The larger issue that engulfs the rivalry issue is the fact that partisan bias and historical revisionism afflict just about every biography written for either founding father. Yet another issue is how current American culture or “pop culture” views these men and how that influences a study of them and their rivalry. Any essay, article, or book on either of these American icons has to be decoded for partisan bias, historical revisionism, and pop culture clichés in the elusive search for “objective truth”.

Thomas Jefferson is the beneficiary of being the hero of American libertarians, fans of “limited government”, and this adoration augments an already much loved icon. Nevertheless, Hamilton is greatly admired by many biographers, such as Ron Chernow, and Darren Staloff. Chernow puts Hamilton on a pedestal while trashing Jefferson and his republican cohorts: “Washington’s first term was devoted largely to the economic matters in which Hamilton excelled and Woodrow Wilson justly observed  that ‘we think of Mr. Hamilton rather than of President Washington when we look back to the policy of the first administration’. Hamilton had a storehouse of information that nobody else could match. Since the ‘science’ of finance was new to America, Fisher Ames observed, ‘A gentleman may therefore propose the worst of measures with the best of intentions’. Among the well-intentioned men who were woefully backward in finance, if forward-looking in politics, were Hamilton’s three most savage critics of the 1790’s: Jefferson, Madison, and Adams. These founders adhered to a static. archaic worldview that scorned banks, credit, and stock markets. From this perspective, Hamilton was the progressive of the era, his critics the conservatives”.  Contrast this assessment with Jefferson’s affiliation with the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith and you have a founding father considered a “liberal” by some and a “conservative” by at least one author.

Partisan spin aside, the basic facts and accomplishments of Hamilton are the quintessential “rags to riches” story:

When Alexander Hamilton was 10, his father abandoned him. When he was around 12, his mother died of a fever in the bed next to his. He was adopted by a cousin, who promptly committed suicide. During those same years, his aunt, uncle and grandmother also died. A court in St. Croix seized all of his possessions, sold off his personal effects and gave the rest to his mother’s first husband. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his brother were orphaned, alone and destitute.

Within three years he was a successful businessman. Within a decade he was effectively George Washington’s chief of staff, organizing the American revolutionary army and serving bravely in combat. Within two decades he was one of New York’s most successful lawyers and had written major portions of The Federalist Papers. Within three decades he had served as Treasury secretary and forged the modern financial and economic systems that are the basis for American might today. Within five decades he was dead at the hands of Aaron Burr.


Darren Staloff, author of Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding, has stellar praise for Hamilton:

“By almost any measure, Alexander Hamilton was the most important figure in the founding of the American republic. Soldier, statesman, legislator, constitutional theorist, political polemicist, and national administrator, Hamilton combined all the roles that were vital to American nation building. His vision of a strong  federal government with an independent judiciary and a vigorous executive has become second nature to most Americans. His goal of state-supported industrial and commercial development and modernization is the unstated desideratum of every successful American political movement in the last century. Indeed, in terms of political and economic practice, it is fair to say we are all Hamiltonians, whether Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives, radicals or reactionaries.”

Staloff also notes that “Hamilton is perhaps the least loved founding father. No national or state holiday celebrates his life. No memorial commemorates his contributions to American life and ideals. His words are rarely quoted by politicians, and his writings are even less frequently cited by pundits. But for the ten-dollar bill, his face would be utterly unknown to the American people. Washington became the father of his nation, and Jefferson its most beloved spokesman. Hamilton has become its bastard, unrecognized and somehow illegitimate in the public mind. Various causes have been offered, such as Jefferson and his republican cohorts piling on condemnation, depicting him as an “embryo-Caesar” and a tool of the plutocratic elites. In this century, politicians of both parties—and writers sympathetic to them—have adopted Jefferson as their guiding light among among the founding generation. On both left and right, there have been few willing to defend the ambitious New Yorker. Progressive novelist John Dos Passos described him as a crypto-Napoleon who “consolidated property interests” and “inaugurated the authoritarian trend”

American libertarians, such as Thomas DiLorenzo find that Hamilton cursed the United States with an augmented federal government.

Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Arch Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution–and What It Means For Americans Today

“Jefferson’s ideas have been entirely marginalized, while those of his arch rival Hamilton now form the backbone of the American political establishment. The Revolution of 1776 was a Jeffersonian Revolution to throw off the yoke of British mercantilist imperialism and install it its place a voluntary union of free and independent states. Hamilton and his acolytes, however — no matter how bravely and earnestly they fought against the Red Coats — wanted to import British mercantilism to America with the U.S. aristocracy (Hamilton and his Federalist buddies) on the receiving end of the mercantilist spoils system.” In fact, DiLorenzo argues that the Constitution itself was a virtual coup against the free republic of the Articles of Confederation for the purpose of increasing the authority of the central government — key to Hamilton’s plans.

It is worth noting that the same Darren Staloff who says Hamilton was the most important figure in America’s founding as a republic has also painted a rosy portrait of Jefferson, who was “much more than simply a revolutionary statesman and political theorist. The American Da Vinci, he truly was the universal man idealized by the Renaissance. The breadth of his mind was stunning, his intellectual appetite canine and omnivorous. In addition to political philosophy, Jefferson read widely in metaphysics, epistemology, and moral and aesthetic philosophy. One of the few early Americans who could actually do the calculus associated with Newton’s mechanics, he was an avid student of the sciences, conversant with the most recent developments in chemistry, biology, zoology, and botany, and he had more than a passing interest in meteorology. Widely read in classical and modern history, he was equally fascinated by the emerging sciences of political economy and sociology and proved himself a fairly accomplished amateur anthropologist. A devoted philologist, Jefferson’s expertise spanned both classical and modern Romance languages, and he devoted considerable study to the languages of the Amerindians and medieval Anglo-Saxons. An accomplished draftsman and violinist, he was a devotee of the theater and opera, a knowledgeable collector of artifacts, paintings, and statuary, and the greatest architectural genius of the early republic. Quite simply, Thomas Jefferson thought about more in one week than occurs to us mere mortals in a year. He was indeed an “extraordinary collection of talents.”

Biographer Joseph J. Ellis, whose American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the 1997 National Book Award for Nonfiction, has a unique way of trying to twist Jefferson’s psychological abnormalities into political virtue:  “Given the political framework created by the constitutional settlement of 1788, which made the establishment of an ongoing political dialogue of some sort inevitable, and given the stigma that surrounded organized political parties, a premium was put on a distinctive form of intelligence that could adroitly navigate between the two imperatives. Crudely put, this meant creating a political party while claiming, in all sincerity, that you were doing nothing of the sort. As it turned out, this was a talent that Jefferson possessed in abundance. At certain points in the story the distinction between Jefferson’s genuine self-deception and outright duplicity is impossible to identify with any certainty. Putting the best face on his multiple misrepresentations arose it seems from the visceral urge to avoid all explicit forms of conflict. Biographer Dumas Malone found that Jefferson’s “boldness of mind was sheathed in a scabbard of politeness…. It would have been surprising if such a man did not occasionally cross the thin line between courtesy and deception”. Ellis manages to conclude that Jefferson’s mental abnormalities were also “mental agility” that enabled him to leap over the huge obstacles of the political culture of his time. Only a man with a psychological multiplicity “… who is accustomed to negotiating his many-chambered personality, playing hide-and-seek within himself, was psychologically prepared to function this modern world of party politics.”

Jon Meacham wrote his best-selling biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power in 2012, and advocates for Jefferson’s mixture of ideals and pragmatism without getting into American libertarian-style partisanship. Meacham attempts to mediate between partisan distortions of the great man and portray his greatness.

The historical tendency persists in encapsulating the competing traditions of the early American republic as a contest between Jefferson and Hamilton. For partisans of each man, it was then and has been ever since–convenient to caricature the other, with Hamilton as the scheming proto-Brit bent on monarchy and Jefferson as the naive proto-Frenchman intoxicated by visions of excessive democracy. Inevitably, such shorthand is incomplete. In the first hours of the decade and sporadically throughout, Jefferson sometimes found himself in agreement with Hamilton and sometimes with Washington or Adams. He was a working politician and diplomat who believed in an effective central government and was able himself to assert political power having been the governor of Virginia and experienced the years of the Articles of Confederation.

“There was, however, a foundational point on which Jefferson never compromised: a conviction that drove much of his political life from 1790 until his death. He feared monarchy or dictatorship, which is different from fearing a strong national government, though Jefferson is often thought to have believed them the same thing. One of the terms he used to describe his opponents—“Monocrats”—is telling, for the word means government by the one.”

“Jefferson fretted over the prospect of the return of a king in some form, either as an immensely powerful president unchecked by the Constitution of 1787 or in a more explicitly monarchical or dictatorial role. He did not oppose the wielding of power. He was a good-hearted, fair-minded student of how best to accumulate and use it. In romantic moments, he dreamed of a future of virtuous yeomen living in harmony. In realistic ones, he suspected the America of which he was an architect could be yet another short-lived chapter in the story of the tyranny of the few over the many. ‘We were educated in royalism: no wonder if some of us retain that idolatry still, ‘ Jefferson had once written to Madison.”

“The Jefferson of the cabinet, vice presidency, and presidency can be best understood by recalling that his passion for the people and his regard for republicanism belonged to a man who believed that there were forces afoot–forces visible and invisble, domestic and foreign–that sought to undermine the rights of man by re-establishing the role of priests, nobles, and kings. His opposition to John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, to the British and to the financial speculators, grew out of this fundamental concern.”

“Like significant politicians before and after him, Jefferson was devoted to an overarching vision, but governed according to circumstance. Committed to the broad republican creed, supported by allies in politics and in the public who believed him to be an unshakable advocate of liberty under the law, Jefferson felt himself free to maneuver in matters of detail. Where some saw hypocrisy, others saw political agility. As long as a political leader has some core strategic belief, which Jefferson did in the form of republicanism, then tactical flexibility can be a virtue. Even Alexander Hamilton recognized his commitment to the nation, no matter how deeply the two disagreed about the means: “To my mind, a true estimate of Mr J’s character warrants the expectation of a temporizing rather than a violent system”, said Hamilton in 1801. Even implacable foes such as the federalists and republicans agreed and cooperated from time to time, and who even in their hours of starkest hostility, served in the same cabinet, dined at the same tables, and moved through the same intimate American world of the late 18th century. Wars are indeed often fought between brothers. Jefferson’s decade of struggle with the Federalists shows there can can be no more brutal or bewildering battles than those that divide a family against itself.

The two factions or political parties are attached to two founding fathers who had different views as to what the United States was and how it was to be governed. Which side won? Both did. The two regions, north and south, represented respectively by Federalism and Republicanism, were enabled to function as they wished. Jefferson and Madison were both slave-owning planters representing Virginia and its mode of production, slave labor. Without saying directly they wanted to continue benefiting from slavery they railed against the money-men and stock-jobbers who wanted to impose federal tyranny over their way of life and livelihood.  Essentially, the Constitution provided for planters whose “property” of slaves each counted as 3/5 of a person. Therefore, their “property” gave them the representation in government they desired. Hamilton, the “tyrannical capitalist” was essentially setting up a mercantilist United States to promote trade and manufacturing. For him, the victory was that the United States could grow into a powerful nation as had Britain, whose model of global imperialism and mercantilism he studied. Historians focus on how Hamilton and the Federalists won in the 1790’s over Jefferson and Madison, the Republicans, and the tide turned in 1800, when Jefferson became president. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe served 24 years as Democratic-Republicans. By 1818 the Democratic-Republicans had become the only active national party, yet its leaders incorporated major economic policies that had been favored by Federalists since the time of Alexander Hamilton. President Monroe continued the policies begun by Madison at the end of his presidency to build an American System of national economic development. These policies had three basic aspects: a national bank, protective tariffs to support American manufactures, and federally-funded internal improvements. Madison actually charted the Second Bank of the United States in 1816 and his successor, Monroe, is noted for presiding over “The Era of Good Feelings”. Essentially what happened is the one dominant party, The Democratic-Republican absorbed the Federalist party’s policies.

The Jefferson-Hamilton rivalry was based on the two different ways of life and two different economies for the north and south in the aftermath of achieving independence from Britain. In a sense, both sides won, except for the slaves of course. Both sides fought to interpret the Constitution in terms of their regional needs. The United States was and never has been a perfectly homogeneous nation.



Written by joethebohemian

May 26, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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