Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 1

This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing book review series of Carson Holloway’s Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration: Completing the Founding or Betraying the Founding? I attempted to do something similar earlier in my public history writing but for one reason or another I never stuck with it. With the amount of reading I do, these reviews and critiques should be commonplace. This time around I intend to follow through.

Why am I reviewing this particular book? Anyone that has read this blog or knows me is aware of my admiration for Alexander Hamilton and Federalism and Holloway’s book is a new entry in the growing scholarship of Hamilton, Jefferson, and the Early Republic. As a result, this is an optimal book for me to review.

Chapter 1: The Introduction

Holloway sets the stage for his research by ably demonstrating the intense rivalry between his subjects. “According to Jefferson, Hamilton was ‘a man whose history…is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received him and given him bread, but heaped its honors on his head.’” Likewise, “According to Hamilton, Jefferson, who had taken such pains to present himself as ‘the quiet, modest, retiring philosopher,’ was in reality… ‘a man who is continually machinating against the public happiness.’” (p. 1)

Holloway’s conclusion is the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson was “not personal but political.” He suggests each may have felt personal animosity as to who would exert the most influence in the Washington Administration, “but this was neither man’s deepest concern.” Instead, the rivalry was about the future of the nation, which vision for America would prevail. “Each believed that he was protecting the newly established republic, and that the other was laboring to destroy it,” Holloway writes. This is very much an accurate assessment and one which I have written about myself. (p. 1)

However, it is not accurate to suggest the opposition between Hamilton and Jefferson was in no way personal, at least from Hamilton’s perspective. Consider James H. Read’s assertion that “What infuriated Hamilton about Jefferson was not his political principles but the real or perceived personal injuries Jefferson had inflicted on Hamilton’s career and reputation; and his judgement that Jefferson was a ‘contemptible hypocrite…’” (The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton, p. 78) Read further asserts it “was not…these marked differences of political outlook that drove the battle with Jefferson [for Hamilton]. It was rather Hamilton’s perception of Jefferson’s devious and mischievous character, and what he had done to harm Hamilton personally, that got Hamilton’s blood boiling.” (Many Faces, p. 78) It galled Hamilton for Jefferson to be so hypocritical: “‘The plain simple republican’” was in truth “‘the aspiring turbulent competitor’” and a “‘contemptible hypocrite.’” (Many Faces, p. 99) Moreover, because Jefferson was so earnest in propagating, publicly and within the Washington Administration, that Hamilton was a monarchist and sought to replace the Constitution with a British-style government, Hamilton felt slandered and libeled, respectively, and desired to perpetually vindicate himself. Slander and libel by their nature are personal. Ergo, the political was very much interwoven with the personal for Alexander Hamilton, even if it was not for Thomas Jefferson.

Holloway summarizes that Jefferson assumed Hamilton was attempting to replace the “new republic with a monarchy modeled on the British constitution, whereas Hamilton “thought he was completing the founding.” In turn, Hamilton likened Jefferson and “Jeffersonianism” to French Jacobism (in modern language, akin to referring to an individual in extreme political left terms) as the “real threat to the republic.” (p. 2) I would posit, though, Holloway errs into the common explanation without demonstrating, at least in his introduction, the subtlety I argue is nearer the truth. Consider what I have written previously here. In short, it is not so much that Hamilton was “completing or betraying the founding,” for example, or that Jefferson would unleash the peasantry anarchy feared by Federalists, but rather that Hamilton was acting in what he credited to be the mandate of the Constitution, while Jefferson credited Hamilton’s agenda overstepped the Constitution’s mandate. Therein is a far richer and nuanced insight than Holloway presents. Again, at least thus far.

As for the premise of the book itself, I greatly appreciate it. As Holloway explains, there are some “excellent biographies” of Alexander Hamilton (Forrest McDonald, Richard Brookhiser, Ron Chernow) and a plethora of Thomas Jefferson biographies even if they lack the quality of Hamilton’s. Yet no study has devoted its attention exclusively to the debates between the two while serving during the Washington Administration. “The epic scale of each man’s life, the impressive range of each man’s thought, and the variety of issues at play during the first Washington administration prevent more general studies from giving the detailed account of Hamilton and Jefferson’s arguments and counterarguments that the present study aims to provide.” (pp. 2-3) Even John Ferling’s Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, as Holloway footnotes, details the entirety of each man’s respective lives instead of focusing on a specific “moment.”
I’m eager to continue reading.

**3/23/16**

I’ve changed the title and ceased referring to these posts as “reviews” because they aren’t properly reviews. Instead, I am now calling them “Commentaries.” I will write up a more traditional, summative review once I’ve finished the book.

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