Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 3

Part 2

Part 1

I have previously asserted “it was inevitable Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson would contest one another” because “each held as opposing a view of human nature as there could be and these views justified every respective position they explored – for what is more elemental and pervasive than human nature?” And in Part 2 of my book review I explored this theme a bit more, suggesting one of the reasons the American states that had paid off their Revolutionary War debts were against Hamilton’s assumption plan was due to Man’s “selfish, short-sided” nature, incapable of rising above their “petty self-interest” for the greater good, nor capable of grasping how aiding the greater good benefited them, without some sort of prodding. So it’s only fitting Part 3 of my commentary series continues this trend.

Holloway begins Chapter 3 by highlighting some of the key features that distinguished Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, as men, politicians, and their particular worldviews. He posits “Hamilton took a longer view of fame, that he was willing to endure a temporary unpopularity” whereas Jefferson “took a shorter view and was unwilling to serve the people in the face of their present dissatisfaction” (p. 39). Holloway comments this explains the “commonplace view” of the two men, of the “aristocratic” and “elitist” Hamilton and the “democratic” and “populist” Jefferson. “What Hamilton might view as justifiable resistance to public opinion for the country’s ultimate good, Jefferson might view as an anti-republican effort to force policies on the people that they have a right to reject. And what Jefferson might view as proper deference to a people who have a right to rule themselves – such as resigning at the first signs of their dissatisfaction – Hamilton might view as a dereliction of public duty,” Holloway further writes (p. 39). What is lacking in these statements, though, is the cause for Hamilton and Jefferson to take these attitudes. The cause is worldview – in this case, how each understands human nature.

In short, Hamilton viewed human nature negatively; Jefferson, positively. However, Hamilton believed the individual could rise above his predisposition (toward sin, to carry the Augustinian theme to its conclusion), though perhaps it would be more accurate to say “act contrary to his nature,” and consequently Hamilton believed political leaders should be comprised of individuals of this sort. If this seems contradictory, it is akin to the axiom, the individual is rational while people are irrational. In turn, these individuals could steer the masses toward the good they would not otherwise strive for, or the good they would not otherwise be capable of comprehending. Thus, as far as Hamilton was concerned, public opinion was irrelevant, at least during the Washington Administration (this would be amended later in his life, as a necessary concession to domestic realpolitik).

Jefferson, being much more secular than Hamilton, much less influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, did not share Hamilton’s negativity of human nature. Jefferson believed in the plebiscite. He trusted the plebiscite. Left to its own and freed from entanglements the plebiscite would bring about a good Hamilton and those elitist Federalist couldn’t conceive. This is why Jefferson’s critics could, and can, so easily label him a demagogue; why Jefferson was so willing to acquiesce to public opinion; why Jefferson was a proponent of an agrarian nation and detested the Early Republic equivalent of “Wall Street,” banking, and industry that Hamilton allegedly curried favor with.

These competing worldviews of human nature and how best to respond to it probably is a significant factor in the verity Hamilton (and the Federalists) thought “nationally” and Jefferson (and the Republicans) thought “confederally” (p. 43). In other words, Hamilton looked beyond local provincial concerns to the greatest amount of good that can be achieved by those select few operating at odds with their sinfulness. Jefferson meanwhile almost exclusively devoted attention to these provincial concerns, arguing in effect the parts are greater than the sum. To Jefferson’s mind, if the parts are functioning free from outside interference, then the sum will naturally be addressed without the need for direct guidance or leadership.


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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s