Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 10

In Chapter 8 Holloway moves past the first conflicts between Hamilton and Jefferson and offers, as he writes, a “relatively minor” point of contention between the two. At the time, the dispute itself was “relatively minor,” yet the implications of this disagreement were far reaching.

Early in 1792 Thomas Jefferson in his capacity as Secretary of State issued a report to America’s ministers to Spain. Before officially submitting it, however, he sought advice from Alexander Hamilton, who gladly replied in kind (the breach between them had not become irreconcilable at this juncture). Consequently, “we have a record of an exchange between the two men on the proper understanding of the American Revolution and of the scope of the powers of the federal government,” (p. 138) because, of course simple instructions to government ministers would encompass such lofty milieu when it involves Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (tangent: can anyone imagine our statesmen today including such intellectual exercises in policy work?).

Holloway summarizes,

Jefferson’s first impulse, it would seem, was to think that American independence had been justified by the various abuses the colonies had suffered up to 1775, prior to the existence of an actual state of war between Britain and America. In contrast, Hamilton’s instincts were more conservative: independence had been chosen not because of mere discontent with British policy, however offensive it may have been, but by nothing less than the king’s decision to wage war on his American subjects. It is likely that behind these different ways of interpreting the facts of America’s revolution lay different principles for justifying revolution in general. Hamilton’s principles were more conservative in the sense that he thought graver abuses were required to make revolution a justifiable option (p. 139).

Jefferson’s predilection for revolution and Hamilton’s wariness of it was always in play as they grew increasingly distant. Yes, fundamentally they possessed divergent comprehensions of humanity, but related to that is their respective notions of revolution. The fact Jefferson’s first instinct is for revolution made it easy for Hamilton and the Federalists to label Jefferson and Republicans as Jacobins, as individuals that would usher the French Revolution into the United States. Likewise, Hamilton and the Federalist’s reticence toward revolution made them a ready target for labels of monarchistsunderminers of the Constitution, and undoers of the American Revolution.

So, while a trivial intellectual exercise, the reality is this differing view on the nature of revolution broadly, and the American Revolution specifically, pointed to a much deeper philosophical narrative that would add fuel to their clashes in the months and years ahead: one that was far more traditional and conservative (Hamilton), what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead” in Orthodoxy (“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around”); whereas the other (Jefferson) was in truth far more liberal, progressive, and thus, in natural opposition to tradition and conservatism.

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