It’s been about a month or so since I finished reading Carson Holloway’s Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration: Completing the Founding or Betraying the Founding?. I didn’t want to have this long a gap between the book’s completion and the review, but things come up (first born child coming in August – kind of a life changing event; lot of things to do with that). Nevertheless, here it is: my summative thoughts on the book.
As Holloway makes clear, the book exclusively focuses on the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson while they served in the Washington Administration. Consequently this is not a book for casual readers. Do not expect biography. If one is not conversant in the American Revolution and the Early Republic of the United States the reader is likely to be at a loss as Holloway is addressing an audience already cognizant of the historical context for the tension between Hamilton and Jefferson and the challenges the new republic faced. That said, the book’s narrow focus provides unique insight into the aforementioned tension and challenges. Most books and papers examining these topics haven’t gone into the amount of detail offered by Holloway, as these other texts either cover a larger span of years, are more biographical in nature, or are broader in scope.
Holloway is able to provide this unique insight by systematically presenting and analyzing seemingly every position and policy paper, memorandum, and letter of consequence written by Hamilton and Jefferson during the period in question as well as the Cabinet meetings each participated in. Holloway’s presentation is unique because entire chapters are thematically dedicated to these primary sources and their analysis of themselves, as opposed to attempting to fit these primary sources within the larger historical context of the time period and then moving on to the implications of Hamilton and Jefferson’s positions.
Some may consider this lack of an inclusion of the historical context and the consequences of the Hamilton/Jefferson rivalry as a weakness, but that isn’t Holloway’s purpose in the book. Rather, Holloway’s purpose is to study, as authoritatively as possible, the rivalry itself. And this Holloway does with aplomb. The book allows for other historians to use it as a reference to take those next steps.
To Holloway’s benefit he is generally fair-handed in submitting Hamilton and Jefferson’s sides. He acknowledges early on to find Hamilton more persuasive, yet one is hard-pressed to find this bias skewing his work. As much as I relish academic pugilism (too much according to the wifey), I found it surprisingly refreshing to read a remarkably even account of what is usually a polarizing area of American history. I have difficulty in refraining from taking swipes at my adversaries when I write (and the fact I even call those who dissent from me “adversaries” is revealing) and it was amazing to experience how skillfully Holloway could pose the Jeffersonian position without denigration even though, by his own admission, he isn’t convinced by it.
Most importantly, Holloway produces an example of authentic political leadership. These men were not only extraordinarily educated, well-read individuals, but they weren’t afraid to put that erudition to use. They engaged one another, directly, or indirectly through Washington or other intermediaries. But these engagements were much more than what we Americans today are accustomed to; as I routinely proclaim awestruck to friends, these were men who wrote the equivalent of entire treatises over lunch break essentially that are still read with reverence to this day. If we are honest with ourselves, does anyone really think any of our statesmen today are capable of a position paper that’s a fraction of the quality of what Hamilton or Jefferson fired off to one another, or to Washington, on their worst day? This is an example our politicians need to emulate – an example in how to think, how to write, how to process and compose abstruse ideas, philosophies, and policies in a logical, comprehensive fashion.
Since I wrote commentaries as I read the book, I won’t address specific themes. Instead I will comprehensively link the commentaries below.
Holloway’s Hamilton versus Jefferson is a classic of Early Republic scholarship and will likely remain a standard source of both individuals and the era for the foreseeable future.