Hamilton versus Jefferson: Summative Thoughts

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.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

Part 13

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 13

In Chapter 11 Holloway shifts from the domestic to the international with the French Revolution. New to me was the revelation Alexander Hamilton was not an immediate opponent of said revolution at its outset. He wasn’t a proponent of it either, but his vehement opposition would not come until 1792/93. For an individual often maligned as a monarchist this is a shocking disclosure. Even for someone reticent about revolution in general, his early willingness to “wait and see” indicated the overarching concern for liberty and justice Hamilton valued almost above all else, politically. This concern for liberty and objectively ordered human flourishing engendered within Hamilton a desire to hope for the best of the events in France…but expect the worst.

In short, Hamilton’s Augustinian perception created his bleak outlook. While, as Holloway remarks, he “approved of the movement to establish liberty in France” (p. 208), he was very much afraid that once roused, the people could not be checked – the principle fear of Hamilton and the Federalists, again reflecting Saint Augustine’s theological understanding of humanity. Interestingly, Hamilton is also highly critical of the intransigence of France’s nobles, making them equally at fault. Summarizing Hamilton, Holloway writes, “The people were inclined to demand too much, and the nobles were inclined to give too little” (p. 209). While many still propagate the notion Hamilton was a lackey to the “elites,” this is further evidence he was more than willing to call everyone to account in the cause of justice regardless of their status.

Although anxiety over the American “plebiscite” was ever-present among Hamilton and the Federalists, they were ultimately balanced out (for a time at least) by the fact America’s “patrician” class did not behave with the obstinacy of their counterparts in France. For example, whether Hamilton was serious about his suggestion of the President serving for life pending good behavior, and regardless of its merits, such a proposal gained no traction regardless. The point being, while delegates such as James Madison and James Wilson proposed what we know as a Popular Election to determine the President, a compromise was reached with implementation of the Electoral College so the people have an indirect say. In other words, the plebiscite wasn’t simply cast aside (which some assert), but was considered, vigorously so, unlike in France, and a middle-ground was forged in an attempt to curb the worst extremes on both sides, the very thing Hamilton was seeing in far-off France: the people “demanding too much,” and the nobles “giving too little.”

Hamilton likewise castigated the leaders of the French Revolution, but castigated for possessing a worldview inauthentic to “‘human nature’” and spearheading an irrational and subsequently doomed cause (p. 210). Contrasted with America’s leaders – even the Unitarian rationalist Jefferson – the difference couldn’t have been more stark to someone like Hamilton. America’s leaders not only went out of their way to justify and ground their revolution in religion, but relatedly, in the natural law tradition unique to the Christian West and the related comprehension of the nature of Man. This natural law tradition was the entire rationale for revolt to begin with! The French rationale, meanwhile, was the subjective notion of their own autonomous reason, as John Courtney Murray characterized it.

Similarly, what finally transitioned Hamilton into the aforementioned opposition was its “‘atheism’” (p. 212). Hamilton contended the French abandonment of, and assault on, religion and Christianity was an affront to their “‘ancestors’” and “‘reason’” itself. Here, Hamilton conspicuously referenced the Christian tradition that built and sustained France and the whole of Europe and affirmed its relationship to reason – the Divine Logos. This is all the more noteworthy today given Europe’s rejection of this heritage, so much so it rather infamously makes no mention of it in the charter document of the European Union, and instead opts for a vague reference to the “religious inheritance” of Europe from which the “inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person” originate from….

Consequently, while many, such as Thomas Jefferson, argued the French Revolution was a continuance of the American uprising (and still do), Hamilton thus indicated there was “‘no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France’” (p. 212). For those who downplay the significance of Christianity and religion in the American Revolution (and the founding generally), they need to consider the Revolution’s contemporaries and how Christianity and religion was the litmus test to distance ourselves from the nominally same cause in France. If there was any doubt, Hamilton elucidated Americans are “‘a sober temperate and humane people, friends of religion, social order, and justice, enemies to tumult and massacre, to the wanton and lawless shedding of human blood’” (p. 213).

Perceptively, I believe, Holloway posits atheism was a tipping point for Hamilton because, no longer were the means illicit, but so too were the actual goals now. For Hamilton, the attack on religion was an assault on reason because it rejected the wisdom tradition had to offer, regardless what an individual may hold about faith. Atrocities such as the regicide of Louis brought “ignominiously to the block,” of which Hamilton also devoted fair space in his letter, are additional components of this hubris, this untethering from tradition and the past. It’s no coincidence Hamilton links these two concurrently: regicide and atheism.

What we see in this chapter is a desirous Alexander Hamilton for the cause of liberty and human fulfillment, yet an Augustinian-infused one that expects the worst of the French plebiscite, because, well…they’re the plebiscite. But the French nobility and “philosophers” are equally guilty: the nobility for their stubbornness and the so-called philosophers for their disordered leadership. And in the end, Hamilton would reject the events in France over the assaults upon Christianity and religion, which he considered assaults upon reason and history, respectively, because of its disregard for the wisdom of the past.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 12

In Chapter 10 we find Alexander Hamilton’s thorough rebuttal to Thomas Jefferson’s critique of his programs. Again, there is much that can be said as a result of Hamilton’s prolific intellect and passionate defense: his explanation that, no indeed, he was not a proponent of perpetual debt but instead long argued “’the creation of debt should always be accompanied with the means of extinguishment’(p. 167); or how for the sake of justice assumption of state debts was an example of interference in the “natural currents” he had previously spoken of as the ideal – because the Revolutionary War was a national conflict and the verity certain states bore the brunt of that conflict worse than others meant the burden of paying off the financial obligations associated with it should be shared equitably in the name of solidarity to ensure the long-term viability of the nation produced by the outcome of the Revolution (p. 170).

But two other aspects of Hamilton’s riposte drew my attention. The first is a contrasting fear of Hamilton’s than that of Jefferson. Holloway accurately notes Jefferson believed encroachments “of the state governments would tend in the direction of anarchy, but would also be self-correcting, while the encroachments of the federal government would be in the direction of monarchy, which would not be self-correcting” (p. 178). Meaning, because the state governments are a plurality, they suffer from emotion and fail to behave according to reasonableness and prudence. However, because they’re a plurality they can deliberate and cancel one another out. In other words, it was Jefferson’s contention the states are another legislative body, in a manner of speaking, and thus, “self-correcting.” The federal government on the other hand, because it is one will tend toward authoritarianism and because it is one does not have a check on it in the way the states do and will morph into monarchy as a consequence (it’s important to understand Jefferson did not possess the classical/traditional comprehension of monarchy as a positive form of government – for Jefferson there was no distinction between a monarch and a tyrant, whatever classical/traditional philosophy and theology posited antithetically). The natural tendency in such a relationship was for power to coalesce within the federal government. Because of this, it was “necessary to pull hard in the other direction”; for Hamilton though, “this was the reverse of the truth” (p. 178).

I submit the proper context to frame this push and pull between the state and federal governments is against Hamilton and Jefferson’s views on human nature. If one fell within the Hamiltonian camp, the “plebiscite” could not be trusted. The more that power was dispersed among the irrational, sinful, selfish masses without a firm, guiding hand at the helm in the form of the federal government (the analogy of the captain of a ship is always useful for this), the worse off the nation and yes, the respective states, were. Again, as I’ve made clear (here, here, here, and here), Hamilton and the Federalists were not looking to assume all power and authority within the federal government; instead, they merely desired a “glue” to bind the states together, united toward a greater good and a common cause, and check against the short-sided, irrational passions of the masses. Conversely, if one fell within the Jeffersonian camp any semblance of authoritarianism was unacceptable and corrosive to the “true” spirit of the American Revolution. It’s as close to a libertarian philosophy as can be found historically. Jefferson and the Republicans countered Man isn’t sinful, selfish, and short-sided and only required “freedom” and disentanglement from metropolitan designs to achieve true fulfillment and flourishing.

The second aspect that peaked my interest was Hamilton’s astute suggestion Jefferson was dogmatic and because of that dogmatism Jefferson and his disciples “‘take it for granted that their constructions of the Constitution are right and that the opposite ones are wrong, and with great good nature and candor ascribe the effect of a difference of opinion to a disposition to get rid of the limitations on the government’” (pp. 176-177). In short, Jefferson and the Republicans are benignly infallible and Hamilton and the Federalists are sinister malefactors who would bring ruin upon the humble American plebiscite. But as Hamilton noted, such matters are rarely so stark. “‘Some things’” the federal government indisputably had “‘a right to do,’” while other things were indisputably reserved to the states, yet there was a “‘a good deal of middle ground, about which honest and well-disposed men may differ’” (p. 177).

I was struck because this is a pattern which American politics finds itself in throughout our history: demonizing of the opposition. It might even be considered a tradition in some quarters. There are instances wherein the opposition is genuinely in the wrong, but if the approach to criticize short-circuits meaningful discussion between the two sides, around and around we go. Look at the present-day iteration of the abortion issue. The champions of abortion are objectively in error. Nevertheless, that isn’t a fruitful foundation upon which to engender constructive back-and-forth that one hopes would result in change. Such an approach is the dogmatic equivalent of what Jefferson perpetuated. A more productive means would be to acknowledge that “women’s health” is a sincere concern, something both sides agree is important. From that common ground, the pro-life, objectively correct side, is now in a position to explain the real harm abortion causes women and the proper methods to enact authentic health of women. This is something the pro-life side does, but because the starting point is an antagonistic and dogmatic one it typically falls on deaf ears. Similar sentiments could be said more broadly about the present-day Republican and Democratic Parties. So too with Jefferson, claimed Hamilton.

By the 1790s there wasn’t much shared sentiment between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, yet there was some room that could perhaps have proved fertile for active engagement between the two, without intermediaries. From a counterfactual standpoint, it is interesting to speculate what could have been had Jefferson in particular acknowledged in the early 1790s that Hamilton, in truth, was not seeking to institute monarchy – that both equally desired to see the success of the Constitution and the stability of the country. Or Jefferson concede that Hamilton and the Federalists were not corrupt simply by virtue of the fact some of them were affluent (or at least well-to-do) and were friendly with and encouraged “big banks,” business, industry, and the like. Likewise, it would have behooved Hamilton perhaps not to treat Jefferson and Republicans as “jealous” individuals who would deliberately whittle away the federal government piece by piece until all that remained was a (very) loose confederation of (independent) states.

The lesson to draw is to see the laudable intent in the political other and discern that common ground. Unless one uses politics to entirely liquidate the opposition (literally) the only way to bring about positive developments is to either, 1) persuade of the correctness of a position, which is nigh impossible if the starting point is antagonistic, or 2) compromise in that “middle ground” where “honest and well-disposed men may differ,” which again is realistically only possible from a magnanimous starting point.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 11

In Chapter 9 further proofs are provided in defense of my thesis the ultimate cause of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s sundering was whether the national government had breached its Constitutional mandate of an autonomous federal government that was simultaneously in compliment to the various state governments while operating exclusively in international and intraunion affairs. As the sundering was Jefferson’s making, he argued that, indeed, the national government had overstepped its boundaries, and it was for Hamilton to defend otherwise. How, specifically, did Jefferson believe this mandate was breached?

In short, Jefferson suggested Hamilton and the Federalists were enacting plans for an unlimited national government that would render the states obsolete. One of the ways Jefferson offered as “proof” was the debt, and the alleged attempt to keep the nation in perpetual debt. “‘As the doctrine is that a public debt is a public blessing,’” Jefferson wrote, “‘so they think a perpetual one is a perpetual blessing, and therefore wish to make it so large as that we can never pay it off’” (p. 150). Putting aside for the moment that Hamilton and the Federalists possessed no desire whatsoever to perpetuate the national debt, even if such an allegation were true, why would it lead Jefferson to think that Hamilton was advancing an agenda whose outcome would lead to the ruin of the states?

Much as I’ve alluded to in earlier commentaries in this series, many people, both individuals within and outside the profession, perceive Hamilton and the Federalists to be mass concentrators of power. And it was no different in the Early Republic. This is what Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans believed. Among the impressions my previous commentaries should be conveying is one in which Hamilton and the Federalists are conservative and traditional in their worldview and concomitant expectations and goals, whereas Jefferson and the Republicans are surprisingly quite revolutionary and reactive when considered within the appropriate context. Because of this, Hamilton was not shy about articulating, for example, historically tried and true methods, such as a national bank, that would place him at odds with more progressive “republican” values. This conservatism made Hamilton and the Federalists unafraid to communicate aspects of British life, legality, and culture that should be emulated, while outright rejecting the entirety of the French Revolution due to its radicalism. To many, both in the Early Republic as well as today, this conservatism equates to “monarchists” and “elitists” or “oligarchs” while Jefferson and the Republicans, at least in their day, were supposed champions of “the people.”

Further justifying Jefferson’s stance (in his mind) were Hamilton’s Reports, on the national bank and on manufacturing. Each of these, in their own ways, undermined the autonomy of the states rather than complimenting them. Perhaps shockingly to perception of Jefferson, it wasn’t so much that Jefferson necessarily disagreed with Hamilton’s premise in his Report on Manufactures, for instance, but instead the means with which Hamilton proffered to fulfill his premise. In reference to Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures Holloway notes Jefferson “agreed, at least to some extent, with Hamilton’s overarching aim of encouraging American manufacturing” but vigorously disagreed with the bounty system (somewhat akin to the modern subsidy system) Hamilton espoused to encourage manufacturing (p. 153). The bounty system would, in effect, erode the principal of subsidiarity – in this context meaning, the states and local municipalities would be in the best position to determine which industries to encourage because they’re closest to them, while the bounty system would emasculate such state power. Thus, the federal government would no longer be complimentary to the states but usurpers (pp. 153-157).

Against such a backdrop, favoring debt at all would seem to indicate encroachment upon state authority, from Jefferson and Republican perspective because having debt assumes a need to facilitate payment of the debt (unless one is Thomas Jefferson – then one merely purchases indefinitely on credit and shackles his heirs with staggering financial circumstances), which is one of Hamilton’s chief aims in his Reports.

Yet, there remains one problem with my thesis I have not reconciled; namely, the theory of nullification. I mentioned this in my seventh commentary: Jefferson by the early 1790s appears to have repudiated the late 1780s version of himself. If he truly desired an autonomous federal government, complimentary to the states (the late 1780s Jefferson), and the break between he and Hamilton was Jefferson’s belief Hamilton was the head of an agenda that would contravene this Constitutional mandate, it’s unclear precisely how Jefferson’s theory of nullification and the coming Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions fit in. “The view that the Constitution was an agreement among the states, which therefore had a right to judge whether the federal government had overstepped its constitutional limitations” doesn’t seem to jive at all with any of this (157).

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.