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.

Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 2

Part 1

In response to George Washington’s inquiry about what the newly created republic should do with the state of its torrid finances, Robert Morris responded, “There is but one man in the United States who can tell you; that is, Alexander Hamilton” (p. 9). And so begins Chapter 2 of Carson Holloway’s Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration. And a more auspicious beginning for both the nation and book could not be had.

Holloway deftly summarizes that, while Robert Morris was the financier of the American Revolution and one of the wealthiest Americans of the period, no one was better versed in all matters economic than Alexander Hamilton. Consequently, President Washington, exercising the wisdom and leadership qualities history has remembered him for, heeded Morris’s advice and tapped Hamilton to be the first Treasury Secretary. In this capacity Hamilton commenced his duty with his Report on Public Credit to resolve the economic catastrophe that was American finances.

What Holloway does an admirable job in is so adroitly refuting the Jeffersonian position. “Thomas Jefferson came to believe that the policies adopted pursuant to the Report had corrupted Congress and were the first step in a Hamiltonian plan to betray the founding and overturn America’s Constitution” (p. 10).

Holloway debunks this Jeffersonian posturing by stipulating Hamilton’s primary motive in writing the Report was one of prudence and statesmanship, as opposed to an ultraconservative design to undo the Constitution and create a British-style monarchy and government. (He had secondary motives of ambition – which Hamilton didn’t consider inherently wrong, particularly when it was directed toward a noble end – and educating America’s leaders and the wider public about finances and economics.) “Successfully addressing the problem of public credit required such lofty virtue, Hamilton suggested, because of the high stakes involved, both for himself and for the country” (p. 11). Just how high were the stakes?

The United States owed about $13 million to foreign lenders and about $40 million to domestic creditors. On top of this, the state governments had on their own account borrowed a total of $25 million to pay for their contributions to the war effort. The annual interest on these debts far outstripped the government’s expected annual revenues. Indeed, in terms of the debt-to-revenue ratio, American indebtedness was huge by the standards of the day. Numerically, Britain’s debt was much larger than America’s, but then Britain also commanded a much larger revenue. In terms of its ability to pay, then, America’s debt was twice as big as Britain’s. America was, Thomas Jefferson worried, not only “the youngest nation in the world” but also “the most indebted” (p. 10).

Ergo, Hamilton’s concern was for the viability of the United States. Without this stability and concomitant fiscal responsibility, the Revolution would have been in vain, the Constitution would be unmade, and all would be for naught. To support his claim, Holloway cites Hamilton’s own goal, to

promote the increasing respectability of the American name; to answer the calls of justice; to restore landed property to its due value; to furnish new resources both to agriculture and to commerce; to cement more closely the union of the states; to add to their security against foreign attacks; to establish public order on the basis of an upright and liberal policy. These are the great and invaluable ends to be secured, by a proper and adequate provision, at the present period, for the support of public credit (p. 12).

Similarly, “As the Report drew to its close, Hamilton stated his conviction that a proper provision for the public credit was ‘the desideratum towards relief from individual and national embarrassments’” (p. 13). In other words, public credit was a means of establishing American “good faith” with other nations. Under the Articles of Confederation, the ability to effectively establish good faith was untenable.

These points made by Holloway confirm my own argument here that I briefly discussed in Part 1 of the book review. The transition from the Articles to the Constitution presented a mandate to the new government to resolve the impotence and inability of the federal government to act under the old compact. Nowhere can be seen in any of this a design by Hamilton to institute monarchy. Certainly he distrusted the masses and possessed a distinctly Augustinian comprehension of humanity; yet, that is a far cry from the arch-conservative “monocrat” Jefferson, his contemporaries, and historians have depicted him as. Where is the evidence? As Holloway makes clear, Hamilton’s designs are for the good of the country, to place it on a firm foundation, and to fulfill the Constitution’s mandate.

What might be a specific example of fulfilling the Constitution’s mandate that Hamilton had in mind with his Report on Public Credit? “It is a ‘plain and undeniable’ truth, [Hamilton] held, that ‘exigencies are to be expected’ in the affairs of nations, in which there will be a necessity for borrowing.’ Even the ‘wealthiest’ countries find that ‘loans in times of public danger, especially from foreign war,’ are an ‘indispensable resource’” (p. 14). Just as in every individual’s life there comes a time when he or she will have to take out a loan or buy on credit, so too in the life of a nation. But this is impossible unless the credit of the nation is good. A nation with good credit can borrow on favorable terms, as any individual can; likewise, a nation with poor credit, assuming it can borrow at all, can only borrow on terms favorable to the lender and on terms prone to perpetuate the need to borrow. The nature of the Articles of Confederation left the credit of the federal government in shambles. As a result, this bequeathed the United States a position of weakness, both internally and externally. It was Hamilton’s intent to remedy this with the plan offered in his Report.

As part of his discussion of the importance of Hamilton’s public credit initiative, Holloway submits a juxtaposition of Hamilton, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, and concludes Hamilton does not neatly align with either thinker, but rather falls somewhere between. He reasons that Hamilton “pivot[s] decisively away from both Machiavelli and Hobbes by introducing moral considerations into his argument and by presenting them as even more important than calculations based on self-interest” (p. 19). This removes Hamilton from Machiavelli because “To speak of governments as bound by ‘immutable principles of moral obligation’ is to enter a realm far removed from that of Machiavelli’s prince, who must learn to be good, or not good as the circumstances require.” So too, Hamilton diverges from Hobbes “who held that the positive law made by the sovereign is the sole source of men’s rights, and that accordingly the sovereign is the final judge of who owns what.” Holloway’s assumption is “while Hamilton shares the Machiavellian and Hobbesian realism according to which a considerable part of politically relevant human action is driven by, and intelligible in terms of, self-interest, he nevertheless does not go all the way with them in holding that this realism alone is the basis of all genuine political knowledge. Equally worthy of the statesman’s attention are certain fundamental and unchanging moral principles that restrain self-interest and the obligation of which apparently cannot be reduced to self-interest” (p. 20).

I submit the reason Alexander Hamilton does not fit so neatly onto the Machiavelli or Hobbes template, a reason that goes unaddressed by Holloway, is Hamilton’s Judeo-Christian influence. In passing I’ve already mentioned and linked to Hamilton’s Augustinian persuasion. Holloway affirms this assessment though he does not join it to Saint Augustine. Referring to Hamilton’s outline for assumption, Holloway avers, “One might expect that upright and enlightened citizens would take some pleasure in seeing justice at least partially vindicated and the public good partially protected. But the human mind [I would substitute “human heart” for “human mind”] apparently does not work that way, or at least not often enough that the statesman could rely on such reactions” (p. 29). Put differently, Man is selfish and short-sided, incapable of rising above his petty self-interest to see the bigger picture, the long-term consequences, etc. This is an Augustinian slant that Hamilton was a proponent of and one of the reasons he was duty-bound to contest Jefferson’s vision for America’s future.

We can now add to this the uniquely Judeo-Christian concept “immutable principles of moral obligations.” When translated and set within the context of credit, this means that what is objectively good does not change based on circumstances, nor does what is objectively wrong change based on circumstances, contra Machiavelli. Contra Hobbes, property is sacrosanct and inviolable, again a uniquely Judeo-Christian acknowledgment and, in civilization, in “rule of law,” when two parties enter into contract, Hamilton acceded to the Judeo-Christian teaching both parties now have a commitment to fulfill their respective ends.

Consider Hamilton’s most famous passage from Farmer Refuted:

…the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensably, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, “which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other….”

Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind…. [The supreme being] endowed [man] with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety….

Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property, or liberty; nor the least authority to command or exact obedience from him….

Hence also, the origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man or set of men have, to govern others, except their own consent….

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. (TheFounding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in Revolutionary America, pp. 28-30)

We can see in this passage humanity is answerable to a higher authority: God. And God has written into the human person a unique dignity and worth that “endows” him with “rational faculties” and an “inviolable” right to “liberty” and “personal safety” (it should be noted Hamilton was explicitly drawing from William Blackstone’s fully articulated natural law theory found in Commentaries on the Laws of England and that Farmer Refuted predates the Declaration of Independence). Because of this, secular government is answerable to God as well, and only exists so long as the “ruled” allow it, which presumably the “ruled” will, providing their “absolute rights” are secured. This is radically different from Machiavelli or Hobbes.

Holloway neglects how Hamilton’s understanding of God and natural law inspired his thinking on credit. First, private creditors have the “inviolable” right to their property. They possess the God-given privilege to expect to see what they loaned paid back, for it is ultimately their property. Second, if government receives (or assumes) a loan, it must repay the loan because failure to do so fails to secure “the absolute rights of the [ruled].” Thus, it is also appropriate for government to seek a repayment plan that is “satisfactory to the community.” “Governments must pay their debts, but they must try to do so in a way that is not harmful to the common good” (p. 33). However, if the loan in question does involve private creditors, and hence the aforementioned inviolable property, Hamilton professed government make “‘every practicable exertion’ to fulfill its ‘engagements,’ that ‘no change in the rights of its creditors’ be ‘attempted without their voluntary consent,’ and that ‘this consent’ be ‘voluntary in fact, as well as in name’” (p. 35). This appeal, according to Hamilton, should be made to the creditors’ “rational faculties” (p. 35). Again, we see the effect of Farmer Refuted.  Relatedly, if government operates as a creditor it too, like a private individual, can expect to be repaid, not because of property rights, like the private creditor, but again because government has a God-ordained decree to secure “the absolute rights of the [ruled].”

There was a great deal of ground to cover in Chapter 2. Although I did not address every detail I feel it’s time to progress to Chapter 3 and assumption.


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.

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.


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.