JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION by John Ferling

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)

Before John Ferling delves into the background, philosophies, and careers of his subjects in his JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION he exposes the reader to a meditation on how the third president and the first Secretary of the Treasury have been evaluated by successive generations.  At the outset Jefferson was seen more favorably as he was deemed to be a democratic populist who defended the liberties of all, while Hamilton was viewed as the spokesperson for the rich upper class or “monarchical party.”  This characterization existed through most of the 19th century as Jeffersonian agrarianism fought off the evolution of industrialization.  Men like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan claimed Jefferson’s mantle, while Theodore Roosevelt and his adherents at the turn of the 20th century believed in Hamilton’s vision of American power, influence, and economic interests.  By the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jefferson’s legacy reemerges with the onset and effects of the Great Depression which was laid at the feet of “monied interests.”  Following World War II and the onset of the Cold War Hamilton was seen as the “patron saint” of the political right wing, and his service on behalf of the financial sector and free market economy is applauded.  Jefferson’s reputation was decried during the Civil Rights era and by time Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency many saw him as a hypocrite because of his stance on slavery and his vision for America suffered.  With the advent of neo-conservatism, Hamilton’s insights were more generally accepted and he was described as a creative genius.  It is interesting to contemplate the new Trump administration’s stance on the two founding fathers since they came to power based on a populist economic message.  It will be fascinating to speculate and somewhat scary to observe the evolution of the new regime in Washington.

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(George Washington)

It is obvious that Ferling has mined a significant amount of the voluminous secondary sources that exist on his subjects.  He offers a strong synopsis of their early years and provides penetrating insights into their future characters.  However, his discussion of Jefferson is presented in greater depth, in part because of the paucity of material related to Hamilton’s early years.  Further, his objectivity can also be questioned as it is apparent that he holds Jefferson in greater esteem than Hamilton.  Ferling claims to be more impressed with Hamilton than he thought he would be.  Though he admires Hamilton’s intellect and achievements, the narrative, despite pointing out a number of Jefferson’s flaws is decidedly in favor of “the Sage of Monticello.”

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(photo of Jefferson’s home at Monticello)

Jefferson comes across as self-absorbed in his private life as opposed to his public career before the American Revolution, particularly up to 1774 as he worked on his law career, married into a monied family, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  His writing were sharp, clear, and radical, but only from a Virginian’s perspective.  Jefferson was more radical that most Virginians and interestingly his views dovetailed more with the north.  As Jefferson wrote in a meditative and philosophical manner, at the same time Hamilton’s approach was slash and burn.  His no holds barred approach would never change, be it answering Samuel Seabury or Aaron Burr.  What separated Hamilton’s writing from others is that he predicted why and how England would lose a war with the colonies.  Hamilton avoided criticizing George III and did not call for independence, as he blamed English ministers for the coming conflict, and therefore argued for reconciliation.

Ferling writes with a smooth prose that allows the reader to glide over his words, words that are full of insight and analysis.  Ferling’s comments are very measured throughout the narrative and his approach allows the reader to make up their own minds on the subjects at hand.  For example, Ferling holds Jefferson in high esteem, but he does not shirk from describing his self- indulgent nature as is seen when he describes Jefferson’s contribution to the Revolutionary War effort, his accumulation of debt because of his consumerism, his refusal to serve in Congress, the hypocrisy related to his future plans for slavery, and the life style when he lived in Monticello and Paris.  Ferling does balance his presentation by arguing that Jefferson’s non-military contributions to the revolution are as important as his “scripture,” the Declaration of Independence which crystallized the founding ideas of the new country by trying to diminish the power of the “patrician order” and laid the foundation of a truly republican government.  As for Hamilton no one had to goad him into service or exhibit courage.  However, Ferling does explore Hamilton’s motivations as he tries to overcome his family roots and achieve notoriety and success.  For Hamilton, it just seemed as his life progressed there was always a rich and powerful sponsor that helped him move forward.

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(The Continental Congress)

Ferling tells the story of the American Revolution through the movements of Hamilton and George Washington.  Strategy is analyzed, personalities are explored, and the importance of Hamilton-Washington relationship is presented front and center.  Ferling makes the excellent point that Washington was very concerned about the quality of intellect in the Congress at Philadelphia.  Washington kept pointing out the weak financial state of the government that existed due to its inflated currency and speculation that threatened victory.  The Adams and Franklins that populated the original Congress were gone by 1781, leaving few men of ability; provoking Washington to say, “where are Jefferson and others in this time of need.”  A comment that may have been born of Washington’s close relationship with Hamilton.

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(John Adams)

Hamilton strongly believed that the major problem that the war effort confronted was its lack of a strong central power in government.  Hamilton came to the conclusion that “Europe will save us despite ourselves.”  Hamilton urged people to call for a Constitutional Convention to rectify the situation that had resulted in a military stalemate and create a National Bank in order to finance the war.  Hamilton also called for the use of black soldiers in order to defeat the British. Ferling reviews Hamilton’s writings and agrees with Ron Chernow’s magisterial study that Hamilton was developing his ideas and concepts that he would later apply to governing when he became Treasury Secretary.

Ferling’s approach to Jefferson’s two terms as governor of Virginia is very diplomatic.  He criticizes him for taking until 1779 to agree to serve, but has empathy for Jefferson as he tries to figure out how to defend Virginia from a British invasion, but also assist South Carolina from the attack.  In evaluating Jefferson as governor one might say he did try and rally his home state through leadership other than just employing his quill.  Ferling reviews the reasons for Jefferson’s abandoning his capital when the British threatened.  For the author Jefferson did “dilly dally” over his personal needs, and should have taken the warning of invasion more seriously.  Jefferson comes across as self-centered and it took a great deal of pressure to get him to act.  Overall, Jefferson’s governorship would become a political albatross around his neck until he could escape America and pursue his diplomatic mission in Europe that allowed him to avoid the post-revolution political fray as the new government gained its footing.

Ferling offers a number of important insights concerning the founding fathers that challenges the historical imagery that has surrounded them.  One of the most important is his exploration of Hamilton’ true feelings toward Washington, as he argues that Hamilton did not really care for his commander.  Hamilton’s feelings are colored by his frustration of not gaining a command, a path he believed was a necessity for post-war success.  He resented Washington for keeping him as his aide de camp and viewed his commander as “ill-humored….coarse and sometimes petty, vain, ill-tempered, inconsiderate, insecure, inelegant, and unoriginal in his thinking.”  But, Hamilton realized that Washington was honest and honorable and essential to the American cause that required a “fabricated Washington” for the American people to believe in.  Hamilton would eventually resign and Washington would finally appoint him to a command at Yorktown that sealed his reputation for bravery and leadership.  In stark contrast at the end of the war, Jefferson faced an investigation of his leadership as governor of Virginia.

Ferling’s treatment of the Washington-Hamilton relationship is enhanced because of the knowledge gained writing an excellent biography of Washington, THE ASCENT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE HIDDEN POLITICAL GENIUS OF AN AMERICAN ICON.  This was apparent after the revolution when the issues of military back pay and pensions threatened to become a military revolt.  Both he and Hamilton agreed on the need to develop a program to pay off the government’s debt, but it did not stop Washington from seeing “menacing qualities in Hamilton that nudged him to assure that his former aide remained a loyal follower, not an enemy.”

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(James Madison)

The fundamental difference between Jefferson and Hamilton was clear early on.  Jefferson stressed the expansion of individual freedom and independence.  Hamilton emphasized the wellbeing of the nation.  Ferling is correct in arguing that “Jefferson had become a revolutionary largely in the hope of securing, enlarging, and sustaining personal liberties. Hamilton’s experience in the Revolutionary War led him to believe that liberty could never exist unless the nation was strong and secure.”  These world views would color their heated relationship for years.

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(Salley Hemmings)

Ferling’s chapter on Jefferson’s life in Paris is important in gaining an understanding of his belief system and interaction with others.  The author’s description of his relationship with the John and Abagail Adams is very poignant in light of their later political feuds.  Jefferson’s loneliness is apparent as he still had not recovered from the death of his wife Martha.  Ferling explores the Maria Cosway affair and his budding relationship with Sally Hemmings as a means of explaining how desperate Jefferson was to fill the void in his life.  A part from personal issues, Ferling describes Jefferson’s views that encompassed his love for the French people, disdain for absolutism and monarchy, including his support for the events of 1789.  What is key is that the philosophy that Jefferson crossed the Atlantic with was reinforced in France and are an accurate guide as to how he would resume his public career once he returned to the United States.

While Jefferson was off in Paris, Hamilton was involved with the Constitutional Convention that replaced the Articles of Confederation.  For Hamilton the government’s indebtedness was the most important issue and the problem that he faced was that “while virtually every delegate came prepared to increase the powers of the national government at the expense of the states, none was willing to jeopardize the vital interests of his state.”  Hamilton’s philosophy became widely known from this process as Ferling describes how Hamilton pulled back the curtain that concealed the thoughts of conservative Americans.  They had not dreamed of sweeping social or political change.  For them, a powerful nation state should be created that would allow men of finance to be free from the shackles of England to invest, make money, and secure their wealth.  For Hamilton, inequality was just the nature of things and he was not inclined to remedy these disparities.  He was an elite who wanted to preserve his status and this anti-democratic belief would be the core of his thought for the remainder of his life.  Hamilton did work to gain passage of the new Constitution by taking on a high percentage of the burden to prepare THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, and once he became Secretary of the Treasury he was able to implement his plans to preserve and develop the new nation.  Ideas such as a National Bank, Assumption of debt by the government, building the Coast Guard, and contributing to a strong executive branch of government were all were major contributions that historians believe were Hamilton’s greatest achievements as our government and economy today follow the principles he developed.

The period following the inauguration of Washington reflects the true disdain that Jefferson and Hamilton felt for each other.  On issue after issue their disagreements reflected their hostility toward one another.  Ferling does a remarkable job explaining the basis for their disagreements and describes the political repercussions.  Today we dread the level of political partisanship, but when one looks back at the nastiness of the 1790s, one might argue that we are somewhat tame today in comparison.  The author provides wonderful anecdotes that reflect the chasm between the two men.  For example, during a visit to Jefferson’s residence in New York, Hamilton pointed to three pictures on the wall and asked who their subjects were.  Jefferson responded; “Bacon, Locke, and Newton” three of the greatest men of history.  Hamilton retorted that the greatest man in history was Julius Caesar.

Ferling seems to sympathize with Jefferson in that he believed that once the assumption of debt issue was settled in return for moving the capitol to the Potomac River region that there would be a few areas of disagreement.  However, once Hamilton launched the rest of his economic program Jefferson claimed to have been deceived.  It is unlikely that Jefferson was that naïve.  But once the Whiskey Tax, the National Bank, and Hamilton’s plan for manufacturing became public, Jefferson was pushed over the edge as he feared that the United States would be turned into a monarchical state that replicated England. As the war in Europe expanded with England joining the alliance against France, foreign policy would enter the equation with the Genet Affair and Jay Treaty that would further exacerbate tensions between Jefferson and Hamilton.

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(Aaron Burr)

The partisanship was further reflected in newspapers, one for each side that became the mouthpieces of the two men.  Hamilton and Jefferson’s cohort, James Madison would publish numerous essays that skewered their opponents.  Jefferson’s misreading of Washington’s views contributed to the problem in that he believed the president had an open mind.  Jefferson did his best to besmirch Hamilton in the eyes of Washington by providing as many damaging documents as he could.   However, Washington blamed Jefferson for the rise of the nasty political factionalism that had developed, in addition to the fact that the president supported Hamilton’s economic program and vision for the future.  Jefferson’s hatred of Hamilton is best seen in Jefferson’s comment to Washington, “Hamilton was a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the country which had not only received him and given him his bread, but its honors.”

Ferling carries the narrative through the end of Washington’s presidency, the Adams administration and the election of 1800.  What is clear in the last third of the book is that Ferling maintains a soft spot for Jefferson and doesn’t miss an opportunity to disparage Hamilton.  Once Hamilton became a private citizen he could not let go of influencing events easily.  He became more of a schemer to implement his grandiose ideas and his “Federalist agenda.”  Ferling’s narrative reduces Hamilton to an individual who worked behind the scenes to manipulate governmental policy, individual opinion, and events to achieve his nefarious goals.  A case in point is the election of 1800 where Hamilton worked overtly and covertly to undermine Adams’ reelection through pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, and private conversations defeat Adams.  In the end he would throw his support to Jefferson to block Aaron Burr as the election came to a vote in the House of Representatives.  Ferling believes that Hamilton suffered from a flawed temperament that dominated his actions which resulted in the end of the Federalist Party as he let his ego get in the way of the changing political culture that had developed.  As far as Jefferson is concerned he is raised to a level of respectability that does not exist in the first half of the book.  Jefferson may have cut a deal with the Federalists to gain the Presidency, but Ferling rationalizes that by doing so he saved the union.

It is interesting that one of the early songs in the musical “Hamilton,” “I am not going to throw away my shot,” it’s star, Lin-Manuel Miranda describes a man who would never give up an opportunity, however as Ferling describes the duel scene with Burr, that is exactly what he did.  Perhaps as Ron Chernow suggests, Hamilton had enough, and it was a respectable way of committing suicide.   Whatever one thinks of these two men, their impact on the creation of the republic, and the legacy that exits today,  it is important to remember the time period in which they lived, and how fervently they believed in their ideals and how they tried to do what they deemed best for the new nation.  Ferling’s book is a strong comparative study and it provides a true understanding of how America began and provides strong clues of what it was about to become.

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)

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