Review: ‘Politics as usual’ with Jefferson and Hamilton

Posted Monday, Oct. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling Bloomsbury Press, $30

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Despite popular trends in thinking, this generation of American political leadership no more invented divisive political discord and strife than Popeye was the first to discover the properties of spinach.

Though it might be hard for some to believe, the world — and the dynamics of American democracy — existed long before any of us.

Two founding fathers established the norm of “politics as usual” in the nation’s capital.

That’s why, during this most recent “climax” of American disunion, John Ferling’s Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation is a timely reminder that debate, sniping, obstruction and, yes, sometimes downright nastiness are the bedrock of American republic democracy.

The two men were as different — Jefferson of agrarian aristocracy stock and Hamilton the product of illegitimacy and what 21st-century Americans would label “at-risk,” a member of a family of dysfunction from the British Caribbean — as their ideas and ideals about the new United States, which began operating under the Constitution in 1789.

Whereas Jefferson was reserved and at times a reluctant statesman, Hamilton was seen by many as “arrogant” and by all as ambitious.

During a dinner party at Jefferson’s house, Hamilton asked the identity of portraits of John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Francis Bacon, Ferling revealed.

Those, Jefferson replied, were “the three greatest men the world had ever produced.”

Hamilton responded: “The greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.”

“If he did not already know it,” Ferling wrote, “Jefferson discovered in that instant the yawning chasm in sensibilities that separated Hamilton and himself.”

There were, indeed, many more differences between these two Cabinet members in the first presidential administration under the U.S. Constitution of George Washington: Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, was called on to deal with perhaps the most serious debt crisis in American history; and Jefferson, the secretary of state, was asked to cultivate the critical alliances America needed to do business.

Washington, a deft politician, had no bigger political issue than acting as mediator to his two thought-provoking underlings, philosophical rivals and personal antagonists whose competing visions shaped the new republic.

The two clashed over Hamilton’s proposed economic reforms, which Jefferson believed instilled too much power in the executive branch and could become a bastion of corruption.

The Constitution, while not the handiwork of Hamilton, certainly turned out to be the vision he and his former and future boss, Washington, endorsed during the Constitutional Convention: a consolidated central government with a strong executive designed to raise revenue to remedy the nation’s debt crisis and generally manage its business and respond to emergencies, raise and support an army to defend its shores and to build alliances and integrity with the international community.

Jefferson, not a member of the convention while he was a diplomat to France, was not impressed with the final product, calling the proposed House of Representatives “woefully inadequate,” and the executive officer, the president, “a bad edition of a Polish king.”

Jefferson’s opinion about the House was grounded in his belief in the goodness of people and their ability to govern themselves. Hamilton favored a strong, aristocratic executive.

It was regarding this difference that the two went toe-to-toe in “unbridled partisan warfare.”

Hamilton championed economic reforms based on the British model, an example Treasury espoused because of the success of the British dynasty, and gave, in Jefferson’s view, the executive branch expansive powers.

This was contrary to what the Americans had fought for, Jefferson believed. The revolution was about fighting centralized control by a “faraway and corrupt government.”

The foundation of their disputes still exists today, of course, in debates about the roles of the federal government. (Interesting, though, is Jefferson’s opinion that each American generation should set its own definitions and not be burdened by its forebears.)

Jefferson — who had hoped an extramarital affair involving Hamilton would rid Washington’s Cabinet of his rival — was, he said later while campaigning for president in 1800, fighting against federalist “bigots” who had “dishonored our country” by looking “backwards instead of forwards.”

Gone today are the duels often used in yesteryear to settle disputes, as was the case in the demise of Hamilton from a bullet fired by Aaron Burr.

The hyperbole, though, and the passion … those are hardly American relics.

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