Jefferson vs. Hamilton
When I looked into Jefferson’s three-year tenure as Secretary of State, I expected to find accounts of how he organized and systematized the department, and how he dealt with various foreign controversies and difficulties. Instead, I found that accounts centered on his escalating political struggle with Hamilton. So, as we are working our way backward, let us look first at that long bitter contention, and consider Jefferson’s official tenure in the following section.
However, in considering their differences, it is important to remember what they had in common. Both men were patriots, idealists who put in long unglamorous hours in the service of their country. Each one represented a section of society and each one contributed to the welfare of the whole. If each one underrated the other’s contribution, and questioned the other’s integrity, well, that’s life. They were pursued by the fear of what would happen if the other one prevailed, and people motivated by fear are not at their best. We at this distance should be able to do each man more justice than they did each other.
Jefferson and Hamilton clashed on nearly everything, because they had very different values. The key to their personalities and their politics is this. Hamilton valued order and feared social chaos; Jefferson valued individual freedom and feared tyranny. However, bear in mind, these were only relative emphases. Neither extreme is, or could be, absolutely right or absolutely wrong. (Ask Jefferson about his fear of servile rebellion. Ask Hamilton about his fear of economic or social insignificance.)
Hamilton understood economics far better than Jefferson or Washington ever did. As a boy, he spent several years working in a commercial establishment in the West Indies, which, while it must have seemed dreary and pointless to the boy at the time, proved invaluable to the man he became. He understood the relationship between banks and credit and business and trade and prosperity. He recognized that the new Union needed a dependable source of income, and saw that duties on imports was a relatively painless way to provide it. At the same time, he could see that a nation dependent upon other nations for its necessities could never be as strong as one that provided some if not all of its own manufactures.
Hamilton’s experience with the army during the long discouraging years of the revolutionary war indelibly impressed upon him the need for a strong central government capable of meeting its needs by taxation (rather than by begging the states for contributions). From this experience, and perhaps from his own innate predispositions, he proceeded to a theory of the need for a state to be governed by the few rather than by the many. While thoroughly in favor of independence from England, he was set against the social revolution that accompanied it and seemed to be continuing and strengthening. For Hamilton, it was a strong Union or a chaos of competing states; it was rule by the financially and socially established, or dissolution into mob rule.
Jefferson’s experience as two-term wartime governor of Virginia had shown him, as well, the evils of too weak a government. But his five years in Europe closely observing the manners and morals and tyranny of the French royal court had reinforced his convictions that social equality was preferable to hierarchy; that the small farmer was a firmer basis for society than the courtier or city-dweller; that it was in America’s best interest to become as little like Europe as possible.
(Interestingly Hamilton started from nothing. He was a bastard son, born in the West Indies, orphaned at an early age, with only his brilliance and ambition to spur him on. Jefferson, on the other hand, like Washington, was born into an accepted position in society. Yet Hamilton was the sincere advocate of social hierarchy; Jefferson the sincere advocate of democracy.)
Hamilton’s financial system was designed to put the country on its feet, and it did that. But it was also designed to favor the mercantile and manufacturing interests over those of the farmers and planters, and it did that, too. Having the federal government assume state and federal debt, and then funding it, did stabilize the new nation’s finances, but it threatened to fasten commercial interests upon the necks of everyone else, and to some degree it quickly did that.
But although Hamilton and Jefferson were at odds over the proper size and scope of the new federal government, this was not what brought them to sword’s point. That happened when, in 1793, Britain joined the war against France.
Even before the two countries went to war, Hamilton and Jefferson were at odds over what our commercial policy should be. Jefferson (and others) noted with irritation and anger that England blocked most American exports and closed off most of our traditional trade with the Caribbean islands. He wanted to institute a policy of economic reciprocity: Whatever another country did to us, or for us, we would do to, or for, it. This, he hoped, would bring England around. But Hamilton’s financial system was pegged to the tax on imports, and most of those came from England. He wondered, what if England, in response to American demands for reciprocity, drastically reduced its exports to the United States? What would the federal government do for revenue?
The European war brought matters to fever pitch. Hamilton was pro-British and anti-French; Jefferson was the converse. Each thought the other’s proposed path was dangerous to the country. Even today, nobody can prove that one course would have been better than another; how can you weigh the consequences of the path not taken? But they were both patriots, and they both wanted what they thought was best for the country. And here again, as so often, we see how fear magnifies suspicion, reduces understanding, and renders potentially productive cooperation impossible. It must have tested even Washington’s legendary patience.