Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jefferson vs Hamilton For The Heavy Weight Championship!

Thomas Jefferson freshly home in Virginia from his duties in Paris as Ambassador to France, he found an invitation to join George Washington's administration as Secretary of State. This wasn't part of Jefferson's plan, he hoped to try to get his finances in order and return to his post in France in time to observe the French Revolution. However, he accepted Washington's request and joined them in New York in late March, just two months after Alexander Hamilton banking and national debt strategy was first announced.

Jefferson had put his trust in his friend and mentoree James Madison. Madison got what he wanted in his negotiations with Hamilton, consummated at a dinner party at Jefferson's home. It was there that Jefferson brokered a deal with those from the South who were standing in the way of Hamilton's banking plans. When Hamilton guaranteed that the new national capital city would be in a spot of Virginian George Washington's choice in the South, Jefferson and Madison got the Southerners to agree with Hamilton's plan. It wasn't long before Jefferson questioned the wisdom of his allowing this bargain. He believed that Hamilton's plans were much more than first met the eye.

Jefferson believed that too many Americans, especially in the North had lost their republican values and were too close to re-embracing an English style monarchy. His biggest issues were with Hamilton along with his followers, Jefferson believed, their "ultimate object" was to "prepare the way for a change, from the present form of government, to that of a monarchy, of which the English constitution is to be the model." He believed that the Hamiltonians were "panting after, (and) itching for crowns, coronets and mitres." Jefferson believed that the Treasury Secretary's envisioned economic revolution was part of transformation to the British way of things.

The Hamilton's funding program fueled a speculative craze in New York and other commercial cities. Jefferson exclaimed that America was being transformed into a "gaming table." He believed that the new national government was in great peril due to the new financial mania, with a "corrupt squadron of paper dealers," whom he labeled as "stockjobbers" driven by pecuniary interests had surfaced in Congress. He believed the day was coming when they and their kind would have the resources to sway a congressional majority. Jefferson cautioned that their gamester ethic would corrode the traditional frugality and industry that had defined the American character. Jefferson believed that Hamilton and his followers were driving America into the same sordid path that of Europe.

During 1790 Jefferson decided that unless Hamilton was stopped, America would someday would be dominated by huge financial institutions, commercial avarice would dominate the nation, and even larger chunks of the American people would become property-less "denizens of vast, squalid cities. This Jefferson believed to his very soul, was no way for free people to live. He believed that such a checkered society would not be free, and as they lost their independence, republicanism would be relegated to the scrap heap of history.

Jefferson and Hamilton had one thing in common, their deep ideological rivalry. They both believed the other not only wrong, but dangerously wrong and it brought about a titanic struggle between these two passionate and brilliant men. In large measure it brought to the politics of 1790s a passion only occasionally equalled in America, just as we see today. What occurred is something that any political activists understand, it was a political war to shape the American future, possibly for all time. There is the theory the politics of the 1790's took on a super-charged quality because those participating were in fact veteran revolutionaries. Those such as Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and those in Congress and the State governments had played an active role in the American Revolution. They had a revolutionary mentality.

Jefferson sought to learn more about his rival Hamilton. He put together a network of friendly congressmen and capital insiders who would report to him about whatever Hamilton that they heard. Between these reports and what Jefferson read into them, along with Hamilton's own published reports, Jefferson soon decided that his rival posed a grave danger to the American Revolution. He also feared the close economic ties to England, believing it would make America nothing but a British puppet state.

By the time they all moved to Philadelphia with the National government Jefferson's and Madison's relationship had changed. By then Madison's esteem of Jefferson could be considered worshipful, and with that accepted Jefferson's assessment of the threat posed by Hamilton. Even together they couldn't stop Hamilton's next program, to establish the Bank of the United States. With this "loss" Jefferson no longer believed that Washington could be counted on to rein in Hamilton.

Jefferson believed that most Americans still didn't like a strong central government, so he formed the first American political party. The day after Washington signed the Bank Bill, Jefferson took the first steps to establish a newspaper dedicated to a ceaseless opposition to Hamitonianism. The fall of 1791 the fist editions of the National Gazette was rolling off the press. It was edited by Phillip Freneau, a college buddy of Madisons. Jefferson set him up to counter John Fenno's Gazette of the United States, which was little more than a propaganda rag for Hamilton's Treasury Dept. Jefferson wrote to many activists in several states warning of the "scrip-pomany" his term for capitalism. Calling them to action to help fight to stop Hamilton and his plans.

Jefferson and Madison took off together on a "botanizing tour," to tour the flora and fauna. Hamilton's spies kept an eye on them believing that it was a political not sightseeing tour, and they were right. The back country that this tour took them through was were the strongest Anti-Federalist emotions were fervent with the people. Jefferson's trek displayed a telling grasp of politics, not only a sense that the popular will could be mobilized but the knowledge of how to begin to organize those who hoped to halt the further expansion of national power.

Upon returning home, Jefferson urged Madison to take up his pen in a growing newspaper duel against Hamilton. Jefferson claimed that he never engaged in newspaper politics, it was true, he always had someone else do it for him. Madison wrote at least nineteen pieces for Freneau's paper in 1791-1792. Madison painted Hamilton and his adherents as mostly "men of influence, particularly the moneyed" class, he said as a self-serving, anti-republican elite that thought the people incapable of self-government. Assuming that the citizenry "should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers," these elitists believed that the people need know only one word: "Submission," They exercised power "less to the interests of the many than of a few, and less to the reason of the many than to their weakness." Their ultimate objective, he insisted, was the "government itself may by degrees be narrowed into fewer hands, and approximated to an hereditary form." To fight this threat, Madison announced the need to create a political "party." He was the first to use the word party, and he said it should be called the Republican Party.

Hamilton, always the personality of a fighting rooster, countered with a barrage of his own. His fiery essays targeted Jefferson, not Madison. He knew who was leading the opposition and he coolly recognized that Madison was the "General" while Jefferson was the "Generalisimo" of the enemy camp. Hamilton's essays raised questions about Jefferson's judgement by pointing out his failures as a wartime governor reminding everyone of Jefferson's running away leaving the governor's mansion in Virginia at the first threat of the British Army in 1781. Hamiliton's response was so brutal it was obvious that he realized the danger to his programs Jefferson represented.

Hamilton and Jefferson probably understood each other, their passions, their ambitions, and egos better than anyone else. Because they were as if looking into the mirror and seeing their own reflections. Jefferson was so impressed with the Herculean effort Hamilton produced writing under the pseudonym Camillus, he said about Hamilton, "Without numbers, he is an host within himself."

This is a story that continues through both terms of George Washington and of John Adams. Jefferson's victories came even after failing to stack the House and Senate with his Republican or Anti-Federalists over the next election. Hamilton won his victories keeping his programs in place, until his nonstop political meddling bit him by his own machinations causing Adams to lose to Jefferson in the election of 1800.

If you have read this far, have you noticed how much our times are similar to those of our founders? How the political passions are ignited again to mirror those they battled? If for no other reason, it gives me hope. This is not the first time, and may well not be the last time that the two dominant political ideologies we have had since the beginning will debate at the top of our lungs. We the people have overcome and come together on each occasion, and we can and will again.

My thoughts on Hamilton and Jefferson, I think time has proven them both right, and both wrong. America would never have become the great nation it has become without the efforts of both of them, all while they were trying to stop each other.

There is so much more to learn about this exciting and pivotal time in our history, so many back stories and intrigues. If you think politics are dirty today, they are very polite compared to the 1790s. If you want to know more I recommend "The Summer of 1787," "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow, "The American Sphinx" by Joseph Ellis, and of course the "Federalist Papers" by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

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