Why we love Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson is in the doghouse

November 6, 2015
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Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson (L) and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton (L) debate policy during a cabinet meeting in “Hamilton.” President George Washington (Christopher Jackson) (C) sits behind them. Courtesy of “HAMILTON”/Joan Marcus

We are in an Alexander Hamilton moment.

The founding father who rose from poverty to power and fame is again the talk of New York. There is a dazzling new hip-hop musical, Hamilton, written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the excellent 2004 Ron Chernow biography that it is based on is again a bestseller. Today, with the 1 percent a constant topic of conversation, we cannot help recalling Hamilton’s embrace of a financial elite as the foundation of the new nation. America’s — and especially New York’s — current obsession with wealth perhaps accounts for Hamilton as an icon of the moment.

Combination image ofs on expensive luxury cars, April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Combination image of hood ornament logos on expensive luxury cars, April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The news we turn to in the morning is financial reporting, which is surrounded by advertisements for hyper-luxury goods. The biggest new office towers are financial institutions. Luxury condominiums command jaw-dropping prices, often negotiated in all-cash transactions. We are surrounded by symbols that evoke our first secretary of the Treasury. No wonder there is a campaign to stop a plan to remove Hamilton’s face from the $10 bill.

It was not always that way. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had his moments as the nation’s favorite founder. In Washington, for example, there is an impressive memorial to Jefferson, but no memorial to Hamilton. Jefferson’s profile was carved into Mount Rushmore in the 1930s, but Hamilton’s was not.

Throughout U.S. history, Jefferson and Hamilton have represented opposite poles of American political culture: agrarian democracy for Jefferson, empowering wealth for Hamilton. Over time they have risen and fallen, alternating in public favor. There almost seems to be a hydraulic law affecting their reputations. When one is up, the other is down. As the historian David Muzzey noted in 1918, their reputations varied like “buckets in a well, alternatively elevated and depressed.”

Jefferson’s eloquence about freedom and every man’s right to the “pursuit of happiness” earned him an honored place among the founding fathers. But as historians, particularly over the past 40 years, increasingly focused on how Jefferson built his life and career on the enslavement of others, public attitudes have shifted. Jefferson’s association with freedom has been further diminished by definitive DNA evidence that Sally Hemings, a slave he owned, was his mistress and bore his children, whom he kept enslaved as long as he lived.

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Alexander Hamilton LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton was on the right side of racial justice that still eludes America. At a time when it took moral and political courage, Hamilton strongly condemned slavery and was a founder of the New York Society for the Promotion of Manumission in 1785.

These differences in the politics and values of Hamilton and Jefferson explain their shifting reputations as American politics and culture have changed over the generations since George Washington’s presidential inauguration in 1789. They were both in Washington’s cabinet: Hamilton as Treasury secretary and Jefferson as secretary of state. Their policy differences burdened the president and represented remarkably different understandings of the Constitution, the nation and public policy.

Jefferson was averse to a strong national government, as were many Southerners, who feared Northern opposition to slavery. Hamilton, however, had been a prime mover in the call for a Constitutional Convention, and he argued compellingly forcefully for its ratification in the Federalist Papers. He pressed for a more powerful national government, one with powers superior to that of the individual states.

Their different positions on the powers of the national government hinged on the interpretation of three words in Article I of the Constitution enumerating the powers of Congress: “necessary and proper.” Jefferson emphasized “necessary,” thus limiting the national government; Hamilton stressed “proper.” It is an elemental tension that survives into our own time.

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Thomas Jefferson in his presidential portrait by Rembrandt Peale. WIKIPEDIA/Connoms

Jefferson embraced the idea of a lightly governed nation, with the preponderance of power in the states. His ideal citizens were independent farmers who would export their surpluses. These citizens would “remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural . . . When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”

President Jefferson leapt at the opportunity to purchase Louisiana. It would, he wrote, provide land and thus freedom to the “thousandth and thousandth generations.” Oddly, Jefferson’s democratic vision overlooked planters like himself, who depended on the labor of enslaved families of African descent.

Hamilton’s was a radically different vision. He argued for a strong federal government and established the Bank of the United States to that end. While Jefferson doubted the bank’s constitutionality, Hamilton was convinced that the Bank of England, and the public debt it managed, sustained Britain’s economic and military strength. At best ambivalent about democracy, Hamilton’s vision of America focused on a body of leaders from the big cities along the Eastern seaboard, marked by wealth and the power that wealth sustained.

Such differences have reverberated through American politics. President Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian movement honored Jefferson as the founder of the Democratic Party. But after the Civil War, Jefferson’s light dimmed. James A. Garfield, who would later be a Republican president, noticed that “the fame of Jefferson is waning, and the fame of Hamilton is waxing.”

The war transformed a “union” into a “nation.” George William Curtis, the long-time editor of Harper’s Weekly magazine, declared the war “vindicated Hamilton.”

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Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton (R) talks with (L-R) Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette, Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan and Anthony Ramos as John Laurens in “Hamilton” Courtesy of “HAMILTON”/Joan Marcus

After Reconstruction, the South celebrated Jefferson and “states’ rights.” Yet during the Gilded Age, the nation’s powerful economic growth was the result of the Republican Party’s alignment with business — the Hamiltonian formula.

Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, was a strong Republican nationalist in the Hamiltonian tradition. The United States had become the world’s leading industrial power, and American banking was a player in the global capital markets. He advocated and enabled this development. But Roosevelt also challenged Wall Street and monopolistic industries. In the 1920s, the Republicans continued to invoke Hamilton’s economic vision, but without Roosevelt’s more balanced approach to big business.

That would change with the New Deal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt democratized Hamilton. While FDR regularly referred to Jefferson and Jackson, the founders of the Democratic Party, his policies enhanced federal power and were clearly Hamiltonian. Dumas Malone, the Pulitzer-prize winning Jefferson biographer, writing in the 1930s, put it this way: Jefferson “would bestow his apostolic blessing on Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the new president buckles on his Hamiltonian sword.”

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning at Soldier’s Field in Chicago, October 28, 1944. REUTERS/Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Roosevelt took on big business, invested in infrastructure and other public works, regulated the economy, particularly banks, supported unions, launched Social Security and funded public housing. Many corporate leaders publicly despised him; Roosevelt crowed that he welcomed their hatred.

Roosevelt’s blend of strong state and democratic traditions was one mark of his brilliant practical politics. But he also had support from a classic of American political philosophy, Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life. The way forward, Croly proposed in his 1909 book, was to combine Hamilton and Jefferson: a strong national government inspired and guided by the democratic ideals that Jefferson so elegantly expressed in writing.

We could use some of the same blending today. But there is another essential ingredient to add to the mix: overcoming the current obsession with money and the power that comes with it — which increasingly undermines American democracy.

5 comments

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Such differences have reverberated through American politics. President Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian movement honored Jefferson as the founder of the Democratic Party. But after the Civil War, Jefferson’s light dimmed. James A. Garfield, who would later be a Republican president, noticed that “the fame of Jefferson is waning, and the fame of Hamilton is waxing

Posted by sanayaagarwal | Report as abusive

Very good article. Nice overview and comparison of Jefferson and Hamilton. Interesting that fundamental to each of them is mistrust of the other’s vision. We see this today. As FDR’s Democratic party rejects big business as evil and not to be trusted we are asked to instead embrace a strong Federal government to whom we must bow in obeisance. This trust is misplaced. Oh for the pendulum to swing back to the vision of Jefferson!

Posted by RudyB | Report as abusive

When the union was weak and the whole experiment of representative government was in imminent danger of collapse, Hamilton understood that a stronger federal government and a sound currency was needed. He was right about that at that time.
Today he would be aghast at the repressive overweening power and non-responsiveness of the federal government, and the ignorance, disregard and even contempt in which the Constitution is held, to the detriment of the Republic and its citizens.
Hamilton’s vision was one of individuals rising from poverty through their initiative and free enterprise, as he had done, not the labor of others, and not crony rent-seeking, handouts and subsidies from the federal government, confiscated from others.
Though perhaps for different reasons, Jefferson and Hamilton would today likely be on the same side, opposed to the corruption and extra-Constitutional superstate that the federal government and imperial Presidency has become, twisted out of shape by FDR and LBJ, and exacerbated by both parties, with the passive approval of an uninformed yet ever more demanding public.

Posted by EmilM | Report as abusive

“…having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied corporations riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.” -Thomas Jefferson, 1825

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“Jefferson built his life and career on the enslavement of others,” said Bender. The comment is about as ridiculous as my saying that my great grandfather built his life and career on preventing my great grandmother from voting in America, along with everyone else’s great grandfather who prevented women from voting. Perhaps we should all get rid of our last names from this historical embarrassment when our forefathers allowed slaves and prevented voting rights for women.

The millennial’s enchantment with all things and persons ever enslaved or unequal is just bizarre. They need to focus on getting a job, a life, and stop trying to rewrite history.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive