Printer Friendly

Feuding Heroes - In this informative examination of the philosophical collision between Jefferson and Hamilton, historian Noble Cunningham notes how each contributed to shaping the fledgling nation.

Carmine Sarracino is the chairman of the English Department at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He has published many political and cultural commentaries in newspapers and magazines, including Insight.
Confrontations That Shaped a Nation
Noble E. Cunningham Jr.
Publisher:New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000
186 pp., $35.00

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were not merely in disagreement on some of the great issues confronting the new republic they helped found; they were, in fact, at loggerheads. Jefferson distrusted federal government, which he saw as the enemy of individual liberty. Hamilton, in turn, distrusted the citizenry, which he saw as incapable of exercising freedom without the strong guiding hand of federal authority. Jefferson loved the land and envisioned an agrarian society in America. Hamilton's hopes for America lay in commerce and industry. Jefferson believed the Constitution must in every case be interpreted strictly, an argument that came to be known as strict construction. Hamilton took up the opposing argument of implied powers, or loose construction. Jefferson was a Francophile; Hamilton, an Anglophile. In time, these vigorous opponents became bitter enemies.

Noble E. Cunningham's Jefferson vs. Hamilton is an excellent study of the conflict between these two great men. It enables readers to see for themselves just how these fundamental differences played themselves out in the span of about twenty years of their formal and informal interaction, from their first meeting in late 1782 or early '83 until Hamilton's death in 1804. They served together in Washington's cabinet, Hamilton as secretary of the treasury and Jefferson as secretary of state. Both were key agents in the political struggles that followed Washington's departure from office and the subsequent formation of political parties: the Federalists who favored strong central authority, and the Republicans who championed individual liberty. Just how bitter was the rivalry and conflict between the two? Consider that in letters to President Washington (who was doing his best to calm the waters they had troubled), both of these heroes of the Revolution came perilously close to formally charging the other with treason.

Cunningham's method is uncomplicated. He presents the reader with more than forty documents--consisting mostly of letters, reports, and speeches--in seven chronological chapters. Jefferson's and Hamilton's documents are interwoven so that we see each man proposing arguments and responding to the other's arguments and assertions. Cunningham's interspersed commentary is minimal, usually consisting of background information rather than interpretation or speculation.

The nature of the study, however, invites speculation--the juicy part, after all, of history. When we learn, for instance, that Jefferson was born into the "privileged world of colonial Virginia planters, Hamilton began life in an insecure world in the British West Indies," we cannot help but wonder to what degree their early lives and social positions shaped their later political viewpoints and involvements. Hamilton's father deserted the family when he was eleven years old. He had to struggle to achieve the kind of education Jefferson enjoyed as a birthright and had to earn his social position through gallant service as an officer during the Revolution. There he attracted the attention of General Washington, who remembered him when forming his cabinet. We might say, then, that Hamilton early had hitched his star to government and rose by the grace of government. Jefferson, on the other hand, served government in the spirit of noblesse oblige. His high station in life derived from the land--from the independent ownership of a large plantation in Virginia, handed down to him from his father. Is it surprising, then, that one man would champion federal government and the other the rights of the individual?

To his credit, Cunningham does not indulge in such speculation. When he addresses the inevitable question of which of the two was superior, which one was "right" in this historic rivalry, he does so by quoting two other important biographers of Jefferson and Hamilton: Dumas Malone, who favors Jefferson, and Broadus Mitchell, who favors Hamilton.

Malone, in his two-volume Jefferson and the Rights of Man, offers this comparison of the two: "Perhaps that is the real secret of [Jefferson's] eventual political success, as it assuredly is of his enduring fame. He was a true and pure symbol of the rights of men because, in his own mind, the cause was greater than himself." To Malone, Hamilton, however, "comes out of this investigation worse than I expected. ... I cannot escape the conviction that he ... lusted for personal as well as national power."

Mitchell sees the two differently. In his Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788--1804, Hamilton was the idealist: "He was in love with the noble ideal of creating a vigorous, expanding nation." Jefferson "heard voices, saw visions, but was far from the stage of devising institutions or finding ways and means of equipping a new social order."

For his part, as a historian of the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton, Cunningham clearly defines his mission with as much detachment and objectivity as possible. He simply presents us with the evidence in the form of well-chosen primary documents. Let those readers speculate who will. In these days of highly polemical historical studies, many driven by a political correctness that regards itself as above the need to document and support fastidiously, Cunningham's method is abundantly informative and refreshing.

The fight over a national bank

The first issue to divide Jefferson and Hamilton as members of Washington's cabinet was how the victorious new nation would finance its war debt. Should the states share equally the burden of the national debt? But what of the states that had already substantially paid their war debt? Would they not, in effect, be punished by such a settlement? Should the debt be paid at once, or should it be financed? The questions were thorny, and as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton championed a solution that was eventually adopted, the formation of a national bank.

On January 14, 1790, Hamilton presented his Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the Public Credit, in which he outlined his main arguments for the formation of a national bank. One important reason for such a move was that a properly funded national debt "answers most of the purposes of money. Transfers of stock or public debt are the equivalent to payments in specie; or in other words, stock, in the principal transactions of business, passes current as specie." Hamilton then enumerated some of the attendant benefits of having established such stock: "First. Trade is extended by it; because there is a larger capital to carry it on. ... Secondly. Agriculture and manufactures are also promoted by it. ... Thirdly. The interest of money will be lowered by it; for this is always in a ration to the quantity of money, and to the quickness of circulation." The closely argued report was adopted with some modifications over Jefferson's objections--restrained objections, as he promised Hamilton they would be when Hamilton solicited his support.

Later, Jefferson's objections to the national bank grew more vehement as he sniffed out agendas hidden under the cloak of reasoned economic argument. Anti-Federalist that he was, Jefferson saw the national bank as a way for the "monarchists" to strengthen the federal government. In their plans of financing the debt--and, in his view, never paying it off--Jefferson saw a scheme to perpetually hold the states in extortion and thereby control legislation to their benefit.

He claimed to have acquiesced to the idea of a national bank for two reasons. He had been duped by Hamilton into accepting a plan he did not fully understand. And, as he wrote to his son-in-law Francis Eppes, "I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony."

Harmony between the two men, even just the appearance of harmony, would not long be possible. Discord grew when the Spanish seized British ships in Nootka Sound off Vancouver Island. In the absence of a diplomatic mission to the United States, Maj. George Beckwith, an aide to the governor-general of Canada, made unofficial contact with Hamilton, who assured him "thus much I can say, we are perfectly unconnected with Spain, have even some points unadjusted with that court." Hamilton made it clear to Beckwith that America would favor England in this dispute and, further, offered his willingness to intervene if difficulties with Jefferson developed.

To Jefferson, Hamilton was clearly transgressing into his domain as secretary of state. When Washington solicited Jefferson's opinion on the proposed national bank, Jefferson abandoned the restraint he had earlier promised Hamilton. In his Opinion on the Constitutionality of Establishing a National Bank, Jefferson argued that "all powers not delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people (Xth Amendmt.). ... The incorporation of a bank, and other powers assumed by this bill have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution." A national bank, in other words, was, in Jefferson's opinion, unconstitutional.

Although Hamilton ultimately prevailed, he never forgave Jefferson's attempt to undermine what he regarded as one of his chief endeavors (on which he labored to the point of near exhaustion), the creation of a national bank. Moreover, Jefferson's argument against the bank opened a further rift between the two regarding a larger, more abstract issue: the complex and contentious point of just how the Constitution itself should be read, whether Jefferson's strict construction or Hamilton's loose construction was the correct general approach.

Cunningham presents Jefferson's argument in a lengthy excerpt from his Opinion on the Constitutionality of Establishing a National Bank, which Jefferson submitted to President Washington on February 15, 1791. Washington provided Hamilton with a copy, as well as a copy of Attorney General Edmund Randolph's opinion against the bank. Hamilton worked feverishly to respond to both, writing through the night so that he could present his counterarguments expeditiously. On February 23, 1791, just one week after Jefferson's submission, Hamilton presented his paper to the president. Cunningham offers Hamilton's lengthy and brilliant Opinion on the Constitutionality of Establishing a National Bank almost in full.

Washington was persuaded by Hamilton and signed the bill to incorporate the bank just two days after receiving the report. In a private letter written five years later, Jefferson's ire was still smoldering. The national bank, he wrote, is " a contrivance intended for the purposes of corruption, and for assimilating us in all things to the rotten as well as the sound parts of the British model."

'The event at which I tremble'

By 1792 the conflicts between Jefferson and Hamilton involved such fundamental and unresolvable differences that they can be seen as foreshadowing the national horror, still about seventy years in the future, of the Civil War. On May 23, 1792, Jefferson penned a letter to Washington that warned of such catastrophe. The Federalists, Jefferson claimed, were scheming to concentrate and centralize political power in America through the establishment of a monarchy that "will form the most corrupt government on earth." Later in the letter he added, prophetically, "I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the union into two or more parts." But such fracture seemed to Jefferson inevitable "when we review the mass which opposed the original coalescence, when we consider that it lay chiefly in the Southern quarter, that the legislature have availed themselves of no occasion of allaying it, but on the contrary whenever Northern and Southern prejudices have come into conflict, the latter have been sacrificed and the former soothed; that the owners of the debt are in the Southern and the holders of it the Northern division."

Envisioning a cataclysmic split in the new nation, Jefferson--founder, patriot--added: "And this is the event at which I tremble."

Although Washington thought Jefferson's suspicions against "a particular party" were exaggerated, in July he sent a letter to Hamilton repeating Jefferson's charges while carefully hiding their source. Hamilton, in turn, answered Washington on September 9, 1792. He acknowledged that he had long been the subject of "the most unkind whispers and insinuating." While pledging not to "endanger a feud," Hamilton nevertheless made the counteraccusation that "a formed party" was deliberately bent on nothing less than subverting the government.

On the same day, September 9, Jefferson again wrote Washington, this time outrightly naming Hamilton and leveling specific accusations, each carefully elaborated and supported to show that Hamilton, not himself, was to blame for the feud. Whatever else he may have made of the deepening enmity between these two gifted members of his cabinet, Washington surely recognized that, in these exchanges of venomous accusations and counteraccusations, he was witnessing what many political observers had dreaded, the formation of political parties.

In 1796, Washington's vice president, John Adams, defeated Jefferson in a close election and became the second president. Under the constitutional provisions then in place, Jefferson became Adams' vice president. Of all the documents in the final third of Cunningham's book, which covers the period of Jefferson's vice presidency through his presidency (gained in 1800), none are so compelling as those dealing with the Sedition Act, which made its way through Congress in 1797. It too bode ill for preservation of the union.

The act made it unlawful for any persons "to combine or conspire to oppose any lawful measure of the government, to prevent any officer of the United States from performing his duty, or to aid or attempt to procure any insurrection, riot, or unlawful assembly." It also provided punishment of any person for writing, uttering, or publishing "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the president, Congress, or the government.

One of the charges that Jefferson had to defend himself against in his September 9, 1792, letter to Washington was that he had brought the poet Philip Freneau to Philadelphia for the express purpose of setting up a newspaper to defame and attack the Federalists. Sensitive, therefore, on the subject of "publishing malicious writing," Jefferson saw the Sedition Act as an attempt to silence Republican newspapers.

He immediately began to think of ways that states might assert their right to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and void. Working with John Breckinridge, a former Virginian, and members of the Kentucky Assembly, Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which began with an ominous first point: "Resolved, that the several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government." The second point concludes that "the power to create, define and punish such other crimes is reserved, and of right appertains solely and exclusively to the respective states, each within its own territory." The conflict between the rights of the state versus those of the federal government was thus sharply defined. The sovereignty of the state of Kentucky and the authority of the federal government were set at loggerheads.

Following Kentucky's lead, in December 1798 the General Assembly of Virginia also adopted resolutions protesting the Sedition Act. In a letter to Theodore Sedgwick, a Federalist senator from Massachusetts, Hamilton, clearly fed up with Virginia's anti-Federalism, angrily proposed to hold its feet to the fire. A powerful federal force should without delay be brought against Virginia and put that state to "the Test of resistance."

Decades hence, Virginia, home of the capital of the Confederacy, would indeed be put to such a test of resistance over many of the same issues that pitted Jefferson versus Hamilton. And at that event the whole nation would tremble.n
COPYRIGHT 2000 News World Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Previous Article:Reinventing Nashville.
Next Article:Historian Laureate.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters