Hamilton and Jefferson: The Deserving and the Deserter

Detail of Alexander Hamilton portrait by John Trumbull, 1805
These two Founding Fathers could hardly be more unlike.

The proposal to remove Alexander Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill shows yet again how poorly we often value the really deserving figures in our history: Other than Hamilton’s great patron, colleague, and friend George Washington and his lineal political descendant Abraham Lincoln, no one deserves more gratitude, interest, and credit for the relative success of the U.S.A. as a state, society, and economy than Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton gives a popular edge to the picture we get from two outstanding books on Hamilton that explain in detail why he is among our greatest and most instructive figures — Richard Brookhiser’s Alexander Hamilton, American (1999) and Ron Chernow’s mammoth biography Hamilton (2004), which won the George Washington Book Prize in 2005 and inspired Miranda to write his musical.

Another interesting interplay between history and the contemporary arts, like the playwright/composer Miranda’s inspirational reading of Chernow’s biography, is to be found in Annette Gordon-Reed’s account of how she came to write her groundbreaking book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1995), which she followed up with her Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hemingses of Monticello (2009). An African-American woman now teaching at Harvard Law School, Gordon-Reed has described how she was inspired to write her book on Jefferson, his black mistress, and their offspring by watching in 1995 the Merchant–Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, a quite brilliant exposure of Jefferson as a hypocrite. This was also about the time when DNA testing on Hemings descendants made it overwhelmingly probable that Jefferson had indeed sired mixed-race children and that one of them, Madison Hemings, was telling the truth about Jefferson’s being his father when he told his life story to an Ohio newspaper in 1873. The Sally Hemings story had been widely circulated in Jefferson’s lifetime and afterward, and the historian Fawn Brodie skillfully made the case for it in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974). But defenders of Jefferson such as biographer Dumas Malone harshly attacked Brodie’s book and sneered at Madison Hemings’s account as that of an untrustworthy, lower-class mulatto looking for gain, fame, or notoriety.

RELATED: The Vision of the Founding Fathers

In addition to Brookhiser’s, Chernow’s, and Gordon-Reed’s books, we owe much to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s outstanding study The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution (1996). “Rien n’est beau que le vrai,” goes an uncharacteristically orthodox French adage: “Nothing is beautiful but the true.” Alexander Hamilton may have taken this far too literally — he issued an unnecessarily revealing public statement documenting, exposing, and apologizing for an adulterous affair into which he had been lured by two extortionists, causing great pain to his beloved wife, who bore him eight children and to whom he was otherwise apparently deeply devoted and loyal. She outlived him by 50 years after his murder by Aaron Burr in 1804 and was whole-heartedly devoted to getting him the recognition that he deserved for his deeds and writings, but which was denied him by his resentful and envious rivals, including John Adams and the Virginians Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

Jefferson’s character and career, documented during his lifetime and subsequently, and especially well by O’Brien, were often marked by double-dealing, deceit, prevarication, and extraordinarily clever hypocrisy, especially on the race issue, presenting a strong contrast to the forthright candor of Hamilton. Not only was Jefferson born to wealth and privilege, including slaves, but he lived very well and far beyond his means, dying deeply in debt and manumitting at death only the Hemings slaves: Contrast George Washington, who manumitted all of his slaves at his death and provided funds for some of them.

Born poor and illegitimate in the West Indies, Hamilton was a completely self-made man: a scholarship boy in New York, a Revolutionary War hero who became the second-in-command to General Washington, the inspirer and writer, with Madison, of The Federalist Papers advocating the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, principal spokesman on its behalf in the crucial New York ratifying convention, the first secretary of the Treasury and main adviser and amanuensis to President Washington, and also a dogged, lifelong opponent of slavery. The great anti-slavery Virginia Federalist John Marshall, himself a war veteran who owned no slaves and went on to be the great first chief justice of the United States (1801–35), said that compared to Hamilton’s intellect he felt like a mere candle “beside the sun at noon-day.” After reading through Washington’s state papers, many of them written by Hamilton, in preparation for writing his biography of Washington, Marshall said Hamilton was “the greatest man (or one of the greatest men) that had ever appeared in the United States.”

The great anti-slavery Virginia Federalist John Marshall said that compared to Hamilton’s intellect he felt like a mere candle “beside the sun at noon-day.”

When Hamilton’s clever, amoral rival Aaron Burr, who continued to serve as vice president of the United States under Jefferson even after murdering Hamilton, visited France in later life, he asked for an interview with the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, who had known Hamilton well. Talleyrand sent a note to tell Burr that he would see him, but that he should be warned “that a portrait of Alexander Hamilton always hangs in my study where all may see it.” Talleyrand also said that he considered Napoleon, Charles James Fox, and Hamilton the greatest men of his age, and that if he were “forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton.” He said that Hamilton, who had never traveled to Europe, “divined Europe.”

Jefferson, who was American ambassador in France from 1785 to 1789, never spoke French well, whereas Hamilton, who never set foot in Europe, spoke French fluently and was Washington’s translator during the American Revolutionary War, when the France of Louis XVI was an American ally. But Hamilton, unlike Jefferson, was never seduced by French manners, morals, or models, the “libertinage” (libertinism) that was often the practical meaning of “Enlightenment,” or by the abstract idea of liberty — not grounded in history, fact, or realism — that Jefferson and the other Virginia slave-owners Madison, Monroe, and Patrick Henry invoked so cleverly to pose as liberals and democrats. “Why is it,” the anti-slavery Samuel Johnson, a Tory and a Christian, had unforgettably asked in 1775, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negro slaves?”

RELATED: Bumping Hamilton From the $10 Bill Is Arrogant, Ignorant, and Stupid

Why indeed? And how were they allowed to get away with it? O’Brien’s The Long Affair succeeds in explaining this. By posing as pro-“Enlightenment” friends of abstract liberty and “the common man,” Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe succeeded brilliantly in deflecting attention from the “peculiar institution” of slavery, whose existence was the very condition of their living leisured and privileged lives like landed French or English aristocrats. They were “parlor pinks,” indulging in ostentatious oral and written sympathy with the wildly oscillating, bloody, and brutal French Revolution, during whose sanguinary phases men exactly like them were fleeing France or being guillotined in large numbers. O’Brien shows in great detail and with brilliantly chosen quotations how systematically and cleverly evasive were Jefferson’s writings on race and slavery, as he deplored it on paper while enforcing it brutally on his own plantation, where his regime never slackened its rigor, and while keeping a beautiful black concubine who bore him children.

Hamilton had grown up among blacks in the West Indies, and he hated slavery passionately and worked all his life to ban it as a member of the New York Manumission Society. Yet his allegedly more “democratic” political enemies, especially Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, persistently defamed him as a closet monarchist and aristocrat who was aspiring to re-unite the United States with Britain under a monarch or even to seize control himself in a coup d’état. O’Brien shows how Jefferson’s final disillusionment with the murderous French Revolution — after his “long affair” with it — came about only after the successful slave uprising against the French in Haiti, which terrified him, and the dictatorship of Napoleon, a dictatorship that Hamilton, like Edmund Burke, had dreaded and predicted from an early date in the revolutionary euphoria.

Thomas Jefferson portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1799

If Hamilton was deserving but defamed in the last years of his life, and for long afterward, we might say that the popularly triumphant Jefferson won his power and fame largely through the clever, well-disguised desertion of principles that he had probably sincerely espoused as a young man. Like the envious John Adams, Jefferson mocked, ignored, or denied the military bravery of Hamilton during the Revolutionary War, bravery in such spectacular contrast to his own ambiguous behavior. As Chernow notes, “Hamilton had spent five years in combat, exposing himself to enemy fire on many occasions.” By contrast, Jefferson “never set foot on a battlefield.”

Chernow goes on to mention that after being elected governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson “found the job irksome and wanted to resign, prompting Edmund Pendleton to complain to Madison, ‘It is a little cowardly to quit our posts’” in a difficult time. Chernow continues: “When the turncoat Benedict Arnold burned and pillaged Richmond in January 1781, the capital stood defenseless despite warnings from Washington to Jefferson. Governor Jefferson fled in the early hours, giving up Richmond without a shot and allowing munitions and government records to fall into British hands. In June, in Jefferson’s waning hours as Governor, the British pounced on Charlottesville and almost captured the Virginia Assembly gathered there. Then, when word came that a British cavalry was approaching Monticello, Jefferson scrambled off on horseback into the woods.” Jefferson was subsequently “accused of dereliction of duty and neglecting the transfer of power to his successor.”

RELATED: History’s Complexity Should Discourage Liberals’ Cheap Retroactive Morality

As amanuensis in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was the principal author of the great lines about “self-evident” truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even if the roots of this claim were in Judaism, Stoicism, and the Christian New Testament, conveyed by the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, 17th-century Protestant dissenters, and John Locke, Jefferson nevertheless deserves permanent credit for the formulation. Other passages in his writings, including Notes on the State of Virginia, draw on the lively, widespread tradition of his time that historian Gregg Frazier has called “theistic rationalism” (Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, ed. D. L. Dreisbach and M. D. Hall [Oxford, 2014]). Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton was from an early age devout, remaining so while a student at King’s College in New York (now Columbia) — which until after the Revolution was connected with the Church of England — and identifying himself with orthodox Christianity throughout his life.

Jefferson essentially promoted a secular-democratic consciousness opposed to the classical-Christian consciousness of most of the Founding Fathers.

But if Jefferson deserves credit for the classic articulation, in the great 1776 Declaration, of Natural Law and theistic rationalism — of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in its scholastic or rational form — it is not hard to see why many of his educated contemporaries thought him, as Chernow reports, “one of the most artful, intriguing, industrious and double-faced politicians in America.” When, in writing of the iniquity of slavery, he said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Jefferson cleverly used the force and momentum of a theological language that, in most cases and respects, he opposed or denied. In The Long Affair, O’Brien painstakingly tracks Jefferson’s artful subterfuges, and those of his apologists down to the present day. He also shows how Jefferson deserted his initial skepticism about the French and the French Revolution and became an ardent and uncritical admirer of it from 1789 until the accession of Napoleon. As Page Smith argued in his 1978 history of the Constitution — a document Jefferson had nothing to do with and mistrusted — Jefferson essentially promoted a secular-democratic consciousness opposed to the classical-Christian consciousness of most of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Marshall, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, and the early Madison.

Jefferson also came to desert the ethical universalism of the Declaration’s great sentence — an earlier draft of which had read, “We hold these truths to be sacred,” not “self-evident.” They certainly ceased to be self-evident or sacred to him, if they ever were, because of the “scientific” evolution of his thinking about alleged racial superiority and inferiority. Jefferson became the inspiration not only for Southern states’-rights intransigency about slavery — Calhoun and the “nullifiers” — but also for a theoretical “scientific racism” that would later be immensely augmented by Darwinism. As a politician he pushed for laws prohibiting free blacks in Virginia, and he threatened mixed-race free blacks with death, opposed and harassed the black regime in Haiti, and demanded the deportation to Africa of any freed American slaves. He, along with Madison, Monroe, and Henry, wonderful, stirring libertarians and democrats on paper, actually got and maintained their positions in life not — like Hamilton — by “the sweat of their backs, but by the sweat of their blacks.” It was this gross, fundamental hypocrisy that revolted Abraham Lincoln, who hated Jefferson as a person although admiring his great libertarian public statements, as Allen C. Guelzo has recently pointed out (“What Did Lincoln Really Think of Jefferson?” New York Times, July 3, 2015).

#share#Another profound anomaly was that Jefferson’s “democratic revolution of 1800” — his defeat of the Federalist John Adams in the presidential election of that year — was not really “democratic” at all. The Constitution’s pro-Southern “three-fifths” clause counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of state electoral-vote totals, without of course any idea that these enumerated persons were allowed to vote. Does anyone in his senses doubt that if these “three-fifths persons” had had the vote they would have voted against slave-owners such as Jefferson and for an anti-slavery Federalist such as Adams, Hamilton, or Marshall? They were of course never given the chance, but large slave-holding states such as Virginia and South Carolina were given their electoral votes anyway. Chernow patiently makes the relevant points: “The 1800 triumph” of Jefferson’s party, he writes, “also meant the ascendancy of the slaveholding south. Three Virginia slaveholders — Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe — were to control the White House for the next twenty-four years. These aristocratic exponents of ‘democracy’ not only owned hundreds of human beings but profited from the Constitution’s least democratic features: the legality of slavery and the ability of southern states to count three-fifths of their captive populations in calculating their electoral votes.” Regarding the outcome of the 1800 presidential election, Chernow pens a lapidary line: “Without this so-called federal ratio, John Adams would have defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1800.”

“The Constitution did more than just tolerate slavery,” Chernow writes, “it actively rewarded it.” The completely racialist and undemocratic Electoral College bias in favor of the South “inflated southern power against the north and disfigured the democracy so proudly proclaimed by the Jeffersonians. Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration.” And liberal-democratic historians until recently have been kind to these “democrats.” Chernow concludes: “Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist for privilege and wealth.”

Hamilton was gloomy about the raucous and rebellious politics and the long-term future of the republic at the end of his life.

Hamilton was gloomy about the raucous and rebellious politics and the long-term future of the republic at the end of his life, terminated at age 49 in the duel with the cynical libertine Aaron Burr in 1804. As he was dying from the mortal gunshot wound, Hamilton worried about the threat to the decent survival of the United States; one of his last recorded statements was, “If they break this union, they will break my heart.”

Contrast the extremist, Jacobin utterance of the aged, aristocratic Jefferson, writing from Monticello, three years before his death, in a letter to John Adams, advocating a revolutionary, proto-Bolshevik “universal republicanism”: “To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation” (September 4, 1823). It was, in fact, ultimately the extinction of the slavery that supported his way of life that would require such rivers of blood and years of desolation.

Hamilton was close in thought, spirit, and outlook to cosmopolitan, classical-Christian English writers and thinkers such as Locke, Addison, Swift, Pope, Blackstone, Samuel Johnson, and Burke, and to Adams, Jay, Morris, and Marshall in the United States. He wrote in a letter toward the end of his life: “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion” (April 16, 1802). Jonathan Swift, writing about his great forthcoming satirical work Gulliver’s Travels in a 1725 letter to his friend Alexander Pope, made the same orthodox, classical-Christian point, a version or vision of Original Sin: “I have got materials toward a treatise proving the falsity of that definition [of the human person as] ‘animal rationale’ and to show it would be only [an animal] ‘rationis capax’” (capable of reason).

History, whether personal or collective, is the best guide to our individual and collective lives. We need always to compute who — or which action, in self or others — deserves praise, and which deserts principle and deserves criticism and condemnation. Biographical studies such as Gordon-Reed’s and O’Brien’s on Jefferson and Brookhiser’s and Chernow’s on Hamilton exemplify the rational and moral function of the good historian as envisioned by Lord Acton. They stimulate and inspire their reader, an “animal capable of reason,” into actually becoming a rational animal.

Most Popular


Newsflash: McCabe Not Really Losing His Pension

The news that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired hours before qualifying for retirement with full benefits somehow grew over the weekend into a false impression that the career FBI agent was stripped of his pension altogether. [jwplayer GlHOavPa-wKJ9CRQU] Members of the media remarked that McCabe ... Read More
Economy & Business

CRISPR Will Make GMOs Ubiquitous

Labels multiply in supermarkets faster than salmonella at a convenience-store sushi bar. It’s important to keep up; we should all be well-informed eaters. But the onslaught of clean food, natural products, sustainably produced, gluten free, butterflies everywhere, and GMO-free sea salt are just too much. The ... Read More
White House

All Trump All the Time

It can be hard to keep one’s wits about oneself during the Age of Trump. Our president is like the ringmaster of a circus, and the American people are his enthralled spectators. It seems as if we cannot get enough. Love him or hate him, he remains at the center of our public consciousness. It is hard to ... Read More

The Pope Francis Challenge

An unforced error from a Vatican communications office the other day drove me a little something like crazy. The nature of the unforced error is that it is wholly unnecessary and typically distracting. And so it was. Days before, as the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election as pope was approaching, a ... Read More
White House

Why Tillerson Had to Go

Of all the abrupt comings and goings in this administration, the dismissal of Rex Tillerson is undoubtedly the most important — maybe one of the most important firings since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. By dismissing MacArthur, Truman drew a firm line between military and ... Read More