In American politics, there has been nothing like a good debate to elucidate principles and sharpen differences. For proof, one need look no further than the great debates between Webster and Hayne, or Lincoln and Douglas. While not as formally structured as those clashes, the titanic struggle — through a series of documents, across an array of issues, and over a wider span of time — between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson was just as dramatic and just as consequential for the course of American history.
With a keen eye for the best talent, new president George Washington in 1789 tapped the eloquent and idealistic Jefferson to be secretary of state and his brash but beloved former aide-de-camp Hamilton to be secretary of the Treasury. By the middle of 1792, Hamilton and Jefferson were at loggerheads about the political project to which both had dedicated so much thought and effort. Washington’s Herculean efforts could not restrain their growing disagreements. They became lightning rods for every political storm — Jefferson was an “intriguing incendiary,” said Hamilton; Jefferson called Hamilton “a tissue of machinations.”
The divide between Jefferson and Hamilton, according to the liberal narrative, defined the contradictory forces at the heart of the American idea: the egalitarian populism of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the elitist, reactionary Constitution of Hamilton’s commercial republic. John Dewey did call Jefferson “our first great democrat” — but it was to Hamilton that Progressive intellectual Herbert Croly looked to historically justify “active interference with the natural course of American economic and political business and its regulation and guidance in the national direction.” He thought America could transcend the Founders’ divide only by eschewing Jeffersonian localist democracy, as well as Hamilton’s commercialism, in favor of a thoroughgoing, centralized, nationalist democratic community. Jeffersonian ends would be achieved by Hamiltonian means in order to fulfill, in the title of Croly’s seminal book, “The Promise of American Life.”
A similar synthesis is embraced by many conservatives, who like to emphasize Jefferson’s localism and strict construction of the Constitution (despite what some see as his troubling egalitarianism) and emphasize Hamilton’s market economics (without the not-so-invisible hand of his nationalism). The early development of a strong federal government (even during Jefferson’s administration) leads some to claim wrongly that the seeds of big-government central planning were sown by Hamilton at the very beginning, and others to look longingly to the Anti-Federalists or even the Confederate cause as a support for reviving Jefferson’s supposed states’-rights constitutionalism.
Confusion abounds, but all seem to agree that there is not much new to be learned from the old Hamilton–Jefferson back-and-forth. Not so, argues political-science professor Carson Holloway, of the University of Nebraska Omaha, in his new book. While there are many excellent biographies and period histories, they are too broad and usually present only one side of the argument. Holloway takes a different approach, and has produced the first detailed book-length account of the Hamilton–Jefferson divide not as biography but as political and constitutional debate. His account presents something profound and interesting: a rigorous, sustained dispute between two key Founders on the principles and practices of politics.
In early January 1790, in response to the nation’s spiraling debt problems, Hamilton issued his “Report on Public Credit,” proposing (among other things) that the new federal government assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Jefferson had reservations, but was willing to accept assumption and even brokered the dinner between Hamilton and James Madison at which the deal was made to allow assumption in exchange for a southern location of the new capital city.
Jefferson and Hamilton’s first great confrontation was over Hamilton’s proposal to create a national bank. In his “Second Report on the Further Provision Necessary for Establishing Public Credit,” in December 1790, Hamilton called for the establishment of a public bank, the main purpose of which was to increase the flow of legal tender by monetizing the national debt through the issuance of federal bank notes. He also thought the bank was necessary for the federal government to be able to exercise the Constitution’s general powers (taxation in particular) and, eventually, for America to build a commercial republic. Jefferson, at Washington’s request, offered his opinion that the enumerated powers “can all be carried into execution without a bank” and warned that a loose constitutional interpretation threatened to destroy limited government. Hamilton responded that “necessary often means no more than needful, requisite, incidental, useful, or conductive to” and that too narrow a constitutional interpretation would render the government unworkable.
In his “Report on Manufactures” of December 1791, Hamilton argued that the protection of domestic manufacturing was needed to build a dynamic nation-state capable of maintaining its independence. The two men’s critiques were now comprehensive: Jefferson thought Hamilton’s policies aimed to destroy constitutional limits on national power with a view to establishing a monarchy. Hamilton responded that Jefferson favored weakening the government to the point of creating chaos and inviting a demagogue to take command.
The last part of the book focuses on 1793 — the last year that Hamilton and Jefferson served in the cabinet. They split on the meaning and implications of the French Revolution and, as that conflict metastasized, gave President Washington different advice on how to deal with continuing Franco–American treaty obligations as France spread war throughout Europe. Hamilton thought the change of regime in France meant treaties were null and void, Jefferson objected, Hamilton defended his proposals, and — on the advice of his whole cabinet, including Jefferson — Washington wisely chose to remain neutral in the wars of the French Revolution.
The seriousness and substantive nature of Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s arguments is evident in every chapter of this fine volume, in the original documents quoted as well as in the author’s analysis. Their central disputes were on fundamental matters: the meaning of republican government, the extent of national powers, the nature of the Union. Yet even when they disagreed on a substantive point, and when personal animosity made their divide wider than it had to be, their argument was usually less about the principle of a matter than about its practical meaning. Holloway points out that their “differences over republicanism, in the end, may have been less a difference over fundamental principles and more a difference in perceptions of republican government’s actual ability to secure rights.”
This is because beneath their disagreements was a profound agreement on the principles. They both understood republican government to be based on the natural rights with which each is equally endowed, a point evident in Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted as much as in Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration. While Jefferson was more optimistic, they generally shared the Founders’ view of human nature. Both men saw the dangers of centralized power and defended federalism and the separation of powers as the key constitutional structures. Although they accused each other of going outside of the Constitution, neither rejected the principles or the framework of American constitutionalism.
Jefferson was less nationalist than Hamilton and was concerned that national commerce would destroy local agrarianism, but he always remained a friend of the Union. Hamilton favored a strong government, but (as Holloway establishes in detail) did not believe that the general-welfare and necessary-and-proper clauses conferred unlimited power on government (and so he is not the proto-progressive that some claim). While they reach different conclusions about the practical limits of government power to achieve the proper ends of government, Hamilton in the end was not an advocate of unlimited federal power, nor was Jefferson’s Constitution so narrow as to cripple government from taking legitimate action in the public interest.
Holloway concludes that both were reasoning “within the context of a shared set of principles”: “The differences between Hamilton and Jefferson were deep, but they did not go all the way down.” Properly understood, their disagreements, as wide as they were, are narrow in comparison to the schism between the Founders and the later progressive political science that rejects outright the principles and forms of American constitutionalism. The bureaucratic despotism that threatens to overwhelm us today would be equally alien and equally abhorrent to Hamilton and Jefferson.
In the end, this book is an outstanding case study in statesmanship and a profound lesson in how to apply principles to practice. It was impossible for either one of them, as it is impossible for us, to be fully disinterested constitutionalists. They were surrounded by politics, as are we. Nevertheless, Hamilton and Jefferson were more than mere partisans. They displayed a “higher kind of partisanship,” argues Holloway, one that allowed “political considerations external to the Constitution to shape their interpretations of it, although they did so with a view to preserving the Constitution itself.” Would that we had such statesmen today, to serve — and save — the cause of constitutional self-government.
– Mr. Spalding is the associate vice president of Hillsdale College and the dean of education programs at its Kirby Center in Washington, D.C.