Hamilton vs. Jefferson (again for the ten millionth time)

Hamilton or Jefferson?

It’s like, Mantle or Mays? Beatles, or Elvis? Tastes great, or less filling? Peoples’ opinions on these sorts of binaries tend to be markers of tribal identification rather than derived from a serious consideration of the underlying choices. Not too much of consequence hangs on whether we think “That’s Alright Mama” or “Revolver” was more important, so we choose sides somewhat arbitrarily and get on with enjoying the debate. Hamilton vs Jefferson is a bit the same way.

Hamilton and Jefferson are often opposed because they articulated two diametrically opposed visions for what the political, social, and economic shape of this new nation they’d both helped to get off the ground should look like. (They also had a bitter personal rivalry that was partly, not entirely, fueled by their genuine ideological differences, but which adds to the drama of the whole thing.)

For a long time in American culture, there was really no contest: Jefferson had the upper hand, and Hamilton was not particularly revered except by a few ideological conservatives. This was for many reasons, but probably above all because of Lincoln’s embrace of Jefferson’s political legacy before and during the Civil War, his vision that the purpose of the war and the destiny of the American republic was to both fulfill and continue to extend the meaning of Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal.”

For many people, nowadays, on the other hand, Hamilton is the choice, while Jefferson’s historical reputation has been on a decades-long decline. One major reason for this has been the focus on slavery, including the revelation (or confirmation, really) of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and the fact that Hamilton was not a slaveholder. Another reason, I’d say, has been the turn towards a politics of neoliberalism, and the enormous victory of the pro-market forces of which Hamilton was our earliest and most eloquent champion. In the Age of Reagan, and even more so after the fall of the USSR, we are in the age of global capitalism’s triumph, and in American historical memory, that also means Hamilton’s triumph. (By the way, this relates to the fact that there really has been a lot of big business $$$ spent to burnish Hamilton’s legacy; for example, the yearlong NYHS exhibit on Hamilton underwritten largely by Goldman Sachs contributions.)

For myself, I must admit, I lean strongly towards Jefferson, slavery and all. Maybe this is because I find “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to be somewhat more stirring than “guys, we need to have an elected king, limit voting, and make sure there is a powerful aristocratic class.” (I’m paraphrasing that last one.) The real issue between Hamilton and Jefferson, the real debate, the one that was actually on the table at the time, was democracy: Jefferson favored it, Hamilton did not.

The constitution was a brake on democracy, in the eyes of most of its framers (though not as much of a brake on democracy as Hamilton would have liked). Jefferson was in France at the time, not participating in the drafting. He had his reservations about the final document, filled with compromises as it was, but then figured, OK, we can keep moving towards democracy under the parameters of this constitution, and that is pretty much what we have done ever since, becoming more democratic in the Jacksonian period when property requirements for voting were eliminated, more so with the Reconstruction Amendments, more so with the progressive movement and the 17th and 19th Amendments, and so on.

In doing so, we’ve extended the meaning of democracy far beyond Jefferson’s conception of it. But the point is that in the context of his time Jefferson was at the forefront of the movement in the direction of democracy — not only in his philosophy and writings, but in leading the political party that moved the US in that direction after 1800 and the demise of Federalism. Hamilton, by contrast, like fellow Federalists Adams, John Jay, Fisher Ames, et al, was explicitly opposed to the idea of democracy (“the people seldom judge or determine right,” he argued at the Convention) and led the movement in the opposite direction. And in this struggle the Jeffersonians won — all adults are equal under the law, all can vote, and though we may disagree constantly about what democracy is, how democratic the US is, and how to make it more democratic, we generally agree as a society that our nation should be democratic.

On the other hand, we also live in a robust capitalist economy that Hamilton would love, we have a strong central bank (insulated from democratic politics!) that Hamilton would love, and we have for the past several generations accepted a degree of wealth inequality that Hamilton would, if not love, then at least nod approvingly at. One of the things that makes the Hamiton-Jefferson debate so richly interesting to this day, I think, is the fact that it is not at all clear whether we are living in a Hamiltonian or a Jeffersonian nation — not at all clear, in other words, who won. (The Lincoln Republicans who embraced Jefferson’s egalitarianism also preferred Hamilton’s pro-business policies in many things.) Sometimes I think the USA is Jeffersonian in its aspirations — what we would like to be, think we ought to be — but Hamiltonian in what we actually are.

As far as assessing them personally, Hamilton and Jefferson were both very capable, intelligent, impressive people who were instrumental in the making of what has turned out to be a very successful nation. Without deifying them, I think, we should acknowledge that they are both worthy of great respect. They teach us in grad school that history should not be about personalities, and that it should not only look at the elite powerful figures of a given period. Good points! But if debate about these two really interesting men gets people interested in debating the important underlying issues — whether in the context of 1800, or of 2015 — then I say, let’s keep debating. (Just remember in the back of your mind that Goldman Sachs money, thumb pressing down on the scales in Hamilton’s favor …)