Re-Remembering Hamilton and Jefferson

Many commonly celebrate optimistic innovation as a source of historical progress. In this narrative, tradition hinders inevitable enlightenment. Such a view can distort our own historical memory, however.

Basking in the triumph of the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson overshadowed his federalist rivals. The quintessential optimist, Jefferson seemed to personify hope. In today’s popular imagination, he symbolizes the spirit of democracy, an enlightened statesman who epitomizes a confidence in the popular will.

This view overlooks Jefferson’s greatest rival, Alexander Hamilton. While both stood for the principles of the American Revolution, Hamilton represented a different cast of mind than Jefferson. If Jefferson stood for hope, Hamilton stood for memory. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton possessed serious reservations about human nature and sobering perceptions of history. Hamilton’s perspective played a key role in establishing American constitutionalism and solidifying the triumphs of the American Revolution.

The Wisdom of Experience

One of the central tensions between Hamilton and Jefferson was the question of experience. Jefferson was infatuated with innovation in the pursuit of liberty. In contrast, Hamilton emphasized experience. Throughout his career, Hamilton saw history demonstrating truths about human nature. Where others saw sociability and innate goodness, Hamilton saw ambition. Hamilton asserted that all men love power and that democracy could not eradicate ambition. Consequently, the Constitution would have to account for the human lust for power.

History demonstrated the consequences of ignoring human vices. In a characteristic comment in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton eloquently expressed his anxieties about history repeating itself. Referring to prior republics, Hamilton declared,

If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliant, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should prevent the direction and transit the luster of those bright talents and exalted endowment for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.

The historical record spoke of the perils that the United States would face if it did not adopt a robust constitution. Experience demonstrated how republican institutions required vigor in order to prevent anarchy and despotism.

The vices of government Hamilton lamented were not confined to the pages of ancient history. In 1787, Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, had risen up against the Massachusetts state government, preventing courts from collecting debts. The subsequent crisis led Hamilton to call for the Constitutional Convention. Yet, the ratification of the Constitution proved insufficient as rebellion continued to emerge. In 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion arose as Pennsylvania farmers took up arms against the federal government. The farmers kidnapped a federal marshal and torched a tax collector’s property, including his crops. Shortly thereafter, the rebels conspired to attack a federal arsenal. The specters of anarchy were not simply theoretical, but a tangible threat. Against this backdrop, Hamilton stood as a pillar of order and memory.

Law & Order

Despite his anxieties, Hamilton’s mind was innovative. While he continued to hold to a pessimistic view of human nature and emphasized experience over speculation, Hamilton believed he was living in an era equipped with a new science of politics. In shaping American institutions, the new science of politics was guided by the memories of the past while steering a course towards a shining future. As a practitioner of this new science, Hamilton was energetic in shaping American constitutionalism. Hamilton’s greatest legacy is dedication to law and order.

While it is tempting to see Hamilton’s fixation with order as evidence of reactionary tendencies, Hamilton consistently stood for the rule of law as a bulwark against anarchy. As a young revolutionary in New York, Hamilton protected loyalists from patriot violence, risking his own safety and reputation. In one memorable incident, Hamilton urged a patriot mob that they would disgrace the cause of liberty by harming Myles Cooper, a Tory college president. Hamilton’s actions likely saved Cooper’s life. Even at a young age, Hamilton perceived the dangers of revolutionary disorder. After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton represented loyalist clients, preventing them from having their property confiscated. Hamilton’s willingness to defend loyalists proved controversial. He would be tainted with the allegation that he was an Anglophile throughout his political life. He understood, however, that law was necessary to protect self-government.

Notably, Hamilton forcefully argued that an independent judiciary was a key component of the Constitution. Contrary to Jefferson’s assertions that courts represented a threat to democracy, Hamilton recognized that they presented a guard against legislative encroachments. Prefiguring Marbury v. Madison, Hamilton asserted that laws repugnant to the Constitution were void. After his death, the Marshall court would vindicate Hamilton’s principles from the bench. Marshall stands as the nation’s preeminent jurist defending the supremacy of the federal governments and establishing judicial review. It is a testament to Hamilton’s legacy that the courts now represent a coequal branch of the federal government, capable of resisting presidential and congressional abuses of power. Hamilton deeply understood the necessity of law in securing the blessings of liberty.

Jefferson’s vision lacked this central truth. He seemed painfully naive about the threats mobs posed to the public order. To him, the tree of liberty required the blood of tyrants and patriots. While his more sober colleagues trembled as Shay’s rebels sent Massachusetts into turmoil, Jefferson believed rebellions would reinvigorate the national spirit. This proved to be a consistent weakness throughout his career. When the French Revolution emerged, Jefferson was ecstatic to the detriment of his own judgment. His visions become apocalyptic as he proclaimed he would be willing to see the earth depopulated if it meant the remaining humans could live in liberty. The hopes of a better world that animated Jefferson blinded him to the possibilities of anarchy. In contrast, Hamilton was more restrained, sensing the dangers present in the situation.

Memory Guiding Hope

The distinction between the American and French revolutionary experiences are documented and well-known. While Americans confronted unrest, there was no American parallel to the Reign of Terror or the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the case of France, the tree of liberty was well-watered with blood. Its revolution concluded, however, with an emperor restoring order, not a republic. Without resorting to the Great Man Theory of history, Hamilton’s arguments surely played a role in preventing such a tragic series of events. Hamilton’s sober wisdom may not be as inspiring as the Jeffersonian creed of liberty. Nevertheless, the French Revolution demonstrates that without a decent regard to order, liberty will be extinguished. Thus, memory must guide hope if hope is to survive.

Controversies surrounding the founding fathers are well-worn territory. Jefferson and Hamilton each have their admirers and detractors. Jefferson seems to have prevailed in the popular imagination. His vision of liberty continues to captivate Americans. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s philosophy of order and memory has preserved the union. Hamilton’s memory tempered Americans’ revolutionary fervor, demonstrating the strengths of the party of memory. Emerging victorious in 1800, Jefferson acknowledged a difference of opinion need not be understood as a difference in principle in his inaugural. Whether we are drawn more to memory or hope, let us adopt a similar spirit.

Author: Tymon Zhou

Tymon Zhou attends the Elon University School of Law, having graduated with a political science major from Brigham Young University. He enjoys reading and playing piano in his spare time. He writes to explore and refine his thinking.

One Reply to “Re-Remembering Hamilton and Jefferson”

  1. Superb analysis and well written. As a retired AP US History teacher, I simply must mention a small error that got by you. Sorry for nitpicking. Near the middle of the essay you wrote “Shay’s” when it should have been either Shays’s. Nevertheless, your grasp of Hamilton is excellent.

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