Note: Check out this post for what is going on this month on this very blog!
As a person present at the founding of our nation, it should be expected that Alexander Hamilton crossed paths with all the names and faces we know and remember. George Washington. John Adams. James Madison. Even Benedict Arnold makes an appearance close to Hamilton during the Revolution and around the time he became probably the most famous traitor in history.
But no man – even including the man that eventually murdered him in a duel – was more anti-Hamilton than our third president Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson is revered in this country for the things he did before and during his presidency. He wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was our first Secretary of State. While president, the Louisiana Purchase greatly increased the size of our fledgling nation, allowing westward expansion (but also the murder and displacement of our Native people). He founded the University of Virginia. He even died, symbolically, on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, hours before BFF and also former president/Founding Father John Adams.
But that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. Thomas Jefferson has lost a bit of luster over the past few years, though he is still generally regarded as being in the Top 5 all-time. I ranked him 10th in my own presidential ranking for some of the reasons I’ll get into here, though my sister Jen – President of the Thomas Jefferson is the Worst President Ever and Why Do People Think He’s So Great? Club – still thought I was being a little nice to him there.*
*I will note, we’ve had our fair share of terrible and average presidents, so it’s kind of hard to move him much lower without judging his terribleness as a person and not as a president.
But man did Thomas Jefferson really dislike Alexander Hamilton.
Granted, this is all based on the Alexander Hamilton biography I am currently reading, so it is only from the perspective of Hamilton (or at least his biographer Chernow), but everything else I have read about Jefferson kind of points in the same direction. Maybe I’ll relook Jefferson when I get around to reading a biography in about 4.8 years (based on my current reading pace and other books that I want to read first), but we’ll see.
It all starts with Virginia, much like it did for Madison. Jefferson was born in Virginia. He was a colonial governor in Virginia. He served in the House of Delegates in Virginia. He owned a large plantation in Virginia. Dude loved Virginia, and I don’t blame him, because Virginia is mostly cool. But in the early days of our country, while Hamilton was trying to forge our nation into something more than just a collection of states, Jefferson and Madison, among others, were trying to keep the bulk of the power in the states’ hands. There was a definite divide in our country between the northern and southern states (imagine that!) over the appropriate way forward (*cough* slavery *cough*).
Hamilton had huge dreams of strong national credit, a robust banking system (including the U.S. Mint), and even some prescient ideas on the future of U.S. manufacturing. Jefferson and his ilk believed that the future of the nation was as an agrarian one, built on the back of agriculture and not monied interest from the north. Personal biases aside – and both Hamilton and Jefferson shouldn’t be faulted for fighting for their particular side of things here – Jefferson was a huge hypocrite when it came to some of his complaints about Hamilton’s view on things.
When Jefferson was Minister to France during the Revolution, he lived a pretty libertine existence in the capital of our greatest ally. He didn’t have his debt-ridden plantation to manage, so he became enticed by all the finer things in life, living in the city and partaking in many of the trappings of urban life that he would later denigrate Hamilton for. Upon his return from this experience, he played the part of an agrarian and blamed Hamilton for all the excesses and speculation of the new financial classes.
Hamilton may have been partly to blame for this derision; when important financial situations arised, he defaulted to relying on people from the north, not really involving even some of the wealthier southerners in his various committees. He also expanded his power while Secretary of the Treasury, growing a huge executive department that dwarfed the size of the rest of the Executive Branch, and often stepped into Jefferson’s realm as Secretary of State. This didn’t help their rivalry any, especially since Jefferson was a little older and felt that he may have been “entitled” to the presidency after his drafting of the Declaration of Independence and his earlier service to the country.
There may have been some racism at play here too. Jefferson was a noted slave owner, most likely had a secret family with one of his slaves, and just generally viewed Hamilton as an outsider due to his birth and upbringing outside of the United States. This could have been simple jealousy, as the younger Hamilton had seemingly surpassed Jefferson relatively quickly in influence to the young nation. But racism was also a part of Hamilton’s life pretty much from the day he arrived in New York.
Though it is only based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, there are various parts of the Hamilton musical that reflect this – including some lines from the workshop version of “Washington on Your Side”, which includes rumors of Hamilton’s multi-ethnic background and the faulty claim of being George Washington’s illegitimate son – and Hamilton seems to have experienced some level of racism due to his background according to the Chernow biography. The fact that the manifestation of this jealousy was borne out in racially-based tones further illustrate that even a man of Hamilton’s success and stature was not exempt from the racism of his day.
He was also directly responsible for the political division in our country as a leading voice of the “anti-federalist” Democratic-Republicans. This was borne out of his near constant opposition to Hamilton and his fight for federal power. Despite George Washington warning otherwise as he departed the office of the president, Jefferson (and others) embraced partisanship, and helped to usher in two decades of Jeffersonian Democracy. Like Madison, Jefferson eventually accepted that Hamilton had done good for the country, though he didn’t really acknowledge this until long after Hamilton had died.
Jefferson was his own man, and had some level of success long before Hamilton showed up on the national stage. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he almost over-corrected after Hamilton had seemingly set America on a path to being a strong “liberal capitalist economy.” Meanwhile, Jefferson was saying all the right words about “life, liberty, and the pursit of happiness” and that “all men are created equal” while owning hundreds of slaves. Hamilton saw the effects of the slave trade growing up in the West Indies, and was always an avowed abolitionist.
Both men had flaws, but only one of them was on the right side of history regarding slavery. They won’t be carving Hamilton onto Mount Rushmore anytime soon – or removing Jefferson for that matter – but Hamilton at least seemed to be unflinchingly honest throughout his abbreviated life, while Jefferson may have been our nation’s first flip flopper.
Until next time…