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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: vs. Alexander Hamilton

On 23 November 1789, Jefferson and his family arrived in Norfolk, Virginia to find a rather unexpected letter. By then the United States had changed considerably. The Constitution had been ratified, and George Washington, elected the first president of the United States by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College, was putting together his new national government. Jefferson thought he would come home for a few months, at most—just enough time to settle his daughters and put affairs at Monticello back in order before returning to France to serve American interest. A revolution had just broken out there that he believed had great promise for spreading the ideals of the American Revolution throughout Europe, and it required his continued attentions. But when he arrived in Norfolk, he found waiting for him an offer he could not refuse: a note from George Washington informing him that he had been named and confirmed as the first secretary of state. According to the historian Joseph Ellis, there was only one inviolable rule in early American politics: thou shalt not cross George Washington. Jefferson accepted the post and moved to New York City, the temporary capital of the new republic, on 21 March 1790.

It was not a good time to be the secretary of state. That revolution in France was quickly becoming The French Revolution, and it dominated Europe's diplomatic concerns. Jefferson's foreign policy agenda languished unfulfilled. Still, his service as secretary of state was the most consequential so far in his life. Even though his foreign policy objectives went unaddressed, as secretary of state he served in Washington's cabinet, and so participated in all policy discussions, foreign and domestic. It was the perfect space in which to air his new ideas about democracy. He thought he might have a chance to shape government policy. He couldn't have realized that he would instead shape what is usually considered the most important conflict in American politics. Ever.

You can blame Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was Washington's secretary of the treasury, and was as unlike Jefferson as you could get. Jefferson was well-born, Hamilton was a bastard—literally. Jefferson was measured and graceful, Hamilton was impulsive and insecure. Jefferson preferred farms and rural life. Hamilton lived for New York City. But the fight between Hamilton and Jefferson was less about personalities than competing visions of government. We've already seen that Jefferson imagined a government that was strong and centralized on foreign policy, but was as hands-off and restrained as it could be on domestic matters. He was inherently suspicious of anything that compromised individual self-sufficiency (just look at how he felt about cities!) and was positively horrified at the thought of Americans depending on their government. A citizenry dependent on the government couldn't be independent. Such a turn of events would mean that the collectivity had become the basic unit of society. It would mean that the government had compromised individual private life. This was precisely what Hamilton believed should happen, and he hoped to use the United States Treasury to make his vision reality. Hamilton believed the government should play a strong role in individuals' lives; that the collective, consolidated national identity should be primary. By issuing huge amounts of debt, he hoped to involve the Treasury in the day-to-day operations of the economy, and so give the government a certain purchase over citizen's private lives.

The two contrasting visions of government of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton betrayed two different understandings of American power and the American people. For Hamilton, America's strength lay in its commerce. Hamilton's America was an America of businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers and financiers. The government needed to help these people compete in a global marketplace. And only the national government could do that. Hamilton was suspicious of state governments, beholden as they were to narrow local interests.

While Jefferson shared Hamilton's admiration for America's commercial might—he had just come back from a stint in Europe negotiating free-trade treaties—he profoundly disagreed with Hamilton about the basic make-up of the American people. Hamilton's financiers, Jefferson claimed, were parasitic commercial elites, dependent for their success on the virtuous labor of independent yeoman farmers. The government, Jefferson believed, had no responsibility to help them. If the government was going to help anyone, it should be helping those farmers on whom the commercialists preyed. And the best way to help those farmers, Jefferson argued, was to leave real power close to them, in their state governments, and keep the federal government out of their way. His fight with Hamilton was, at least as Jefferson saw it, a disagreement about who should rule in the name of the people: Hamilton said the few, and Jefferson said the many.

Although Jefferson and Hamilton managed to work together reasonably well at first, their relations became fraught as Washington's presidency dragged on. By February 1791, the two were locked in an outright struggle, waging a newspaper war by proxy. Jefferson hated conflict, and often thought of resigning, but he hated Hamilton more, and so refused to give him the satisfaction. Sometime in 1793, the conflict just got to be too much for Jefferson. Maybe he decided he would win this fight through other means than debate within Washington's cabinet. On 5 January 1794, the president accepted Jefferson's resignation as secretary of state, and Jefferson set off at once for Monticello. Just as he had done when he finished his term as Virginia governor, he claimed to all who would listen that he was truly retiring from public life, that this time he was moving home for good. Just as before, none of his friends believed him. If Jefferson had been more honest with himself, he wouldn't have believed himself either.

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