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Jefferson vs. Hamilton Again, Thankfully

We need the good sense, and the political will, to ensure that Jefferson and Hamilton continue to thrive in the public arena. This will require comparable acts of statesmanship.
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In the Entrance Hall at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's museum of maps, Native American artifacts, and mounted animal horns, stood two busts, facing each other. One was of Jefferson and the other of Alexander Hamilton. As Jefferson put it, he placed them there so they could be "opposed in death as in life."

In our lives, the political differences that separated Hamilton and Jefferson still dominate. Jefferson, the plantation owner, spent the Revolution in Virginia. He believed an innate moral sense guides us into right action. Government's role is thus to secure basic rights and, at the national level, to do little else than assure our defense against foreign enemies, secure favorable treaties of commerce, and foster interstate connections (in his day - roads and canals). Jefferson believed in a "natural aristocracy" which would emerge based on talent and hard work not parentage. When he deviated from his belief in limited government, it was to purchase Louisiana. He questioned his own power to do so but knew the vast land would open the west to small farmers. In his ever-optimistic world-view, a nation of yeoman farmers, each able to support his own family, would ensure their political freedom. The "elective principle," by which the nation became more democratic the more offices in all branches of government were open to frequent election, was essential to what he celebrated as the "spirit of '76."

Hamilton, the New Yorker, spent the Revolution in the field as Washington's aide, acquiring a national perspective. He saw man at his worst and lacked Jefferson's confidence in human morality. Government's role was thus to ensure liberty through constraining human evil. He knew that a weak central government under the Articles of Confederation nearly lost the war because it could not raise funds to provision an army, and he saw its post-victory weakness make the fledgling United States a mockery among the nations of Europe. Hamilton was not bothered by aristocracy, seeing in it a guiding and stabilizing force amidst democratic excesses. A financial wizard (in contrast to Jefferson, who could not even manage his own debts), Hamilton believed that American strength depended on national wealth, which in turn required a strong central government able to raise funds, make loans, tie wealthy individuals to it, and foster manufacturing. When he erred, it was on the side of granting the national government too much power. He believed in representative government, shared a healthy skepticism of direct democracy, and thus looked to the more structured Constitution of '87 as the surest ground on which to build the republic.

For nearly 225 years, the nation has grappled with which of these men was right, finding, thankfully, that the answer is both of them. Jefferson's belief in the good sense of each person has fostered an expanding franchise, wide participation in public affairs, and a healthy distrust of centralized authority. His optimism pumps energy into the American Dream, the belief that hard work and an ever-opening frontier (once land, now opportunity) offer the best chance for happiness and political liberty. Hamilton's belief in the necessity of a strong central government and robust economic policy has fostered an expanding economy, whose wealth has offered successive generations the material comfort and economic freedom which have ensured the exercise of political rights that would be nearly impossible were we still a nation of independent farmers with little time (or money) for anything but subsistence. A stronger national government has restrained or eliminated our worst anti-republican tendencies (slavery) and protected us in a world far less benign than Jefferson imagined.

Though both philosophies shape how we govern ourselves, they have lived as uneasy, conjoined twins. Their advocates have engaged in heated (sometimes violent) argument, each seeking political power while belittling the other -- just as Hamilton and Jefferson did. Their political tango has made sure the pendulum did not swing too far in either direction. When Hamilton's Federalists enacted the Sedition Act, jailing political dissenters, Jefferson's Republicans took control of the government to reduce its power. When Jacksonian democracy opened up the offices of government to the often unruly "common man," reformers reined in the spoils with the merit system. When the robber barons concentrated wealth and worsened the lives of sweatshop millions, Teddy Roosevelt restored balance with legislation that launched the federal government's role in restraining monopolies.

Our national political dialogue still channels Jefferson and Hamilton. We argue about how to balance individual rights against the power of government, local needs and power against national ones, and how to trade off the needs of the worker with those of commercial and financial corporations. Social, economic, tax, energy, health care, and other policy debates are, quite often and at their core, Jefferson and Hamilton going at it again. The furor over the mandate for health care coverage is the most modern reincarnation of Hamilton vs. Jefferson.

America is a "both-and" not an "either-or" society. As long as both views have the power of healthy advocacy, we will probably get things right -- though "probably" does not mean on the first try or quickly.

The Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian factions must be managed in creative tension. Ultimate victory for either camp would diminish our personal and civic lives. Indeed, ensuring that the tension continues in a productive way ought to be an aim of public policy.

On the surface, the proliferation of outlets for public expression, the standard of living of most Americans, anger at political and economic elites and big government offer evidence that Jefferson can still speak in the public forum. On the surface, the strength of the national government, the commercial wealth of the United States, and our powerful industrial and financial sectors suggest that Hamilton's voice is also still being raised.

Despite their mutual animosity, Jefferson and Hamilton saw the need for each other. When Jefferson was tied with Aaron Burr in the Electoral College vote in 1801, it was Hamilton who urged his Federalist colleagues to cast their vote for Jefferson. He did not want the nation in the hands of the less scrupulous Burr. When Jefferson took office, he left Hamilton's Bank of the United States intact, wisely seeing its value to a growing republic, even though he had detested the idea when Hamilton proposed it to Washington. The two men did not end their political disputes, but they saw the value of compromise to protect the system that made those disputes possible. Statesmanship triumphed, sometimes where there was no other choice.

We need the good sense, and the political will, to ensure that Jefferson and Hamilton continue to thrive in the public arena. This will require comparable acts of statesmanship.

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