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The Rivals: Hamilton's Surprising Rise, and the Decline of Jefferson

The push-pull of their competing visions still fuels our politics, but we live in Hamilton's world, not Jefferson's.
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Democratic party activists look forward to Jefferson-Jackson dinners to get an early chance to evaluate candidates--except that this year, something is shifting. The Iowa Dems are ready to drop the Presidential names attached to the dinners, following the example of Georgia, Connecticut, and Missouri--with Maine and New Hampshire probably not far behind. Organizers are disquieted as both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-holders, though this is hardly a news flash. The stature of Jefferson is more controversial than it has ever been, not merely because he claimed to own men and women--so did the majority of Presidents until Lincoln, as well as all three candidates Lincoln defeated in l860.

We are especially roiled about Jefferson because he gave us the words that remain our birthright, words that continue to define, and sometimes provoke, us as a nation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal." That the father of the Democratic party, after more than two hundred years of adulation and honor, is being gently guided off the dinner podium, is astonishing.

At the same time, Jefferson's greatest rival, Alexander Hamilton, is having a good week for a man long overlooked among our Founding Fathers--on Thursday night, while many watched the Republican debate, the rap-flavored musical "Hamilton" opened on Broadway after rapturous praise propelled it from cult status. Despite the prospect of Hamilton being taken off the ten dollar bill (ironic, since no one ever did more to establish the soundness of our nation's finances), these are very good times for Jefferson's political enemy. The story of the orphaned St. Croix child born out of wedlock who rose to be Washington's closest aide, who helped guide the Constitution to passage, whose canny skill as first Secretary of the Treasury created our centralized Federal government, can now be seen every night on Broadway, hip-hop style.

The musical presents the outsider who played the ultimate insider game in our founding. When the writer and actor Lin Manuel Miranda was asked in 2009 to perform at the White House, he asked if, instead of a song from his musical, "In the Heights," he could do a rap number about Hamilton. He was inspired reading the 800 page best-selling biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. From that night's well received performance has come the unlikeliest of hit musicals. It isn't just shocking to see Founding Fathers acted by a largely black and Hispanic cast--it's also surprising that a compelling musical could possibly be drawn from the life of a man best known for his brilliant financial papers and bureaucratic in-fighting skills. Still, there are tragic depths in Hamilton's short life.

Hamilton and Jefferson first met (and quickly grew to distrust) one another when they arrived in New York in l790 to serve in Washington's first cabinet. They were both ambitious, charismatic, and astonishingly intelligent. They quickly understood that the administration would not have room for them both, that they had divergent and mutually exclusive visions of America. Hamilton was comfortable with a powerful President, a strong centralized federal government, a national army, and a National bank that shored up a growing urban manufacturing base. Jefferson favored a weak executive (at least until he became President, when he breathtakingly doubled the nation's size with the Louisiana Purchase), states rights, and most of all, a rural, agricultural populace protective of individual rights.

Hamilton was fervently abolitionist, wanting an end to slavery. Jefferson hated slavery as well, but never found a way to preserve his vision of America without slavery.

Jefferson conceived of himself as the guardian of individual liberty, of the inherent natural rights of all. He had tried to ban the slave trade in the first draft of the Declaration; proposed the banning of slavery in the western territories; and during his Presidency, oversaw the end of the importation of all African slaves. In the magisterial Notes from Virginia, he spoke to the world about the reality of the "Peculiar Institution:" that "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unrelenting despotism..."

These words, from a Virginian slaveholder, were startling: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." To his dying day, Jefferson maintained a desire to see slavery eliminated. Though he never found a means to end it, nor devised any practical political means to effect emancipation, his distaste and distress never left him. Late in life, he bitterly concluded, "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one side, and self-preservation on the other."

He never found a way to subdue the wolf, and by the time he died in 1826, he had over the years owned over 600 enslaved people, selling eighty-five of them. This strikes many of us today as, at best, hypocritical, and the fact that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings has had a drastic effect on how he is seen today. In a recent collection for fellow historians sponsored by the American Historical Association, Woody Holten states bluntly, "Thomas Jefferson's stock has lost considerable value."

Back in 1960, admiring Jefferson scholar Merrill Peterson could say, without too much unease, that his man was "a sensitive reflector... of America's troubled search for an image of itself." Just how troubled that search has became is handily reflected in a recent University of Virginia colloquium where its organizer observed ruefully that not only had Jefferson taken a "historical beating," but that many scholars wondered not only if he should be toppled from the American pantheon but, "if it were possible, for him to be cleaved from Mount Rushmore."

When Langston Hughes wrote the poem, Let America be America Again, he was surely invoking the disturbing power of Jefferson's vision: "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed...Equality is in the air we breathe." Jefferson's words retain their revolutionary potential. The problem is, Hamilton lived them and Jefferson did not.

Jefferson's high water mark in American life was surely in the mid-20th century: the confluence of the Jefferson nickel (1938), his visage on Mt. Rushmore (1941), and the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial by FDR (1943). He looked secure, admired and respected. Hamilton, who never reached the Presidency and died at 49 in an l804 duel with Aaron Burr, had none of these historical honors offered to his memory.

He was usually dismissed as an apologist for an aristocratic America, while Jefferson was the patron saint of democracy (though Theodore Roosevelt did call Hamilton "the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived."). In the end, there is the inescapable truth that Hamilton's vision of America is ever-present and all around us.

The push-pull of their competing visions still fuels our politics, but we live in Hamilton's world, not Jefferson's.