No one man could be said to have set the stage for the last 230 years of American politics. But retired University of West Georgia history professor John Ferling uses his latest book to make the case that the rivalry between two key American founders had impacts that continue to shape American political debates today.
A word of caution about Jefferson And Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation — Ferling clearly prefers the third president to the first Treasury secretary. Because the author’s politics lean left (as evidenced by occasional asides such as a quote from “extremely conservative” U.S. Sen. John McCain), he occasionally goes overboard in ascribing to Jefferson attitudes and outlooks that would please a modern-day political liberal, while describing as Hamiltonian those ideas that would tend to make a self-described progressive shudder.
Still, Ferling shines a helpful spotlight on an important debate in early American political philosophy, and his narrative skill helps produce a good read.
George Washington was the one who made things happen, but while he was the prime mover in Revolutionary America, it was Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, more than any others, who shaped the new American nation. The strong central government, our system of finance, and the industrial vigor of the United States are Hamilton’s legacy. America’s bedrock belief in equality, its quest for novelty, and the continental span of the nation were bequeathed to succeeding generations by Jefferson.
Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s contrasting views on the shape of the new American republic — its government, society, and economy — sparked a bitter rivalry. Furthermore, the ideas and issues that divided those two Founders have persisted from generation to generation in American politics. Their opposing views are like the twin strands of DNA in the American body politic. In the nineteenth century, partisans clashed over banks, tariffs, the money supply, and workers’ rights, among other things. In subsequent generations, political parties have battled over issues such as regulation of trade, the distribution of wealth and power, and government’s role in health care. Always, however, the divisions in these battles stretch back to the fundamental differences that separated Jefferson and Hamilton: faith in democracy, commitment to civil liberties, trust in the wholesomeness of market forces, the availability of individual opportunities and security, toleration of dissent, the scope of the military, and above all, the depth and breadth of government intrusiveness.