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Book Review: “Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Confrontations that Shaped a Nation” by Cunningham

Updated on August 7, 2017

The book Jefferson vs Hamilton” by Cunningham discusses the confrontations of two national figures and how those conflicts helped form the nation. Thomas Jefferson was a popular writer and a well-educated lawyer born in Virginia. He made his early mark in Virginia as a pro-America pamphleteer, as well as an established legislator. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, was born in West Indies, his parents were never officially married and left him with little inheritance. Hamilton became a soldier and rose to the ranks of prominence as an aide to General Washington. Eventually, he became a fully-fledged military commander during the Revolution. Both Jefferson and Hamilton contribute differently to the political thought that later shaped up the America as it is today. Jefferson was perceived to be the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, while Hamilton was the planner. Also, he was among the three brains that came up with the concept of the federations in the United States (Cunningham15).

The differing backgrounds of both men led to each having different visions for the nation that they eventually helped form. For instance, Jefferson claimed that “The future lies in an environment where decisions are made locally by the educated elite”. Hamilton, on the other hand, argues that “The nation harbors an expanding economic powerhouse that needs a strong central government in propelling its growth”. During the drafting of the constitution, Hamilton was for a system that gave the federal government more power. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a structure that gave power to the states and eventually to the citizens. The conflict of visions played out in both men’s carriers, case in point was at while the two were in George Washington’s cabinet, the battle continued to the of formation of the nation’s first political parties.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton came from diverse backgrounds to play a role in the formation the early American Republic. For instance, Hamilton was born to a prominent Scottish family on the island of Nevis in 1755; his mother was a wife to another man. His mother died when he was thirteen while his father left him when he was eleven. Jefferson on the other hand, was born into a very wealthy and influential family in Virginia 1743. He received his education that was in line with his social status. In their teens, Jefferson had plans to attend the College of William and Mary, Hamilton, on the other hand, held a clerk’s position at a financial office on Saint Croix. He later shifted to New York where he enrolled at King’s College. He was then appointed as an attorney of the New York Bar. A job he did after study time.

The American Revolution a definition moment for both of them in that it brought them together. However, their roles in the building of the young nation were different (36). For instance, Jefferson was among top advocators of the American cause, but unlike Hamilton, he fought the war using a pen. His writing was widely read in the 1770s, and it is for this same reason that he was tasked with the role of drafting the Declaration of Independence. He was elected governor of Virginia in 1779. Hamilton, on the other hand, received a commission as captain of an artillery company in 1776 the New York militia. Later he joined General George Washington as a member of his chief of staff. After the war was over, both men served in the Continental Congress. While at the Congress, Hamilton favoured a stronger central government while at the same time expressing his doubts about America’s readiness to self-governance during the constitutional convention. Jefferson supported the constitutional draft but expressed his disappointment in the lack of Bill of Rights in the draft. He says “The bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, particular or general, and what no just government should refuse ”.

Hamilton alongside other George Washington’s aides piled pressure on him to run for the presidency after the constitution was ratified by the states. Washington was elected as the first president of the Electoral College on February 4, 1789, unanimously. The constitution that was in place at that time was silent on the structure of government to follow. As a result, it took Washington several months for him to make administrative appointments: the secretaries of state, war, and treasury. Moreover, he appointed an attorney general though the appointee had no department to oversee. Washington appointed Hamilton to the treasury secretary position. Jefferson, on the other hand, was named a secretary of state in 1789 while returning home from Paris. Although the two seemed to differ in ideologies, philosophy, style politics and personality. There is a suggestion that the two had personal bonds. For instance, Hamilton’s sister was among Jefferson’s closest confidant during his visit to Paris.

During their early days in the cabinet, Hamilton and Jefferson found some common ground by pointing some of the most imperative issues that the nation faced: the country’s massive debt, both state and federal governments, they both agreed to come up with a government adoption that would see the federal government assume the states’ debts. While at the cabinet Jefferson was perceived as the fixer. For instance, he arranged for a meeting between James Madison (64), who was at that time the fiercest critic of Hamilton’s plan debt assumption. Speaking on the congressmen reluctance to oppose the Central Bank bill, He says, “Many in congress gave an acquiescing rather than an affirmative vote in order to avoid the poisonous tendencies of precedents of usurpation.”

As a result of this brokerage, political realignment was evident, for example, James Madison who was Hamilton’s closest ally shifted camps to Jefferson’s side with Hamilton as the common political foe. The two openly differed over the part federal government in monetary policy plays. At one point, President Washington urged them to together and end their fighting. They both wrote to the President pointing accusing fingers to the other. In his letter to the president, Jefferson says “ I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by a man whose history, can be compared to a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the nation which not only has it received and given him bread, but also heaped its honor on his head”

Hamilton successfully sought for the Congress approval of a central bank formation bill while addressing the Congress his speech reads in part “the central bank is an institution of primary importance to the prosperous administration of the Finances…”. Against Madison opposition who saw the idea as one way shifting the balance of power away from the predominately agrarian South to the Commercial bases of the north. Madison urged the president to use veto powers to block the bill. On his part, the president, sort advice from Jefferson who criticized the move as infringing on its constitutional mandate. His argument was though convenient, not necessary

“The degree in which a measure is necessary, can never be a test of the legal right to adopt it. ...The relation between the measure and the end, between the nature of the mean employed towards the execution of a power and the object of that power, must be the criterion of constitutionality not the more or less of necessity or utility".

Jefferson, however questions the constitutionality of the central Bank bill, he says, “It has been much urged that a bank will give great facility, or convenience in the collection of taxes. Suppose this were true: yet the constitution allows only the means which are ‘necessary’ not those which are merely ‘convenient’ for effecting enumerated powers."

Jefferson and Hamilton are credited for helping in the formation of a new nation. Moreover, they helped form political tradition which brought to life the nation’s civic life. The main difference between them was that they each had a different vision of what kind of government that would suit best the nation. They each dismissed the other person’s views and ideas with much passion as they cherished their own. For instance, Jefferson fears were that Hamilton’s ideas would undermine the constitution, by whipping out the federal government out of the constitution, as a result returning the nation to the British ways that were built on debt, influence, and corruption. In his defence, Jefferson argues that “For the government to all inclusive, it had to be as close to the people as possible”. To him, this meant that the government had to be decentralized and enabling the states to handle domestic issues. Hamilton on his part saw himself as free of local interests, prejudices, and a true advocate of the national interest. To him, only a stable government would successfully defend American interest effectively. He did not agree with Jefferson’s idea of allaying the rich with the government. According to him, “This would create a corrupt aristocracy and destroy liberty”.

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