Across the Great Divide: John Ferling on Jefferson and Hamilton

Wall Street financial brokers develop both record fortunes and contempt for the working class.  A perceived cultural rift between country and city gestates. Bitter, factional missives flood the media, and the social contract proposing that citizens share in the responsibility for achieving "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" hangs in the balance.  American politics have never been more hostile, duplicitous, or polarized.  Sound familiar?  Such was the climate of the newly independent United States of the late eighteenth century, as found in John Ferling's vivid new work of history, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation.

 

The hotly contested future of our suddenly sovereign nation was the product of dueling visions.  On one side stood the Federalists, champions of a strong military, big banks, obedience to the state, partisan journalism, and the retention of power by elites. Alexander Hamilton, a West Indies–born career soldier who maneuvered his way into the cabinets of George Washington and John Adams with cunning political savvy, was their spokesman.  Orphaned and forced into labor as a clerk early in adolescence, Hamilton’s life is at once a self-made immigrant success story, and a Shakespearean tragedy in the making: a man of hubris whose shady dealings, impetuous temper, and pursuit of respect at all costs led him to a fateful 1804 duel with rival Aaron Burr, then vice president under Thomas Jefferson.

 

With poetics and tenacious scholarship, Ferling presents Jefferson as Hamilton's civic rival, the spiritual leader of the early, progressive Republican Party, and American democracy's great visionary.  From his drafting of the Declaration of Independence to his ascent to the presidency in 1800, Jefferson emerges as a model populist and brilliant communicator.  Yet for all of his prowess with a pen and supposed empathy toward the common man, history has proven Jefferson complex in his prejudices toward African Americans, his owning of slaves to maintain his inherited wealth, and secret fostering of children with his slave Sally Hemings.  Ferling explores the dissonances in the characters of both men, bringing them to life as wavering, fallible, yet finally exceptional in their desire to create a new society in their own image.

 

In conversation via email, John Ferling graciously took the time to further illuminate his own zeal for America's infancy, unravel the nuances of Jefferson and Hamilton's beliefs, and share his ideas on what the lessons of their volatile era can teach us about our own. --Nick Curley

 

The Barnes & Noble Review: To begin at the beginning: you're a longtime historian of the Revolution, but what drew you in particular to Jefferson, Hamilton, and their disparate views of how America should be founded?

 

John Ferling: Aside from finding both Jefferson and Hamilton to be intriguing individuals, I wanted to look at the ideas of each man, to see what formed and shaped those ideas, and to see if there was more to their clash of ideas than the often told story of differences over a national debt and national bank.  I concluded that at bottom the real battle between the two was over their view of the American Revolution.  For Hamilton, the Revolution was largely a matter of American independence followed by making America strong enough to expand and to defend itself against Europe’s predatory powers.  For Jefferson, the Revolution was about political and social reform, launching what Thomas Paine called the “birthday of a new world.” Hamiltonianism, in Jefferson’s view, would concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, creating a plutocracy that governed America. In short, Hamiltonianism would preserve the America that had existed before 1776 and dash Jefferson’s hopes for an American Revolution that ushered in great changes.      

 

BNR: You eloquently begin the book by stating that both Jefferson and Hamilton had "unhappy youths." Jefferson is a rich kid from a cold, distant family who aspires to be a self-made man.  Hamilton recognizes himself as "vain and immodest" from an early age ("never short on chutzpah," as you later describe him).  His dark childhood - where as a poor, semi-orphaned boy he becomes a full-time clerk – contributes to his cynical view of humanity and makes him "above all designing."  What did early "unhappiness" grant or cost these two men later in life?

 

JF: Hamilton’s youth – so wretched that Dickens would have been hard pressed to equal it in one of his novels – drove Hamilton to lust for recognition, glory, and respect.  While he attained all three during the Revolutionary War, he remained hypersensitive to any sign of disrespect, fearing the loss of all that he had sacrificed to gain.  In the end, Hamilton so feared his loss of standing that he permitted himself to be trapped into a needless and ultimately fatal duel with Aaron Burr. As for Jefferson, he found the love that he believed he had been denied as a youngster when he met and married Martha Wayles Skelton. If he is to be believed, and I think he should be, it was a profoundly blissful marriage, though it was cut short by Martha’s demise in 1782. Had she lived, I think it likely that Jefferson would never have returned to politics, but would have been content to remain at Monticello and occasionally publish a reflective essay.  

 

BNR: As a young man Hamilton develops a lifelong obsession with glory, which he believes will emerge from achieving a high rank as an army leader.  He explicitly declares, "I wish there were a war", and he's granted one via the Revolution, where he begs General Washington for his own independent command.  But while he sought danger on the field of battle, you also write that "As Hamilton had no family, he never left the army" during wartime, suggesting military service offered camaraderie, security, and a sense of home.  What was it about the army that initially drew Hamilton to it, and what did service instill in him?

 

JF: For Hamilton and his fellow aides, headquarters was a social center in that the wives and daughters of the field grade officers were drawn to camp during the winter months, but it was also a vibrant center for ideas, a place where political and business leaders came, where the woes of the nation and the army were discussed and debated.  Not only was the army a school of sorts for Hamilton, it was the perfect place for a young man on the make to meet influential people who might someday be of assistance.  

 

BNR: Throughout we see Hamilton as an Anglophile who admired the British court so greatly that he strived to make America a monarchy, and attempted to manipulate foreign policy throughout the administrations of George Washington and John Adams in order to appease the British.  What are we to make of the contradictions inherent in having a committed monarchist as one of the architects of our democracy, and why did Hamilton so revere the Crown?

 

JF: Hamilton never advocated democracy, and in fact in the last letter he wrote before his duel with Burr he said “our real Disease is DEMOCRACY,” which he called a poison. He denied that he was a monarchist and Washington did his best to shield Hamilton from the charges that he sought to reinstitute monarchy in America, but in a secret speech at the Constitutional Convention Hamilton acknowledged his monarchist bent and proposed an upper house of Congress that closely resembled Britain’s House of Lords. Hamilton was a clever politician. Like every politician, he was forced to accept things that he disliked, but I think he was gambling that in the long run the trends he covertly set in motion through his economic plan would result in an American political system along the lines that he favored.  

 

BNR: Readers may be surprised by letters which both Jefferson and Hamilton wrote to other men.  Hamilton's letters to his friend Colonel Laurens suggest a passionate romance, even if it was unrequited.  Jefferson wrote a curious letter in which he professed a desire to build a home in which he would live with his college friend John Page and youthful crush Rebecca Burwell.  How would you characterize these relationships, which might appear unconventional to our eyes?

 

JF: While single and in the army, Hamilton wrote letters to Colonel John Laurens that were sated with homoerotic overtones.  While young and single, Jefferson appeared to propose to his close friend John Page a ménage a trois with Page and Page’s wife. The incidents occurred when both were lonely and in times of considerable tension, Hamilton caught up in war, Jefferson struggling with his studies and an uncertain future. Not much else is known of these incidents or of the sex life – if there was one – of either young man. 

 

BNR: Much modern study of Jefferson tries to diagnose his cognitive dissonance toward slavery.  He was an abolitionist who ended the slave trade in Virginia, sought to end it in the burgeoning western states, and had at least one child with his slave Sally Hemings.  Yet he acknowledged his own "deep-rooted prejudices," beliefs about African-American inferiority which you write "would have passed for orthodoxy among whites a century earlier in pre-Enlightenment Virginia."  Hamilton, in contrast, has comparatively progressive views of race, inspired by Enlightenment perspectives on the matter.  How did these two men arrive at such different valuations of African-American people and prosperity?

 

JF: Both were raised in families that owned slaves. Hamilton’s mother owned five slaves, Jefferson’s father, a Virginia planter, owned scores of slaves. While the Enlightenment had an enormous impact on Jefferson, leading him to question nearly everything, he appeared to accept without question the racist stereotypes that were fashionable at that time in Virginia. Why this was true is one of the many mysteries about Jefferson that remain unfathomable. That said, I concluded that Jefferson nevertheless genuinely opposed slavery as a young man and hoped for its gradual eradication. However, once he found himself deeply in debt in the 1780s, he concluded that his slaves offered his only hope of making sufficient money to escape his crippling indebtedness. Furthermore, the ghastly slaughters that accompanied the slave insurrections in Santo Domingo in the 1790s stayed Jefferson’s hand, as he feared that even lip service to emancipation might trigger bloody slave insurrections in Virginia.

 

Hamilton, on the other hand, lived and studied in New York City and was a friend and political ally with important New York abolitionists. His views on slavery before coming to New York from the West Indies around 1772 are unknown, but after moving to the mainland colonies his views in all likelihood were influenced by his environment and friends.      

 

BNR: We see life through the eyes of great and often majestic men here, but do you have insight into how Americans of ordinary means thought of Jefferson and Hamilton?  What did average Joes and Janes of the day know about their Founding Fathers, and what did they wish to know?

 

JF: So few comments by “ordinary” Americans have survived that it is impossible to know what they felt about either Hamilton or Jefferson. After leaving Washington’s cabinet, Hamilton said on occasion that he was unpopular, though it isn’t clear whether he speaking of a lack of popularity with politicos or the general public. He made enemies as Treasury secretary and there can be no doubt that many in the backcountry blamed him, and hated him, for the Washington administration’s decision to send an army into western Pennsylvania to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. On the other hand, workers in New York supported Hamilton’s party, the Federalist Party, until about 1796 when they appear to have concluded that Hamiltoniansim offered little for them. Jefferson was feared in some circles for his alleged atheism, but outside of New England he was a popular president early in the nineteenth century. 

 

BNR: Just as the tide is turning against the Federalists and in favor of working class Republican values, Hamilton presents as stark and simple a case for conservatism among the elite as I've ever read.  He explicitly believes that the wealthy are superior to the working class, presumably justified by a belief that America is a pure meritocracy.  He states that wealthy people are born at the top and thus have no personal incentive to seek change, or help those less fortunate, while working class citizens live turbulent lives and thus have every reason to want reform.  Why do you feel that Hamiltonian Federalists had such contempt for the poor, and can that resentment teach us something about our own growing wealth disparity between financial classes?

 

JF: The Ultra Federalists, the most conservative wing of the party, shared the outlook of the English elite, never known in that age for benevolent feelings toward the masses. For that matter, their outlook was not strikingly different from that of the elite in colonial America, and in many respects the Federalists – as Jefferson charged – wished to reinstate as much as possible of the political and social practices of the colonial era. Some of their outlook may be characteristic of ultra conservatives of any age, including our own.  For instance, General Washington, who was conservative in his political and social views, worked tirelessly for pay raises and lifetime pensions for his Continental army officers, men who were mostly drawn from the more affluent classes. However, when it was proposed to him that he should urge Congress to subsidize the wives and children of his enlisted men, Washington refused, saying that government assistance “would be robbing the public and encouraging idleness.” It was an outlook with which nearly every Federalist in the 1790s would have agreed, and it would almost certainly resonate in conservative circles today.     

 

BNR: By the third act of the book, Hamilton is coming off as a real heel: lying outright to President Washington and fellow cabinet members out of self-preservation and selfishness (a trait he purports to loathe in the anti-nationalist Republicans), cheating on his wife, and betraying John Adams and anyone else who he decides has become disloyal to mercurial Federalist causes.  In spite of his faults, is Hamilton a sympathetic figure in your eyes?  Were there qualities in Hamilton that you came to admire over the course of your research?  

 

JF: I admired Hamilton for his military service. While officers quit the Continental Army in droves, Hamilton soldiered for nearly seven years and came under fire in several major engagements, always displaying incredible courage. He was clearly a formidably bright individual. Washington had more than two dozen aides during the war, but it was Hamilton that he admired most, calling him the one indispensable man among them. Hamilton wrote most of the Federalist essays and in a very brief period. He played a pivotal role in bringing about the Constitutional Convention and securing the Constitution’s ratification in New York. He was one of the first to not only understand the causes of the economic collapse during the war, but to see a way out of the economic woes that afflicted the nation. His was a string of breathtaking achievements.

 

But after the mid-1790s, Hamilton seemed to lose his bearings, possibly because Washington was no longer present to keep him under control. More likely, he saw the swelling conservative radicalism of the time as a favorable moment for rolling the dice to achieve his dream of becoming the George Washington for the early nineteenth century. While I admired much about Hamilton down to, say, 1794, I thought him an increasingly dangerous, possibly even unhinged individual thereafter.    

 

BNR: Jefferson calls the pursuit of freedom from religion and separation of church and state to be "the severest contest in which I've ever been engaged."  Writing his own gravestone's epitaph, he chose to note three achievements, one of which was authoring Virginia's "Statute for Religious Freedom."  While he seems to have believed in an afterlife of sorts, do you consider Jefferson to be an atheist, agnostic, or opponent of Christianity?  

 

JF: The charge that Jefferson was an atheist was a politically inspired falsehood. He did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and like many in the Age of the Enlightenment he loathed the clergy, but he appears to have believed in a Creator and in an afterlife in which loved ones would be reunited. While there may have been shades of difference, Jefferson’s religious views were not substantially different from those of Franklin, John Adams, and Washington.  Hamilton worshipped in an Episcopal church, probably out of deference to his wife, though he did not take Communion. However, when he was dying, Hamilton asked for Communion. Jefferson never made such a request.  

 

BNR: It's tempting to apply Jefferson's gaze to modern government.  In your preface, for instance, you cite Bill Clinton's statement that Jefferson would be appalled to hear that all Americans did not have access to healthcare.  Yet you write that today we live in Hamilton's vision of America more so than Jefferson's, which certainly seems true in our development of cities, a standing military, and an all-important financial sector.  Jefferson for instance feared that creating Hamilton's national bank would lead to the funneling of largesses and bribes to politicians.  Was he correct, and is the influence of money on Washington the reason for our Hamiltonian state?

 

JF: Jefferson won the election of 1800, the Federalist Party soon collapsed, and the “birthday of a new world” that Jefferson and Paine coveted was ushered in during the first portion of the nineteenth century. In fact, many of the progressive changes throughout the past two hundred years can be traced back to the Revolution and to Jefferson’s philosophy. For instance, when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, his dream was that African Americans would share in the equality and natural rights that Jefferson had spoken of in the Declaration of Independence.

 

However, our world today seems increasingly to be the world that Hamilton envisaged, not only because it is urban and few Americans any longer are farmers but because the government is powerful, the president wields enormous power, wealth controls our politics and politicians – the veritable “corrupt squadron” controlling Congress of which Jefferson warned – and the United States during the past forty years has moved steadily in the direction of a plutocracy.

 

BNR: Jefferson and Hamilton appear in this book as advocates and admirers of literature.  Hamilton is a prolific writer of essays and editorials in support of his causes, who published fervently and even founded his own newspaper, The New York Evening-Post.  Jefferson is a bookworm who seems never happier than when he is reading at home, immersed in his library.  He's also an eloquent writer whose greatest (and proudest) achievement may be the succinct, powerful prose he penned as the author of the Declaration of Independence.  For our readers who may seek to dig into that which inspired these men: which books and writers did Jefferson and Hamilton respectively most cherish, either for pleasure or inspiration? 

 

JF: Jefferson was a voracious reader, but Hamilton was no piker. Hamilton built a personal library of some one thousand volumes. Jefferson acquired twice that many books during his five years in Paris and ultimately owned nearly seven thousand volumes. Hamilton’s tastes ran to history and philosophy, but he liked satirists and read both poetry and novels. David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature may have had the greatest influence on Hamilton, but he is known to have devoured the works of Thomas Hobbes and was fond of The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and Plutarch’s Lives, as it was commonly called. He likely read and reread Machiavelli’s The Prince

 

Jefferson seemingly read everything he could get his hands on – classical literature, English literary writers, books on agriculture, religion, medicine, poetry, the law, and novels. He may have read most deeply in history, philosophy, and science. Once when asked for a suggested reading list for the general reader, he compiled a list of 148 titles (see his letter of August 3, 1771 to Robert Skipwith). He also once said the three greatest men were John Locke, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton, and it is known that he read their works with care.   

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