The Hamilton-Jefferson Clash: Stark but Intricate

One of the late Forrest McDonald’s many contributions to our understanding of the American Founding was that he illustrated, often humorously, the human side of some extraordinary men. Though often taking classic Roman republicans as role models, the Founders were, like the rest of us, given to occasional pettiness. They lost their tempers. They often resorted to underhanded methods to get their way. Nor were they above scheming against each other. Yet McDonald’s books also showed that the generation that fought for independence and then established the United States were also an unusually talented and well-educated group. Even when not necessarily possessing or claiming great intellectual powers, many of them—such as George Washington—more than compensated for this by profound strengths of character.

We also know that the Founders disagreed, sometimes sharply, about many things. These ranged from questions of religion and philosophy, to debates concerning constitutional theory and political economy. And it was through the playing out of these differences that some of the Republic’s most distinctive and lasting features emerged. Understanding how this occurred, and how these features relate to the Constitution’s role in American governance, is the central concern of Carson Holloway’s Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration: Completing the Founding or Betraying the Founding?

That the two men disagreed about how the Constitution would be transformed from words on paper into a force that would set in motion the United States government is hardly a secret. Holloway’s particular contribution to understanding this clash of ideas is to examine it primarily through close textual analysis of the cabinet papers and memoranda that each submitted to President Washington from 1789 to 1792. What makes these texts especially significant, Holloway observes, is that they reflect the fact that Hamilton had to respond directly to Jefferson’s arguments, and vice versa. To this we might add that both men knew, while writing these documents, that Washington was unlikely to tolerate the charged polemics and personal attacks that characterized the public dimension of these disputes.

Holloway approaches the conflict between the Virginia planter and the self-made dynamo from the Caribbean in three parts. Beginning with their debates about the most optimal way of arranging the federal government’s finances and thus setting the nation’s general economic direction, Holloway then studies their deeper rupture over the powers of the executive branch before turning to their battles over foreign policy, at which point he brings the PacificusHelvidius debates between Hamilton and James Madison into the discussion.

One of the achievements of this book is the way it takes us inside the philosophical framework that informed the back-and-forth between Hamilton and Jefferson as the two struggled for intellectual ascendancy within the administration. Neither of them regarded the Constitution as existing in a theoretical vacuum. Both referenced, as Holloway demonstrates, a variety of classical, medieval, and early modern authorities as they debated the meaning and implications of different articles and clauses of the Constitution. Christian Wolff, Baron de Montesquieu, and the jurists Emer de Vattel and Samuel von Pufendorf are mentioned frequently in these memoranda, alongside terms such as “the law of nature,” “natural law,” “natural rights,” and “the law of nations.”

A crucial difference between the two men emphasized by Holloway is Hamilton’s willingness to invoke general appeals to “the ‘practice of mankind’”—that is, to the habits of the established European powers—which he held “ought to have great weight against the theories of individuals.” This matters because it underscores that Hamilton’s focus was upon building the United States as a nation of free men as well as his willingness to read the Constitution through that lens. Conversely, Jefferson prioritized the preservation of liberty from excessively powerful government. It was the restraining of government, Jefferson believed, that would set this republic apart from the other regimes of the time. For Hamilton, however, the preservation of liberty, whether against foreign threats or the internal menace of anarchy, meant that the United States had to acquire the capacities possessed by other strong sovereign states.

Holloway generally finds Hamilton’s arguments more convincing, though he notes that Washington wasn’t always fully persuaded by them. That said, Holloway succeeds in his stated objective of giving a full and fair account of each man’s arguments and counterarguments, with all their respective strengths and weaknesses, thereby allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

But Holloway also illustrates that trying to settle contemporary constitutional and political arguments by appealing to the Founders can be a perilous exercise. As Holloway puts it, “the Hamilton-Jefferson disputes show us that we cannot always find a straightforward answer by turning to the Founders.” That, I would suggest, is something to which contemporary Americans, whatever their politics, should be more attentive before suggesting that X policy, Y law, or Z decision would have been inconceivable to, or completely favored by, the Founders.

And this brings us to the book’s present-day purpose: to present the Hamilton-Jefferson debate as a way of illustrating how Americans can disagree about many policy questions and yet do so in a way that reflects a mutual commitment to living in accord with established constitutional and moral principles. “To say the founding can offer us no easy lessons in these disputes,” Holloway states, “is not to say that it can offer us no positive lessons at all.” Hamilton and Jefferson quarreled frequently about how to understand particular constitutional articles and the legitimacy of specific proposals for action. Yet the fundamental constitutional principles “were never far from their minds, or absent from their arguments” as they grappled with complicated domestic and foreign policy conundrums.

They clearly had different conceptions, for instance, of what limited government meant. Hamilton believed that an energetic federal government was needed to preserve a free nation of free people, especially if the United States was not to degenerate into a set of squabbling states, ripe for manipulation—or worse—by European powers. He resisted what he regarded as legalistic interpretations of the Constitution that, in his view, would undermine the Republic’s long-term sustainability. Jefferson, however, was convinced that liberty was necessarily threatened by an energetic federal executive and by broad readings of the Constitution used to legitimate such robustness.

Further complicating matters was each man’s commitment to realizing quite different goals. Hamilton was seeking to create the sinews of a modern capitalist economy. Jefferson had his own vision of an agrarian America and was suspicious of the capital-intensive economic system with which Hamilton was determined to endow the United States.

For all these very real differences, Holloway argues, both men were dedicated to limited government and believed that the purpose of the Constitution was to keep Americans free from tyranny. From this perspective, Holloway notes, the differences between them “were deep, but they did not go all the way down.”

All this is, I think, true. It also, I would suggest, corresponds to the philosophical and constitutional debates that occur among the political Right, broadly speaking, in America today. Few traditionalists, conservatives, classical liberals, or libertarians consciously frame their arguments in ways that minimize or simply ignore the settings of the Constitution and subsequent amendments and judicial interpretations.

The same is much harder to say of most modern liberals and the Left more generally. In his introduction, Holloway suggests that “Americans of all political persuasions desire—although in different ways and in relation to different issues—to live in some kind of continuity with the founding and indeed to turn to the founders for answers to the questions that divide us.” This, I’d suggest, may be a generous overstatement. The fact is that many on the Left today seem happy to disregard, if not denigrate the Founding.

Observe, for example, how little the Founders are invoked by, for instance, President Obama or the mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio. Besides those who minimalize the Founders are those who have long sought to delegitimize the Founding as the product of a class struggle. Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), with its thesis of a relatively cohesive group of white men creating the United States primarily to protect their economic interests, is still influential. To be sure, Beard’s claims were refuted long ago by historians such as McDonald. In We the People (1958), McDonald acknowledged that economic interests were at work, but illustrated that they were more numerous than hitherto realized. Having disposed of Beard’s class-based analysis of the Constitution’s formation, McDonald helped set the scene for a greater appreciation for how philosophical ideas shaped the Founding.

This, however, has not deterred modern liberals and the Left from continuing to try to uproot gradually the Constitution from its philosophical moorings in order to fundamentally shift the contours of contemporary political discussion. As an objective, this is not surprising. After all, much of the agenda pushed by modern American liberals is difficult to accommodate within the parameters of the Hamilton-Jefferson debate.

It is hard, for example, to imagine the growth of the administrative state—with the subsequent breakdown of the separation of powers as bureaucracies assume executive, judicial, and legislative functions—being countenanced by either Hamilton or Jefferson as consistent with a constitution that seeks to limit government. Nor, we can safely say, would they have affirmed one of the Progressive movement’s most basic claims: that, as Woodrow Wilson famously and approvingly wrote, “Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand.”

Given how intent those on the Left are on turning America into the transatlantic version of a Western European social democracy, it is fair to say that, from the standpoint of both Jefferson and Hamilton, they depart from the Constitution’s philosophical foundations and stated purposes. Nor do modern liberals appear very interested in reading the Constitution through the lens of natural law or the law of nations, let alone many of the authors to whom Hamilton and Jefferson made frequent appeal.

Over time, the different visions for America articulated by Hamilton and Jefferson became blurred. A strong federal executive developed, but so did a more popular representative democracy. Not surprisingly, the tensions that mark this dichotomy periodically reemerge. But such tensions also do much to preserve liberty—whether from populist sentiments, from the passions of men unconstrained by reason, or from state authorities tempted to forget that much of their legitimacy is derived from their responsibility to preserve Americans’ freedom from those who threaten it, foreign or domestic.

This is perhaps the most important legacy of the Hamilton-Jefferson debate for our time. We live during a period in which many Americans confuse justice with egalitarianism and seem anxious to use governmental power—whether executive, legislative, or judicial—to pulverize economic freedom, undermine religious liberty, and eviscerate many longstanding and perfectly defensible cultural institutions: all in the name of Rawlsian equality-as-justice. To the extent that Carson Holloway underscores the common commitment to limited government that undergirded Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s often quite different views about the meaning of the Constitution, he reminds us just how much is at stake today.

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.

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