the imaginative conservative logo

Jefferson

Friends, you must have either Jefferson or Hamilton. All the fundamental conflicts in our history were adumbrated during the first decade of the General Government in the contest symbolized by these two men. Hamilton lost in the short run, but triumphed in the long run. He would find much that is agreeable in the present American regime – plutocratic kritarchy which we persist, by long habit of self-deception, in calling democracy. But Thomas Jefferson would not be at all happy with what has happened to this country; he might even suggest that the time had come for a little revolution. The host of petty intellectuals and pundits, elitists, and would-be elitists—tame scribblers of the American Empire—sense this, and so Jefferson must be dealt with appropriately. The Establishment is frightened by the rumblings they hear from the Great Beast (that is, we the American people). They are shocked to realize that Jefferson honestly did believe in the people; that he believed the soundest basis for government to be popular consent and a severely limited government.

Hamilton, on the other hand, believed in rule by “the [self-appointed] best” and in “energetic government” operating in the interest of private profit. For the better part of a century we had protective tariffs which burdened the great mass of the American people, agriculturalists, and consumers, while profiting large capital. Now that it is in the interest of large capital to ship American workers’ jobs to the Third World, we have every petty pundit singing the praises of “free trade.” Just what Alexander ordered.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Excerpted from “Why They Hate Jefferson” in From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition by Clyde N. Wilson.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
13 replies to this post
  1. Well, some of us have a slightly different take on the difference between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, I guess. I always thought more of Russell Kirk's evaluation of Hamilton in his book Rights and Duties — not a perfect conservative, but then no such thing ever existed, but far more of a conservative than Jefferson was.

  2. Last evening I attended a talk by Eric Peterson on the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Peterson's Jefferson book is "Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness." (more here: http://lightandliberty.org/ ). The book is described: "Light and Liberty is the book of inspiration that Thomas Jefferson never wrote, although every word here is his."

    It was a thoughtful presentation. Among many interesting notes in the talk was on Jefferson's travel from Paris to the south of France. The state of poverty in France for the great majority is hard to comprehend. The French Revolution turned into a disaster, but was preceded it was a disaster too. ("France has recorded 13 nationwide famines in the 16th century, 11 in the 17th and 16 in the 18th century; not counting local famines."– 'The Identity of France, Volume Two' by Fernand Braudel)

    In response to a question about slavery Peterson outlined Jefferson's multiple efforts to legislate a transition from slavery.

  3. My esteemed colleague Clyde Wilson is of course right about this. I have long maintained that insofar as there was an American Revolution it was Hamilton's, 1790-93, and not what happened between 1776 and 1787. There was another one in the 1860s, but that was merely a completion of Hamilton's. Dr. Wilson is also right in saying that one cannot have both Jefferson and Hamilton; but i would insist that we could have Washington and Adams, the best of Virginia and the best of New England.

  4. Actually, I respectfully tend to disagree that the Hamilton-Jefferson debate shaped American political history between big and small government folks. As one can see in arguments made privately (such as in correspondence with President Washington) and in public in the the Bank of the U.S. controversy, both men fundamentally shaped their arguments within the proper constitutional sphere of a limited government with enumerated powers. It is true that Hamilton has a more expansive vision of the energy of the national government than did Jefferson. In addition, Jefferson had the more restrictive reading of the necessary and proper clause than did Hamilton, but note that neither stated that the government can simply do whatever it wants for the public good. Hamilton rooted the Bank in the related powers in Article I, section 8.

    The more fundamental debate hear that shaped modern American political
    thought and history is the rejection of the Founding by the Progressives. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, in addition to
    their heir, Franklin Roosevelt, rejected the immutable principles of
    the Declaration and the Constitution for a "Living Constitution" or
    a "Darwinian Constitution" as Wilson put it. They put wealth, property, and other private interests in the public interest. They
    moved the country in a direction of virtually unlimited federal power,
    executive power, and rule by administrative experts, resulting in
    the massive modern state.

    The real debate is not between Hamiltona and Jefferson but between
    the constitutionalism of the Founding and the unlimited government of
    the Progressives. I think much of the blame rests with Wilson and
    FDR rather than Hamilton.

  5. Tony, you have a good point, and one that I would not want to discount. But had Hamilton not been able to "energize" the government the progressives would have had a much harder time doing to us what they did. The fact that it started so early shows, I believe, what schemers the neocons (Hamilton being the first) were from the beginning.

  6. John, I agree with your analysis and might add that that which the founding generation, the greatest generation, provided their offspring-American Republicanism-is so vibrant, powerful, and reflective of God's will for a free people that it took not only the forces of the central state to subordinate true republicans but the tragic collapse of morality and ethics, the loss of virtue, among 'the people.'

  7. The Hamilton-Jefferson divide is useful and substantive but one needs to be careful about overstating the case for Jefferson as the answer to our contemporary ills and dismissing Hamilton as their cause. Jefferson is a mixed bag. One side of his thought is consistent with Jean Jacques Rousseau. It idealizes "the people" and rests politics on a romantic understanding of human nature. Hamilton, by contrast, was sober about human nature and the ends of politics. While Jefferson pushed for war against England, Hamilton promoted Washington's neutrality policy. While Jefferson supported the French Revolution, Hamilton served as America's Burke and identified its radical and Utopian characteristics. Jefferson never met a revolution or rebellion he didn't like. Hamilton was far more skeptical about the ability of human beings to use mass violence and war for the common good. Jefferson wrote about the French Revolution:

    "The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest [the French Revolution], and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is."

    These are not the sentiments of a conservative mind and imagination.

  8. Irving Babbitt, a scholar indebted to Burke, a scholar to whom conservatives such as Russell Kirk have looked for inspiration, provided the following assessment of Jefferson and his impact on American politics and imagination:

    "[Jefferson] was for diminishing to the utmost the role of government, but not for increasing the inner control that must, according to Burke, be in strict ratio to the relaxation of outer control. When evil actually appears, the Jeffersonian cannot appeal to the principle of inner control; he is not willing again to admit that the sole alternative to this type of control is force; and so he is led into what seems at first a paradoxical denial of his own principles; he has recourse to legislation."

    Babbitt's thoughts on Jefferson are intriguing because they suggest that it is the "Jeffersonian" intoxication with "the people" and "limited government" in the abstract that contributes mightily to the centralized mass-democracy in America so often attributed to the political ideas and practices of the "Hamiltonians." The view that Jefferson articulated a number of ideas essential to revitalizing American political thought and imagination should undergo a serious reexamination. Like all human beings, Hamilton's ideas are not free from contradictions and other problems. Nevertheless, a thoughtful reading of his writings reveals that he (along with John Adams) is much more of a Burkean conservative than Jefferson. Hamilton's ideas hold much more promise than those of Jefferson for a conservative renewal of genuine republican government and mores in America.

  9. I seem to recall that Russell Kirk made a good case that John Adams was the most exemplary example of conservatism amound the founders. I’m not sure dichotomies like this are helpful; Jefferson’s skepticism of centralized power has played a salutary role in our national history, but no man who so wholeheartedly embraced the French Revolution can be fully claimed as one of our own. Jefferson was a radical with some shades of conservatism in some of his ideas. He is worthy of some admiration, but he is not a model for conservatives.

  10. If Jefferson were alive today he would be a liberal university professor. Truly Jefferson is worthy of much admiration but as a personal character he pales in comparison to Washington or Lincoln. And when it came to economics he was wrong; Hamilton was much more perceptive and forward looking. Let us not forget Jefferson lived and died a slaver and died a bankrupt.

  11. What a great exchange in the comments. And with that, I encourage everyone to check out the broadway show Hamilton. The debates between Hamilton and Jefferson (in rap, of course!) emceed by George Washington are one of the highlights! All of the points above and in the essay are made by the combatants, and even more. Worth checking out!

  12. It was Jefferson who believed in free trade. Hamilton funded the government through a system of tariffs to pay for things and protect industry. Blaming Hamilton for free trade is like saying Oliver Cromwell was nice to Irish Catholics.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: