- - Tuesday, February 18, 2014


By John Ferling
Bloomsbury Press, $30, 436 pages

Poisonous feuds have long been a hallmark of Washington politics. Consider the open hatred between President Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy during the late 1960s. More than once, in private gatherings, I heard LBJ refer to Kennedy as “that little (expletive).” Kennedy could be equally scornful, according to journalistic scuttlebutt.

However, LBJ versus RFK was a schoolyard spat (the issues being Vietnam and political rivalry) compared to the hostility between Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson during the early years of the United States. Their issues were far more important — nothing less than the future shape of the country. Should America build a modern economy — industrialized and with a viable financial system and a sensible military? Or should it be an agrarian society dependent on the individual yeoman with a minimum commerce, protected from adversaries by a citizen militia?

John Ferling, arguably the best historian of the period, recounts with engaging, authoritative prose the decades-long struggle that traces the parallel careers of Jefferson, the scion of Virginia gentry, and Hamilton, born out-of-wedlock on Nevis in the British West Indies. In a nutshell, Jefferson was handed a fortune and “farmed” with slave labor. Hamilton made his way to New York as a penniless teen, worked as a clerk for a merchant and became a prosperous lawyer.

The first crack of a schism came during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton, an aide to Gen. George Washington, endured the hardships of a campaigning soldier, including the Valley Forge winter. Although the army was starving, ill-clothed and unpaid, Congress ignored pleas for money. Instead, Jefferson resigned his seat to become governor of Virginia. His tardiness in responding to a British landing in Virginia brought future charges of negligence.

As Washington complained, “where are our Men of abilities? Why did they not come forth to save their Country? Where were Jefferson & others in this time of need?”

However, when peace came, a deeper schism concerned the character of the new nation. In a 1785 book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson decried manufacturing states as the basest society for the greatest number of people. Manufacturers, he asserted, would consider workmen and artisans as “fit tools for the designs of ambition,” money being the sole goal. His picture was stark: “Great cities add just as much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”

Hamilton, conversely, saw legislatures as repositories of “fickleness and folly.” He wanted to shake free of “petty states” and create a truly “great Federal republic” that would be “tranquil and prosperous at home, respectable abroad.” His military experience convinced him that liberty would never exist unless the nation was strong and secure. To Jefferson, the remarks about the military was evidence that Washington, now president, and followers such as Hamilton would create a new monarchy to run the country.

As Mr. Ferling perceptively writes, “Hamilton accepted that there would always be natural inequalities in society and that they would increase over time.” He viewed Jefferson as a “visionary” who embraced “pernicious dreams” and that men of his ilk were interested in exploiting the strength of the masses to achieve personal political power.

Hamilton saw considerable good in the way Britain ran its financial affairs — that despite its minute population, it ruled “the largest, most opulent and splendid empire” since the Romans. It did so through a funded debt, a central banking system and a market in “fruitful” public securities that marshaled wealth without onerous taxation.

Inevitably, Washington was drawn into what had begun as a personal dispute. The flash point came when the French renewed war with Britain and called upon the United States to honor a treaty obligation (made during the Revolution) to side with them and join the fighting. Washington refused, not wishing a renewed war. He opted for neutrality.

Paris dispatched an emissary, Edmond-Charles Edouard Genet to the United States to press the matter. In addition to lobbying the president, Genet was tasked to “use propaganda, secret agents, and hired American adventurers” to arouse public fervor in favor of France. Genet had the tacit support of “Democratic clubs” organized by Jefferson. He violated American neutrality with gusto and even hinted at “going around” Washington and make him yield to public opinion.

At a Cabinet meeting, Jefferson most unwisely displayed a cartoon depicting Washington being beheaded — published in a paper he helped finance.

Washington was extremely angered, and Jefferson backed away from Genet. (For more on the Genet affair, see Harlow Giles Unger’s 2013 book, “Mr. President.”)

Jefferson further offended Washington by writing a letter complaining about “men who were Sampsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” The letter got into print, and the references clearly were to Washington.

Why is Jefferson now held in higher public esteem than Hamilton? Despite his support of slavery, he is known as a liberal, and this crowd beatifies its own. Hamilton is depicted as a heartless conservative in much of academia.

A thought for consideration: Given European designs on the Western Hemisphere in the early 1800s, how long would a Jeffersonian America — agrarian, idyllic and unarmed — have survived in the real world?

Veteran Washington writer Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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