This past Fourth of July marked 235 years since the Declaration of Independence was published. In this immortal document, the Spirit of ’76 was given its fullest, most eloquent expression. The Declaration is a timeless document, espousing eternal principles that, while forever historically identified with America, are universal in their application.
The Fourth provided an occasion to reflect on what it means to be an American. Since day one, there have been widely divergent views on those questions.
During the Revolutionary War, the colonists fell into three groups: those who desired independence from Britain, Tories who did not, and many who didn’t care or couldn’t decide.
The Second Continental Congress was so divided over the issue of slavery that the Declaration was almost stillborn. (The perfect Fourth of July movie is the musical “1776”—an excellent dramatization of that profound disagreement.) Many of the Founding Fathers abhorred slavery with every bone in their body. Those founders are sometimes condemned today for having compromised with southern slaveholders, a retroactive judgment of 18th-century men by 21st-century values. Granted, the founders didn’t create the ideal society. They knew that. They expected subsequent generations to make improvements. But they did, mercifully, lay the foundation for a republic that would go on to bring more freedom to more people than any other political entity in history.
From the start, Americans have been divided between the visions and values of Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. That intellectual and political debate continues undiminished today. In fact, during a recent radio interview, the host asked me out of the blue, “Whose side are you on, Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s?”
The question is difficult to answer for two primary reasons: First, these two giants of America’s founding addressed a wide range of issues, so one may partially agree and partially disagree. Second, as Stephen F. Knott’s 2002 book Alexander Hamilton & the Persistence of Myth demonstrates so ably, subsequent American thought leaders have invented their own versions of Jefferson and Hamilton. These versions have been based on their own political convictions and biases, including which books they themselves happened to read (each of those containing its author’s own slanted view) and the tenor of the era in which they lived.
There is no definitive, indisputable interpretation of Hamilton and Jefferson, but I’ll attempt a few generalities.
Foremost among these generalities, at the most elementary level, those who favor a stronger government in Washington are more likely to be Hamiltonians and those who favor a weaker government, Jeffersonians.
In reply to that radio host’s question, I said that I leaned toward Jefferson. In this era of Big Government that is suffocating liberty, devouring our economic substance, and is joined at the hip with big banks, Jefferson’s inspiring defenses of liberty and impassioned warnings about government are timely. Nevertheless, I have my differences with Jefferson, such as his endorsement of the French Revolution. My sense is that Jefferson’s strong suit was his idealism, whereas in practice he was, at times, inapt or inept.
While I have serious misgivings about Hamilton’s vision for government, I think he gets a bum rap when some accuse him of having been an antidemocratic monarchist. Yes, he distrusted certain elements of democracy, but so did most of the Founding Fathers, including James Madison. Hamilton believed in some degree of a government partnership with business, but, like other founders, he supported a Constitution that, unlike Old World governments, did not erect barriers designed to keep poor Americans poor. Hamilton was an elitist, but he was an elitist by accomplishment, and not (at all) by birth.
One of the ironies of the Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian divide today is that the two major political parties have flip-flopped on their historical positions. Up until the 1950s, Democrats tended to be Jeffersonian. They opposed tariffs and other government favors for moneyed interests. Republicans, who tended to be Hamiltonian in their use of government to shape economic development from the party’s founding through Herbert Hoover’s presidency, now have many leading figures with strong Jeffersonian sympathies. Today’s Republicans generally share to some degree Jefferson’s aversion to Big Government, the great threat to liberty and prosperity.
Finally, in the Hamilton/Jefferson debate, one of the few points that enjoys nearly universal acceptance is that both men were geniuses. They both played defining roles in the founding and formation of the United States of America. However much we may disagree with one or the other, they were great Americans and we are blessed to have had them both as Founding Fathers.
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