Jefferson Versus Hamilton: A Continuing Contest

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.



Mark W. Hendrickson


Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

  • William Taylor

    With his grey hair curling around his ears, Dr. Hendrickson even looks a bit like Jefferson, and it was a thoughtful article. But I was put off by his assumption that big government is devouring our economic substance. Taxes are lower than they have been in generations. True, the Pentegon, at a trillion or so dollars a year, is devouring our substance as it prepares to repel invaders from Mars. But the devouring is going on somewher else. Business used to reward workers when productivity rose. Our productivity is high above what it was when Reagan took office, but wages have remained flat and business now refuses to invest the trilions it has horded until consumption goes up. But consumption can’t go up because ordinary consumers have run out of money. A wonderful paradox. Anyway, the story is much more complicated than “the government is devouring our substance.”

    • If you believe that gov. gives its money to companies (not every company has to be a corporation), then clearly the pentagon must do so (defense contractors, probably). But if businessmen keep this money, then essentially gov. is giving to businessmen and the reason why labor is not rewarded is government spending.

      If government spending and/or taxes are diminished, I don’t suppose that there is any reason (in this scenario) why companies would boost pay, but at least they could use their new-found funds to boost output. And if output increases, prices can decline making life easier for the working man and for the rich man -everything becomes less costly and both labor and capital are rewarded.

  • Martial Artist

    Mr. Taylor,

    I think you are overlooking at least one thing in implying that because taxes are low, government cannot be devouring our economic substance. Government in the U.S. devours our economic substance by means of both funded and unfunded expenditures. And it has been doing so for more than two generations. Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes, with today’s benefits for the elderly (of whom I am now officially one) from the payroll and Medicare taxes of the employed. But even with those tax revenues, there is not sufficient revenue to pay all of the benefits, so government must borrow (via Treasury securities) the necessary funds to pay the difference between the cost of the benefits and the available tax revenues to provide those benefits. What it does not borrow through that avenue, it takes by inflating the currency (through the artificial lowering of the interest rates by the Federal Reserve). When they use inflation, wages do not even remain flat over the intermediate to long term, because the dollars being paid are worth less over the succeeding years.

    If you honestly believe that this is not occurring, you have either not been paying attention. If you don’t believe this account, kindly explain why and how the value of the dollar has fallen by substantial amounts over the past 98 years.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Steve N.

    To the extent that governmment has taken over “care” of the public through entitlements, business observes its involvement in living as both deminishing and diminshed.

  • This commentary got the balance just right. Some conservatives are uncritical in their admiration for TJ. Many Christians of his day were unhappy with his views and his attitude toward the French Revolution was naive, as were his defence policies. Likewise he was weak on the freeing of his slaves compared to Geo. Washington. An ex. of being better in theory as author says than practice. By contrast Hamilton is too often deprecated, sometimes unfairly.

  • William Taylor

    To our Green Beret guy–Your challenge to explain the decline in the dollar led me to Google and a lot of interesting reading. All in all, there seem to be about 50 reasons for the rise and fall of the dollar, which means it is dangerous to get too simplistic.

    They mention balance of trade where we import more than we export… to invest more abroad than we do at home. They talk about Walmart and its imitators, who scour the world for dirt cheap labor and lack of environmental enforcement. They talk about the budget deficit and the national debt. Re these deficits: Reagan and Bush II contributed by far the greatest amount, around 7 trillion. The CBO says that Obama is responsible for 1.4 trillion. They talk about the dire effects of tax cuts if they increase the deficit (see Reagan and BushII, above). They talk about a fractious congress…low interest rates…negative consumer saving… the rising price of gas…slow housing market…low growth in manufacturing…low employment growth…the recession/depression we are now in. etc.

    Lots of reasons here. A little hard to blame it all on Social Security and Medicare. Your green beret would indicate you have no quarrel with a trillion dollars spent per year on arms whose only purpose is to kill people.

  • PaulS

    Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. The trouble is they did not update the retirement age enough. Not to threaten anyone on SSI, because you are alrady on it and once on it you can’t be cut. It is us who aren’t on it now [projected date for me is little more than 10 years]. We better just used to the fact we can’t be on it until 70! After all, if you take a quick look at the set-up, half of us have to be dead already before benefits can be paid out for SSI to have a chance of staying self-paying.

    Hamilton has gotten a bad rap for generations. Yet, the commerce and financial policies he pushed for are what allowed the country to enjoy Jefferson’s vision of freee nation.