Clash of titans and American ideologies

December 13, 2013

In “Jefferson and Hamilton,” as in his previous works, John Ferling brings to bear the considerable talents that have won him acclaim: a deep knowledge of the era, a graceful writing style and a voice that captures a reader’s attention from the first page to the last. The result is a sympathetic look at two founding fathers whose visions for America are equally grand and equally compelling.

Ferling has structured his book artfully, alternating portraits of these men at various stages of their lives with narratives of the historical context in which those lives played out. From the decision to seek independence, to the war to win it, to the creation of a national government, and then to the intense battles over that nation’s economic, political and cultural trajectory, the interplay between individuals and events is beautifully choreographed. Indeed, Ferling is so adept at telling a story that the reader will learn much about the transition from British colonies to a new American nation.

Ferling sets as his primary task the recounting of the battle between what he calls Thomas Jefferson’s vision of democracy and Alexander Hamilton’s vision of national prosperity and stability. Toward this end, he emphasizes how their ideologies were shaped by their early careers: Hamilton’s years in the poorly funded Continental Army, Jefferson’s years as ambassador to a corrupt and decadent French government. Ferling’s attentiveness to the critical connection between experience and personality helps us understand why each man became a determined champion of his own vision for America.

These visions began to clash dramatically during George Washington’s first administration and continued to do so until Jefferson’s triumph in the presidential election of 1800. Ferling contends, however, that the tensions between the competing visions reemerged and have continued throughout our national history. They are, in effect, the enduring contradiction in American character and culture.

Although Ferling attempts to be evenhanded in his examination of Hamilton and Jefferson, he, like most academics, clearly feels greater kinship with the contemplative Sage of Monticello than with the brash and ambitious immigrant from the West Indies. He thus succumbs to the “whose side are you on?” impulse that pervades popular and scholarly circles. At times, his word choices give him away; for example, Hamilton tries to “claw his way” back into political prominence, but Jefferson’s determined efforts to take the reins of government do not evoke analogies to animal desperation.


‘Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation’ by John Ferling (Bloomsbury)

Far more serious, however, is the marginalization of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Ferling inadequately explores the exploitation that is surely a part of a master-slave relationship and makes little effort to suggest what it might tell us about Jefferson’s moral character, let alone his libido. Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds is not treated so gingerly. Although Ferling details Jefferson’s refusals to publicly oppose slavery, he attempts to excuse Jefferson by noting that American society in the 18th century found slavery acceptable. And yet Hamilton, who also grew up in a slave culture, was an abolitionist. What, we are left to wonder, does this say about the two men?

In the end, a reader might be inclined to say, “Poor Hamilton.” Brash, overly sensitive to slights and insults, he was a frustrating mix of insecurity and over-confidence. But unlike Jefferson, who was born a Virginia gentleman — a status that not even the burden of crushing debt could tarnish — Hamilton began his life in poverty, under a cloud of illegitimacy. Jefferson’s democratic gestures — walking to his inauguration, opening his own door, even greeting guests in his bedroom slippers — were marks of confidence in a man who owned a hilltop mansion, was waited on by slaves and enjoyed the delights of an expensive wine cellar. Hamilton’s elitism, his obsession with personal honor and his pride in his successes were the marks of a man of humble, indeed humiliating, beginnings.

There is no harm in preferring one fellow over another, of course. But there is some harm in suggesting, as Ferling does, that their rival visions define the arc of our national history. Their visions were not entirely realistic, even in their own day. Jefferson’s utopia — a land of self-sufficient, contented farmers, operating with minimal government support or constraint, in a society that stayed miraculously safe from invasion or internal insurrection despite possessing only the most bare-bones military force — was fanciful even in his time. Eighteenth-century farmers were market-conscious, eager to produce a surplus for profit and insistent on military protection from the Indians they were displacing. And this is to say nothing of members of Jefferson’s own planter class, who purchased laborers to grow staple crops for the market, made money off loans to less-fortunate neighbors, speculated in western lands and viewed slaves as negotiable assets.

Hamilton’s vision defied the temper of his times. He was largely blind to the democratic impulses released by the American Revolution. He incorrectly assumed that a society that had rebelled against British imperial goals and demands would rally around new regulation and taxation by its own government in pursuit of national greatness. As secretary of the Treasury, he constructed the apparatus of liberal capitalism but failed entirely to appreciate the individualistic, self-interested culture fostered by that ideology.

Brilliant though these men were, neither Jefferson nor Hamilton was a prophet or a seer. Their visions were anchored in their moment in history — and both were built on an imperfect understanding of the times. It is doubtful that either of these 18th-century men would recognize his vision in the landscape of modern and especially postmodern America. Yet this is no reason to abandon either our fascination with them or our appreciation of their contributions to the founding of our nation. Ferling’s “Jefferson and Hamilton” helps us trace the origins of concepts vital to our identity, although our definitions of both democracy and national greatness were transformed by the generations that followed.

Carol Berkin is presidential professor of history emerita at the City University of New York and the author of “A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.”

JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON

The Rivalry That Forged a Nation

By John Ferling

Bloomsbury. 436 pp. $30

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