As one enters Monticello, one is greeted by a bust of Jefferson facing a bust of Alexander Hamilton—“opposed in death as in life”—both by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi. The statue of Hamilton is life-size, while the statue of Jefferson is a bit larger, and that suggests not merely Jefferson’s opposition, but political victory over Hamilton. What were the reasons for the opposition?

Thomas Jefferson writes to Benjamin Rush (16 Jan. 1811) of two singular incidents on a singular occasion—a dinner party at his residence in New York with Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Edmund Randolph as his guests. The gathering was at the behest of President Washington, who was then at Mount Vernon, who asked Jefferson to gather the men to discuss a political matter of some urgency and to act on it, as decided, without again recurring to him.” Both incidents, according to Jefferson, offer stark evidence of Hamilton’s political principles.

After discussion of the pressing political issue, the men sat with wine, and the conversation at some point shifted to the British constitution. Adams said:

Purge that constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man.

Hamilton deliberated and spoke next:

Purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.

Jefferson adds:

This was assuredly the exact line which separated the political creeds of these two gentlemen. The one was for two hereditary branches and an honest elective one: the other, for an hereditary King, with a House of Lords and Commons corrupted to his will, and standing between him and the people.

Jefferson continues with an elaboration of the other singular incident.

The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton & Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “the greatest man,” said he, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.” Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”

The occasion of the dinner party is not merely evidence of Hamilton’s political principles, but also evidence of Jefferson’s circumspection. He not only charily listens to what Hamilton says about the British Constitution to glean information on his political ideals, he also vigilantly notes Hamilton’s ignorance of depictions of three of the foremost philosophers and scientists just prior to or of their day. Hamilton is unmoved by Jefferson’s assessment of the men. The first rank among men for Hamilton is a no-ruth conqueror. The episode, deemed so significant to Jefferson, today tells us much not just about Hamilton’s political views, but also about Jefferson’s, axially part of a political philosophy.

There was ever large tension between Hamilton and Jefferson—a tension which covers Jefferson’s tenure as Secretary of State. The tension existed, as the letter to Rush illustrates, because Jefferson as a politician identified with great philosophers and scientists, while Hamilton saw himself as a large military conqueror. That the two could never see eye to eye is because Hamilton was an amoralist when it came to politics, while Jefferson was a moralist. While Hamilton believed that the people, ignorant of their own happiness, needed to be told by enlightened officials what was in their best interest, Jefferson believed that elected officials, as servants of the morally sensitive citizenry, needed to act in pursuance of the will of the citizenry.

How the Feud Began

While serving as minister plenipotentiary of the US in Paris, Jefferson requested and received permission to return to his home for a spell and attend to domestic concerns, Jefferson left Paris late in September 1789, and after delays caused by inclement weather, landed at Norfolk, Virginia, on November 23. On his way to Charlottesville, he stopped at Eppington in Chesterfield County, Virginia, to visit his brother-in-law, Frances Eppes. There he received a letter from President George Washington (13 Oct. 1789). It was an imploration to assume the office of Secretary of State, “which under its present organization, involves many of the most interesting objects of the Executive Authority.”

Jefferson was not pleased with the offer—“I received it with real regret,” he writes in his unfinished Autobiography—as his inclination was to resume his post as ambassador to France to see the close of the French Revolution, which, he thought, would be “certainly and happily closed in less than a year.” With the end of the revolution, he meant to return to Monticello and “to sink into the bosom of my family and friends, and devote myself to studies more congenial to my mind.” Yet Jefferson was willing to put aside personal preferences, if he could be of more use to Washington in Washington’s cabinet.

Washington had assembled a diverse—members represented different parts of the nation—and highly proficient cabinet: Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General.

Jefferson found himself quickly at loggerheads with Hamilton, whose political vision of thick government, a strong presidency, paper money, a national bank, strong manufacture, and tariffs to protect manufactured goods, was at odds with Jefferson’s, which demanded thin government, a president obedient to constitutional constraints, agrarianism, and only such manufacture of needed goods for self-sufficiency.

Strong, centralized government for Hamilton entailed consolidation—a strong sense of unity among states—and money was a problem for the fledgling nation. Jefferson continues in his Autobiography,

Among the debilities of the government of the Confederation, no one was more distinguished or more distressing than the utter impossibility of obtaining, from the states, the monies necessary for the payment of debts, or even for the ordinary expenses of government.

The young nation owed France, Spain, and the Netherlands some 10 million dollars and many of the states were largely in debt, over 21 million dollars in total, from the Revolutionary War. Hamilton argued that assumption states’ debts would eliminate at once all states’ debts by a single plan and have the result of unifying the confederation of states. On that plan, the treasury would pay off all remaining states’ debts, and then issue bonds and give purchasers a stake in the success in the government. Bonds would be paid off through increased federal taxes and tariffs. In fine, citizens would be relieved of local taxes, but would assume federal taxes.

The measure of assumption failed, and a dejected Hamilton met with Jefferson to discuss the issue. Thus, Hamilton invited Jefferson to make “common cause in supporting one another” and to encourage his southern friends to support assumption.

Though mostly ignorant of the issue, no expert in fiscal issues, and disinclined to approve of assumption, Jefferson was open to further discussion. Hence, he invited Hamilton and James Madison to dinner on the next day to “find some temperament for the present fever.” Madison and Jefferson, cognizant of Southern opposition to assumption, asked Hamilton for some concession.

As the pill would be a bitter one to the Southern States, something should be done to soothe them, that the removal of the seat of Government to the Patowmac was a just measure, & would probably be a popular one with them and would be a proper one to follow the assumption.

Hamilton agreed to support removal of the capital from New York to what is now Washington, DC, for support of assumption.

Both measures eventually passed. Jefferson was certainly happy that the seat of government would now be only some 120 miles from Monticello. Yet later in life, he would consider the exchange acrimonious. He writes:

It was unjust in itself, oppressive to the States and was acquiesced in merely from a fear of discussion. While our Government was still in it’s most infant state, it enabled Hamilton so to strengthen himself by corrupt services to many that he could afterwards carry his bank scheme, and every measure he proposed in defiance of all opposition, in fact it was a principal ground whereon was reared up that speculating phalanx, in & out of Congress which has since been able to give laws to change the political complexion of the Government of the US.

Hamilton and Jefferson came to represent antipodal political positions in the cabinet, and the bickering that occurred between them—Hamilton through assumed names in pro-Federalist publications like Fenno’s Gazette of the United States and Jefferson through the pen of others like Monroe in pro-Republican sources like Freneau’s National Gazette, which was birthed to respond to the Federalist rhetoric in Fenno’s paper—would come to define the early Republican and Federalist Parties. Hamilton’s frequent attacks on Jefferson had the unanticipated effect of singling out Jefferson as the leader of what would become a mushrooming oppositional party to Hamiltonian Federalism. “Of a retiring disposition, fearful of public criticism although thirsty for public praise, he was not ready at that time to assume the part and the duties of a political chief,” writes Gilbert Chinard in his biography of Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: Apostle of Americanism. “But the save attacks of the Federalists attracted public attention to him,” continues Chinard, “he was represented so often by them as the champion of republicanism, that discontented republicans began to rally round him and Jefferson was thus invested with the leadership of the new party as much by his enemies as by his friends.”

Jefferson was ever suspicious of Hamiltonian Federalism. As a “financial system,” he writes in his Ana, it had two aims. First, it was intended “as a puzzle, to exclude popular understanding & inquiry.” Second, it was “a machine for the corruption of the legislature.” Both criticisms, each blunt and brutal, are not so much generated by analysis of the financial system, as they are generated by Jefferson’s analysis of Hamilton the man. Hamilton thought humans could be governed only by two motives: force or interest. As force was not possible in America, he fell back on interest—i.e., self-interest, or “personal, rather than public good.”

According to Jefferson, Hamiltonian Federalism was in the main an economic policy, based on manufacture and trade, with tariffs on imported goods to protect American manufacture. For successful manufacture and trade, there had to be stable currency and good governmental credit, founded on debt, which could only be had by strong, centralized government and a national bank with several branches. At the helm was a stout president, with powers beyond enumeration and elected for life. The model was England and essentially monarchical. The aim was fullest integration with European commercial affairs and robust competition.

A committed agrarian, Jefferson distrusted strong, centralized government, banks, and a credit system with paper notes. He writes to Washington (9 Sept. 1792):

No man is more ardently intent to see the public debt soon and sacredly paid off than I am. This exactly marks the difference between Colo. Hamilton’s views and mine, that I would wish the debt paid tomorrow; he wishes it never to be paid, but always to be a thing wherewith to corrupt and manage the legislature.

Hamilton’s system was ambitious, because Hamilton was ambitious/ He writes he in an early letter to a boyhood friend Edward Stevens (11 Nov. 1769):

My ambition is prevalent so that I contemn the grovelling condition of a clerk or the like, to which my fortune, etc., condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.

He sought chiefly glory through military greatness. Of Hamilton, Jefferson writes in his Anas:

Hamilton was, indeed, a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, and duly valuing virtue in private life, yet so bewitched and perverted by the British example, as to be under thorough conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation.

The assessment is itself dispassionate and shows great respect for the man, but little respect for his political vision.

Jefferson’s republicanism too was ambitious, much more so than Hamilton’s system, because Jefferson’s political ideals, refined much by his dealings with Hamilton, were ambitious—perhaps even pie in the sky. Liberty for Jefferson was imperative, as freedom was deemed a natural right for humans. Without it, there was no possibility of human happiness. Moreover, humans were by nature morality-abiding, and thus, capable of managing their own affairs without governmental intrusion. Jeffersonian republicanism was a political system, therefore, which aimed to provide citizens maximal freedom by manacling the powers of the federal government.

In sum, Jefferson championed personal liberty; Hamilton, order. Hamilton thought that Jefferson’s system, if instantiated, would lead to chaos of the sort that Plato in Republic envisioned—each citizen believing himself a fit governor of the polis and each doing as he wishes at all times. Jefferson thought Hamilton’s system, tried through the centuries, could only lead to human misery by disallowing liberty and progress. Hamilton was a radical conservative; Jefferson, a radical liberal.

The political differences between Hamiltonian Federalism and Jeffersonian Republicanism led to antipodal views of interpreting the Constitution. Hamilton, wishing the government, led by a stout and take-charge president, to be capable of unhesitant, brisk, and intelligent action, championed a willowy view of constitutional interpretation. Jefferson, in contrast, fearing vigorous government and wishing for more power to be in the hands of the individual states and in the citizenry than in the federal government, opted for a literal, strict-constructionist interpretation to shackle the federal government—especially the president.

Jefferson was also troubled by the thought that the material incentives of Hamilton’s system would discourage weighty occupations such as farming and encourage inconsequential engagements such as usury: using money to make money. He writes in a letter to Pumard de Rieux (6 Jan. 1792):

The rage of gambling in the stocks, of various descriptions is such, and the profits sometimes made, & therefore always hoped in that line are so far beyond any interest which an individual can give, that all their money & credit is centered in their own views. The bank has just now notified it’s proprietors that they may call for a dividend of 10. per cent on their capital for the last 6. months. This makes a profit of 26. per cent per annum. Agriculture, commerce, & every thing useful must be neglected, when the useless employment of money is so much more lucrative.

The bickering between Hamilton and Jefferson maddened Washington. He tells of his concerns to Jefferson (23 Aug. 1792):

If, instead of laying our shoulders to the machine after measures are decided on, one pulls this way and another that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried, it must inevitably be torn asunder; and in my opinion, the fairest prospect of happiness and prosperity that ever was presented to man, will be lost perhaps forever.

Days later (Aug. 26), Jefferson writes to Hamilton:

Differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is to be regretted, exceedingly, that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives which led to them, improperly implicated on the other: and this regret borders on chagrin when we find that Men of abilities—zealous patriots—having the same general objects in view, and the same up-right intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions, & actions of one another. When matters get to such lengths, the natural inference is, that both sides have strained the cords beyond their bearing—and that a middle course would be found the best, until experience shall have pointed out the right mode—or, which is not to be expected, because it is denied to mortals—there shall be some infallible rule by which we could fore judge events.

Jefferson replied to Washington in a lengthy letter, almost 3,600 words, on September 9.

His [Hamilton’s] system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.

He then refers implicitly to the issue of states’ rights. Why have he and Hamilton not drawn together? He answers with two more questions.

whose principles of administration best justify, by their purity, conscientious adherence? and which of us has, notwithstanding, stepped farthest into the controul of the department of the other?

The two men, holding antithetical political opinions, could never reconcile their views. In Empire of Liberty, Gordon Wood writes of the attractiveness of “the very innocence and impracticability of many of Jefferson’s opinions—their utopianism. Jefferson’s vision of a world free from coercion and war, free from the accumulated debts and regulations of the past, and free from corruption—this vision was an inspiring antidote to the prudential, mundane, and humdrum world of congressional politics.” Yet it as impracticable.

Jefferson’s political views would in time win the day with his election and reelection as president in 1800 and 1804, though his presidential actions—e.g., the Louisiana Purchase and the many forced measures to his embargo—were not always consistent with his strict constructionism. In many ways, he adopted Hamiltonian measures.

Later in life, Jefferson reflected, perhaps in syrupy manner, to William Short (8 Jan. 1825) that the political differences between himself and Hamilton were merely differences in two types of temperament, dictated by nature.

Take away this and some more dangerous principle of division will take its place.

Hamilton, it is well-known, would pass obtrusively after a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. He died as he lived. He would not live to be 50. Jefferson would pass unobtrusively on July 4, 1825, in his 83rd year. He died as he lived.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • R R Schoettker says:

    “….Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”

    Jefferson’s assessment of Hamilton’s personal honesty here (Malone’s second volume of his biography of Jefferson places this incident in a footnote as probably occurring in the spring of 1791 in Philadelphia) and thus predates the public admission of his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds late in 1792 that began in the summer of 1791. However, the evidence of his personal duplicity was clearly a matter of public record by the time Jefferson made his initial mention of this remark, and his assessment of Hamilton’s honesty as a man, in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1811. Perhaps just a reluctance to speak ill of the dead? Or, as you note “but also evidence of Jefferson’s circumspection”.

  • William Duncan says:

    Both men failed to understand human nature and biblical eschatology.

  • Yates says:

    “He paused for some time: “the greatest man,” said he, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.” Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”

    I think that you have to view Hamilton within the context of British Feudal structure, which even though he would be illegitimate, he certainly feels entitled to lay claim to these ‘rights’, paternally. Ceasar topples the last vestige of (vaguely) representative rule, as the exclusion zone of military forces was specifically designed to prevent exactly what Caesar did.

    Hamilton was not honest or dishonest, he was a common Royalist. This would not be a unfamiliar or rare stance at that time, even amongst those who had no claim to any titles. Even amongst the average person, if you are Liege to some Lancastrian Plantagenet who rewards you for it, you may view this as optimal governance (until they decide to dispossess you anyway). In Hamilton’s case, if you view yourself AS the Lancastrian Plantagenet equivalent, then you surely approve.

    It is Jefferson who is the oddball at this time, not Hamilton. Today, Jefferson would still be the oddball however, because he would be completely spurned by the religious establishment, the uni-party, the federal bureaucracy, the banking system, and global corporate interests, whereas Hamilton and his duplicity would be warmly embraced by all of them.

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