As members of President George Washington’s cabinet, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson often butted heads over their competing visions for the United States. While Hamilton sought a strong federal government and an economy based on banking and industry, Jefferson championed the role of the states and republican ideals. It’s a debate that endures to this very day. So whose American vision has come closest to its fulfillment?
The Case for Alexander Hamilton’s Vision
“We live, without question, in Hamilton’s America,” says Stephen F. Knott, professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College and co-author of “Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America.”
“Hamilton had the foresight to see the United States emerging as an economic and military power that would surpass Great Britain and the other European powers. All of Hamilton’s policies as treasury secretary and as President Washington’s closest advisor were designed to convince his fellow Americans to, as Hamilton put it, ‘think continentally.’ He wanted the citizenry to think of themselves first and foremost as Americans—not New Yorkers or Virginians.
“Hamilton became the nation’s first treasury secretary at a time when the citizens of South Carolina and New Hampshire had about as much in common with one another as they did with someone from Tasmania. Hamilton succeeded in creating an American sense of identity in part by creating institutions that would bind the people to the national government, not their respective states, such as the national bank and the assumption by the national government of the state debts from the Revolutionary War.”
Knott tells HISTORY that without Hamilton’s contributions, it would have been next to impossible for the United States to have emerged as a superpower during the 20th century. “Hamilton’s economic vision was contrary to that of Jefferson’s, and as such the United States might not have moved—or at least not moved as quickly—in the direction of becoming a manufacturing nation and the world’s largest economy by late in the 19th century,” he says.
“Hamilton was the father of American capitalism, which arguably produced one of the highest standards of living in the world,” Knott says. “His policies at the Treasury Department were designed to enhance the development of manufacturing. His economic policies such as a national bank, tariffs to protect American manufacturing, and the stabilization of the nation’s finances, which enabled the country to establish a good credit rating, all contributed to the overall rise of the United States as an economic superpower.”
Knott also notes that Hamilton was the driving force behind the publication of the Federalist Papers—writing 51 of the 85 essays while working in concert with James Madison and John Jay—that laid the theoretical blueprint for an “energetic executive,” a model followed closely by Washington.
“From the beginning to the end of this most important first presidency, Washington followed Hamilton’s advice, much to Thomas Jefferson’s distress,” he says. “Remove Hamilton from Washington’s cabinet, and you would have a number of very different precedents. Hamilton was determined to infuse as many elements of energy and permanence into a new national government under the Constitution that would allow the nation to defend itself from foreign attacks and domestic insurrections, and provide an environment conducive to economic development.”
Knott says that Hamilton’s vision of a United States in which its citizens thought “continentally” had ramifications when the country faced its greatest crisis during the Civil War. “The concept of union, of American nationhood, was embedded deeply enough in parts of the North that Union soldiers were prepared to die for that principle. It is no accident that Hamilton was a revered figure during the Gilded Age, seen by presidents such as James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and other Republicans as the most impressive Founding Father.”
The Case for Thomas Jefferson’s Vision
Kevin R.C. Gutzman opens his new book, “Thomas Jefferson— Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America,” with the assertion that “Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American political history outstrips that of any other figure.” He argues that Jefferson infused the United States with the republican spirit that has characterized the country since its inception.
“Jefferson is chiefly responsible for the disentanglement of government and religion and the general consensus at the time of the Revolution that the government would be republican and most of its office-holders elected,” Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University, tells HISTORY. He points to republican principles championed by Jefferson such as
local control of education, democratizing land holding and decentralized government. In addition, he says the Louisiana Purchase orchestrated by Jefferson is the primary reason that America became a trans-continental country, which allowed it to eventually become an economic, military and diplomatic superpower.
Gutzman also points to the principles in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that was drafted by Jefferson and widely copied by other states and incorporated into the U.S. Constitution by James Madison. “In England, you couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge or serve in Parliament if you weren’t Episcopalian. Jefferson thought that was wrong,” he says. “The Jefferson view is that the government can only pervert religion. The government can only impose on people’s consciences, so it shouldn’t be involved.”
Although Jefferson was himself a member of Virginia’s landed aristocracy, he spearheaded the dismantlement of its system of primogeniture and entail, which prevented landholders from dividing properties to future generations. “In colonial Virginia 85 families owned about two-thirds of the land, and you can’t have a republic with 85 families owning most of the land,” Gutzman says. “With the change, instead of an aristocratic land distribution you had free distribution from one generation to another and land highly divided. It’s an extremely republican ideal.”
Jefferson’s grave marker lists his founding of the University of Virginia, but not his time in the White House, as one of his primary achievements, and Gutzman says there’s a good reason for that. “People don’t even realize Jefferson is the man who conjured every university these days,” he says.
Prior to the founding of the University of Virginia, university curriculums were more aristocratic, according to Gutzman. “The centerpiece of the curriculums were Greek and Latin. Students came to class to recite what they memorized,” he says. “Jefferson believed instead that students should study what they desired and thought useful. Instead of reciting what they memorized students demonstrated their knowledge with essay exams, which weren’t used anywhere before the opening of the University of Virginia in 1825. Every post-secondary school in America is now the University of Virginia. It’s the mother ship of American post-secondary education.”
Jefferson advocated the power of state governments to such an extent that when Jefferson talked about his “country,” he was referring to Virginia, Gutzman says. “In general Jefferson thought that to have a republican society it had to be highly decentralized. It didn’t mean, though, that he thought it wasn’t necessary for the federal government to have all the necessary strength when it came to diplomatic and military matters.”
Gutzman argues that the debate over the competing visions of Jefferson and Hamilton was settled in the election of 1800. “In the 1790s Hamilton wanted to use the military to tamp down political dissent, and his party was responsible for the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to speak out against the government. I think that was the route America would have followed if not for the republican success in the election of 1800. The victory meant that an aristocratic model of government was done. That was a lasting victory. Jefferson said the election of 1800 was as real a revolution of government principles as 1776 was in its form. The contest between the two was so lopsided that Hamilton’s party literally ceased to exist.”
Watch the 2-hour special Hamilton: Building America now.