A History of Dysfuntion in American Party Politics

Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr and the Birth of the Party System in America


There are two lines of thought that predominate historical political research in America. One says that although leaders of political parties have had widespread disagreements throughout the history of the republic that these leaders have generally agreed on the general idea to put country first. The other states – in rather nuanced terms – that America has been a nation filled with political partisans fueled by infighting and at times even personal hatred which has torn at the very foundation of our democracy that predates even our inception as a nation. It often seems completely asinine to scholars of both camps that these two narratives hold within them one common thread that holds true regardless of how you view the history of American party politics. This central truth is that the people involved in the operation of our political institutions have been driven not only by ideology and a need to be right, but also the underlying core belief that regardless of any evidence to the contrary the other side is inherently wrong.

This may seem like a rather simple, basic, and even straightforward approach to the history of American politics, but scholars have argued through a purely ideological lens for the greatness of one leader over another because it reinforces their idea of who we are as a people and what America stands for as a nation. We are the sum of our leaders in many historical instances, but just how crass and utterly disagreeable these leaders were is something that is often glossed over in favor of an ideology that asserts American greatness regardless of any instances to the contrary. I will argue that American political leaders have always been petty, party ideologues bent on the destruction of their political enemies since the dawn of the American republic.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Constitution should be adopted after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Several states were very much on the brink of not adopting the Constitution among them included New York, Maryland and Virginia. The odd political pairing of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison put forth the Federalist Papers, which is probably the most thorough argument in support of the Constitution written to date. The authors both believed that the Constitutional Convention had gone awry however. Hamilton actually left the Convention after his plan of appointing Senators and Presidents for life was not approved, but came back in September to sign the Constitution. Hamilton said that the Constitution simply amounted to “democracy checked by democracy.” Madison told Jefferson that the Constitution would create a “feudal system of republics” and was a mere “material” improvement over the Articles of Confederation.

Thomas Jefferson, in typical Jeffersonian fashion, was for the Constitution, but against its ratification. Jefferson wrote that: “I wish with all my soul that the nine first Conventions may accept the new Constitution, because this will secure to us the good it contains, which I think great and important. But I equally wish that the four latest conventions, whichever they may be, may refuse to accede to it till a declaration of rights be annexed.” Leave it to Thomas Jefferson to create the most nuanced position imaginable on a document that was the most important in the founding of the republic. James Madison was working to get Virginia to ratify the Constitution while his most trusted confidant Thomas Jefferson worked behind the scenes in an effort to get them to reject it.

All of this was mere foreshadowing of what was to come however. During the first Congress things went relatively well with James Madison in charge. He set the legislative agenda in coordination with Washington and the two were able to get past some really bad ideas about titles put forth by John Adams and assemble the cabinet for the following year. It’s after this honeymoon phase that things got rough. Washington offered the Treasury Secretary job to Alexander Hamilton and gave Jefferson a choice of the remaining cabinet positions of which he took Secretary of State. Since this was all relatively new cabinet Secretaries were able to operate with much more leeway than they are today. Jefferson, for instance, was more than the nation’s top diplomat, he also had some control over domestic matters and had some input in coordinating policy.

It was Jefferson who urged Washington to sign the controversial bank bill that he – at the same time opposed. Hamilton also did more than run the treasury. He had Washington’s ear on most policy initiatives tied to fiscal policy and the national debt, which extended into foreign policy since much of the money America owed was to foreign lenders. It was Hamilton who pushed for passage of a bill of assumption where the states pooled their debt and the federal government assumed the debt under the full faith and credit clause. The bank bill was also Hamilton’s idea. Madison would declare that incorporating banks was beyond the scope of federal power despite the fact that he had been the one to introduce the idea that the government should have powers of incorporation during the Constitutional Convention.

Understanding what exactly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were “for” in the 1790’s is an issue that historical scholars have failed to coalesce around. Thomas Jefferson was against anything that Alexander Hamilton was for. Jefferson saw Hamilton as an American monarchist who wanted to elect Presidents for life and have a landed aristocracy with titles. What Jefferson could not seem to do was precisely what James Madison did in his awakening as a Democratic-Republican in opposition to the Federalist cause and that was voice his opposition to policies he saw as unfair without hating the man whose policies they were.

The principal problem in Jefferson’s anti-Hamilton approach was that he was working in the government of George Washington who had served in the Revolutionary War with Hamilton. Hamilton and Washington understood a reality that Jefferson never could and that was what bonded men together in times of extreme strife. Jefferson had never served, neither had Madison, so in Washington and Hamilton’s eyes Jefferson and Madison had never had to rely on Congress to do its job as a matter of life or death. Hamilton – in his capacity as Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war – knew how to get what he needed for Washington so that Washington could focus on the day-to-day maintenance of the army. The two shared a bond that lasted throughout the war. Washington had a special place in his heart for those he served with.

Thomas Jefferson was a man who believed in the absolute good of policy, but he also had the nasty habit of believing that he was the only person who could be absolutely correct about what policy was best. In a Republican government where one is not the head of state there are times when it is necessary to do things one might not themselves do in other circumstances. Supporting policies that benefit an administration so that the citizenry may see that the government is worthy of the trust they have placed in it is one of those things. That was not however what Thomas Jefferson was about. James Madison had the experience of having to negotiate the Constitution in the Constitutional Convention. He had made huge sacrifices in his vision of the government to make a strong federal government possible.

Jefferson had his vision of an agrarian society with rolling hills and country meadows that looked like the views he had from his country estate at Monticello. His idealism he saw as being grounded in the life he lived. Jefferson held the interests of his home state as being of paramount importance in the making and execution of federal policy. What Madison and Hamilton understood that Jefferson did not was that the necessity of establishing a federal government that was reputable was as important as the interests of their home states. Hamilton laid out a vision for America where her credit was never something anyone had to question. He understood the value of having a strong financial system while Jefferson viewed Hamilton’s system as being an extension of an erroneous view of the aim of the federal government. Jefferson saw the banking issues that Hamilton was attempting to tackle at the treasury department as something that fell under the purview of the tenth amendment to the Constitution.

The issue that lay at the crux of the Jeffersonian argument against Hamilton’s vision of Federalism was that the federal government should not have the power that came with the ability to regulate nearly everything in the economy. The mere notion of a government with the ability to regulate commerce and levy taxes was no different than living under British rule in Jefferson’s mind. This is where things get tricky because different people were participating in the Revolutionary War for different reasons. For men like Jefferson it was about maintaining honor. For men like Hamilton it was about creating honor for themselves. Hamilton and Jefferson came from very different stations in life. Hamilton came to America from the island of Nevis paid for by the goodwill of others. Jefferson came to his position in life by birth. When approaching a problem like debt these two radically different paths made it nearly impossible for men like Hamilton and Jefferson to see eye-to-eye.

What Jefferson likely saw as staggering was just how able an opponent Hamilton could be. Jefferson would raise questions about Hamilton’s plans and Hamilton would write pages and pages of answers to every question Jefferson could think of. It had to be maddening for a man with a mind like Jefferson’s to go up against someone who worked just as hard as he did and held on to his beliefs just as rigidly as Jefferson did. Hamilton could come across at times as tactless in debate and nowhere is this more evident than in New York where Hamilton made his home after the war. Personal attacks were an all too common occurrence in the early days of the republic.

During the election of 1789 Alexander Hamilton attacked New York Governor George Clinton’s war record saying that: “after diligent enquiry, I have not been able to learn that he was ever more than once in actual combat.” One of Clinton’s surrogates hit back at Hamilton saying: “your private character is still worse than your public one and it will yet be exposed by your own works, for you will not be bound by the most solemn of obligations!” The end of that remark is a suggestion that Hamilton has been unfaithful to his wife. After John Adams put together a list of rather absurd titles for the President to be addressed by his political opponents responded all too maturely by dubbing him: “His Rotundity.” Apparently fat jokes were in vogue even in the last decade of the eighteenth century.

There are many wonderful exemplars of pettiness in American politics, but there was likely no one more partisan than Thomas Jefferson nor anyone as bent on the personal destruction of his opponents than Andrew Jackson. Thomas Jefferson began his campaign for the Presidency from within the cabinet of President George Washington. Jefferson had such frequent and elaborate disagreements with Hamilton that cabinet meetings had to at times be divided up into two sessions: those with the Hamiltonians and those with Jeffersonians. Jefferson felt that his views were not being given as much weight as Hamilton’s and with good reason. As Secretary of State, Jefferson was supposed to be the top diplomat in the cabinet not the chief economist and top domestic policy advisor as well. As his correspondence with James Madison prove well before the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions is that Jefferson put forth a concerted effort not merely to combat Hamilton and his policies, but the actual policies of the President he worked for. Jefferson actually started his own political newspapers to essentially run opposition research against Hamilton and Vice President John Adams.

What’s remarkable about all of this isn’t that Jefferson took on much of the Washington administration while he was still a member of said administration, that happens in almost every administration, but that he took on someone who he once counted as among his closest friends in John Adams simply for being deferential to Hamilton on domestic policy matters as the purview of his office suggested he should. It was Adams that was supposed to write the Declaration of Independence, but thought Jefferson a better writer and that it would be best if such a document came from the hand of a southerner and not a man from New England. It was Adams who – when elected President in 1796 – proposed a Co-Presidency with Jefferson. Jefferson was a man who always thought he knew best even when it meant his political and eventually financial ruin. He was fiercely partisan to the point where running the country with Adams wasn’t good enough because Adams’s views did not one hundred percent coincide with his own.

Jefferson is often hailed as a political dealmaker, most notably by Joseph Ellis in his book: Founding Brothers, but Jefferson’s need to be right was what drove these deals not some grandiose notion that compromise in itself was a good thing. Jefferson refused compromise when his own interests were at stake in favor of simply letting his newspapers destroy the opposition. For Jefferson, politics was a very personal business. So personal in fact that when it became clear that Washington was adopting Hamilton’s worldview on matters of importance to him Jefferson resigned from the cabinet. He had no interest in staying on because he viewed it as a personal affront that Washington favored Hamilton’s advice on matters that fell under Hamilton’s purview more than his. Now, some scholars argue that this was merely a continuation of a war between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. There is some truth to that, but consider that Jefferson hired Philip Freneau as a French translator at the state department only to have him run the newspaper the National Gazette, which was used often for the sole purpose of attacking Alexander Hamilton and you see a view of Jefferson that can best be described as petty. Washington demanded Freneau’s firing, but Jefferson refused furthering tensions between the two men.

Hamilton is not without blame in all of this either, of course. Hamilton’s pro-England monetary and industrial policies were at odds with Jefferson’s egalitarian view of the country. When you look at the feuds between these two men it’s rather remarkable that they managed to achieve anything of note whatsoever. The two spent so much time attacking each other both in the press and in cabinet meetings that the fact that official affairs of the government were still getting done is a real testament to Washington’s leadership of the government. To really understand Jefferson though you have to understand how far he went with Aaron Burr. In the election of 1800 there was a tacit agreement that was fairly well known that Jefferson was running for President and Burr was running for Vice-President, but because of the rules of the Electoral College at the time the two men received the same amount of Electoral votes. It would take thirty-six ballots in the U.S. House of Representatives to declare Jefferson the winner (Alexander Hamilton actually played a key role in this debate in the House), but the disagreement between Jefferson and Burr translated not only into the twelfth amendment to the Constitution, but Jefferson spear-heading Burr’s prosecution for Treason in 1807. Politics was a very personal business to a man like Thomas Jefferson.


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