Last week was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and coupled with the overwhelming popularity of the Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton, I’ve always been curious about the enmity between these two of our founding fathers.
I read their biographies a long time ago, but I remained a bit puzzled why they were at such odds with each other. So let’s harken back to the days of old and explore where they came from and what brought them to the point of no return.
Jefferson was a tall man, 6’2”. He and his wife, Martha, had six children. He was the principal author of our Declaration of Independence and served as the governor of Virginia. He became our first Secretary of State in George Washington’s cabinet. It was here that he and Hamilton first crossed swords. In 1800, Jefferson became our third president.
His travels to France enamored him of everything French, even their revolution.
Monarchy was something he did not want to see in America and was very concerned that the Federalists would push in that direction. Because of this anti-monarchy feeling, he was a great proponent of small decentralized federal government. He opposed adoption of the constitution and preferred keeping the Articles of Confederation in place as is.
He often shunned the limelight and often enlisted others to speak and write about his ideas. As a leader of the anti-Federalists, he was joined by other prominent American political thinkers; James Monroe, Thomas Payne, Aaron Burr, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry.
The contrast between Jefferson and Hamilton was electric. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis Island in the Caribbean in 1755. He came to America to attend Kings College, now Columbia University. He was 5’7” tall and had eight children with his socialite wife, Elizabeth.
He enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Continental Army and became Aide de Camp to General George Washington. He was bright and outspoken about all the issues of the day.
Hamilton was a great admirer of the English form of government. He wanted a strong central government for the U.S. and was one of the principal authors of the Federalist Papers. He was our first Secretary of the Treasury and essentially created the financial system that financed our government and served our economy.
He successfully argued that the implied powers of the Constitution provided the legal authority to fund the national debt and create the government-backed Bank of the United States. His programs were primarily funded by taxes on imports.
As President Washington made several attempts, to no avail, to try to avoid a continuing war between Jefferson and Hamilton.
The Federalist Papers were a series of essays published in N.Y. newspapers in 1787-88 to explain and argue for the adoption of the proposed Constitution. They came about partly in response to a group of opposing essays critical of the new Constitution.
The writer of the Federalist Papers was Publius, later revealed to be a group pen name for Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.
Both men dallied a bit from their public and married postures. Jefferson had a long-running affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hennings, after Martha died. Hamilton had a short liaison with a married woman named Maria Reynolds.
The Constitution survived, and Jefferson survived. Unfortunately, Hamilton did not, killed in a dual with Aaron Burr on July 12, 1804. He was only 49 years old.
We owe a lot to both men who made significant contributions to our founding and historical growth and success.