John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.
Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.
Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 masterful biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.
In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.
As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)
Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”
But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).
Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.
Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.
Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013