The recent mid-term elections confirm America’s unique ability to survive wide swings in governance and come back to America’s center-right foundations. History gives us a clue: Thomas Jefferson penned most of the Declaration of Independence. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison penned most of the U.S. Constitution. Later, Jefferson and Madison would align themselves vs. Hamilton.
Looking at the attacks today’s political candidates hurl at each other, it is fair to wonder if the political debate has ever been worse. Yes, the newspaper campaigns waged somewhat surreptitiously against each other by Hamilton and Jefferson were vicious and mean-spirited to the extreme. But, despite their differences, Hamilton and Jefferson were both patriots. True patriots who would be opposed to the just-defeated Socialist assault on American institutions.
The anti-slavery Hamilton and even the slave-holding George Washington had a different vision for America from that of the slave-holders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. While Hamilton thought agriculture would always be important to America, Hamilton and the Federalists envisioned America as more of a manufacturing, mercantile, and commerce nation. Jefferson and Madison, (then, the Republicans) whose fortunes rested on slave-tended cotton and tobacco, felt agriculture should play the dominant role in the American economy.
President Washington, who eventually freed his slaves, foresaw the end of slavery and the need for America to turn toward Hamilton’s ideas about manufacturing, merchandising, and commerce. And so, during contentious cabinet debates between Hamilton and Jefferson, President Washington sided slightly more often with Hamilton than Jefferson.
The French Revolution brought the differences between Jefferson and Hamilton to a head. Jefferson and Madison excused the mass beheadings of the French nobility and the Catholic clergy as the natural, albeit distasteful, components of a true Revolution. Besides, the French had sided with the Colonists, providing crucial military and naval aid to Washington’s forces.
Hamilton countered by saying French aid was given by French nobles, not the masses. With France and Britain at war (as usual) Hamilton felt President Washington should issue a Proclamation of Neutrality which Washington did. Another defeat for Jefferson, although Washington, over Hamilton’s objections, agreed to receive an ambassador from Revolutionary France.
The French sent over a Girondist ambassador (whose faction was less bloodthirsty than the Guillotine-besotted Jacobins) who styled himself as Citizen Genet. In his luggage, Citizen Genet carried 150 Letters of Marque that authorized any sea captains who accepted them to become armed sea raiders for France, to include forcing American sailors to serve in the French Navy against Great Britain.
When President Washington told Genet to stuff his Letters of Marque back in his luggage. Genet said he would go around Washington to the American masses and win their support. That ripped it. Washington ordered Secretary of State Jefferson to tell France to recall Citizen Genet. A bitter pill and the last straw for Jefferson in Washington’s cabinet.
As Genet was about to sail for France, his Girondists fell out of power. Had Genet landed back in France, he would have been beheaded. Hamilton convinced Washington to grant asylum to Genet who lived out his life in obscurity in northern New York.
So, while we may rightly think today’s political campaigns are rough and tumble, they are not without precedent.
‘Suggested reading: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, 2004. Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, by John Ferling, 2013.
©2022. William Hamilton. All rights reserved.