By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: John Ferling
Narration by: Stephen McLaughlin
John Ferling’s “Jefferson and Hamilton” illustrates the value of political division in the history of American government. Today, America’s pretenders to the “throne” are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In the formative years of government, Ferling shows “Jefferson and Hamilton” are representatives of opposing political forces who have a great deal to do with forging the future of America. Though political parties are reversed, Jefferson reminds one of today’s American Democratic aspirant and Hamilton reminds one of America’s Republican aspirant. Each has profound effect on America’s future. Ms. Clinton, like Jefferson, looks to the people for guidance on government policy. Mr. Trump, like Hamilton, looks to personal experience in business for guidance on government policy.
Obviously, this comparison is imperfect in that Ms. Clinton is neither a racist nor a scrivener of genius (like Jefferson), and Mr. Trump is neither politically sensitive nor charismatically persuasive (like Hamilton). Of course, the comparison also breaks down in other respects; e.g. Clinton is an advocate of federal government intervention (Jefferson is not) and Trump is born with a silver spoon (Hamilton is not), but the point is Presidents who are elected make a difference.
Both Jefferson and Hamilton are shown to be highly intelligent leaders with philosophies shaped by entirely different life experiences. Both are patriots but each sees the role of national government differently. Ferling notes that Jefferson is raised in an intellectual and upper middle class environment while Hamilton is raised in the school of hard knocks. Jefferson’s brilliance and farsighted thought is evident in his authorship of the “Declaration of Independence”. Hamilton’s brilliance and farsighted thought is evident in his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury.
The fascinating value of Ferling’s book is how these two men and their beliefs are built on life experiences that formed their characters. Though Jefferson is against slavery, he believes blacks are inherently inferior. Jefferson slaves are property and, with the exception of the Hemings’ offspring, Jefferson refuses to release any slaves during his life time. Jefferson, through marriage and inheritance, becomes a wealthy landowner but lives life as a profligate who squanders his family fortune. Jefferson graduates from William and Mary and becomes a lawyer. Ferling explains that Jefferson believes his years as an American diplomat in Paris are the best years of his life. Though Jefferson leaves Paris in 1789, he supports France’s revolution; even as it murders the royal family who supported America’s war for independence. Jefferson believes periodic revolution is a good thing; despite the near term consequence of “The Terror” in France and its human butchery and property destruction.
In contrast to Jefferson’s birth into a conventional American family, Hamilton is born out-of-wedlock in the West Indies. He works for a merchant in the West Indies and becomes acquainted with mercantilism and the importance of business. Because of Hamilton’s work ethic and intelligence, he is supported by his West Indies employer as an émigré to America. Hamilton exhibits an extraordinary ability to get things done. With his West Indies employer’s financial assistance, Hamilton enrolls in Kings college. He becomes a lawyer with ambition to participate in the formation of the American nation.
Both Jefferson and Hamilton are shown by Ferling to be in direct conflict on the purpose of the federal government. Jefferson emphasizes State’s rights while Hamilton argues for centralization and strong Federal oversight. Jefferson looks to the States for national defense while Hamilton argues for a standing army. Jefferson opposes creation of a national bank while Hamilton insists on federalized control of the value of money. Jefferson believes the economic future of America is dependent upon farming while Hamilton believes mercantilism. industrialization, and trade should be at the center of economic growth.
Ferling’s characterization of these two scions of America implies Jefferson is a thinker while Hamilton is a doer. Jefferson uses his formidable intellect to rationalize his racist beliefs while insisting slavery is a sin against man. Jefferson seeks a life of tranquility and believes it lies in an agrarian way of life; i.e. away from war and urbanization. His ambition for high public office is hidden but surreptitiously pursued through association with like-minded Americans. In contrast, Hamilton is a risk taker and pines for military command and fame in the revolutionary army.
Washington chooses Hamilton as his military aide because of his organizational ability. Hamilton resents Washington’s aloof treatment of him but sees Washington as a ticket to fame; i.e. a seat at the table in the formation of a new nation. Hamilton appreciates Washington’s bravery under fire but considers him a poor strategist in war. Hamilton’s relationship with Washington is utilitarian in the sense that Washington’s renown is a tool for Hamilton to accomplish his life ambition. Ferling suggests both Jefferson and Hamilton underestimate Washington’s inherent ability to measure the value of subordinates and get things done through other people.
Ferling contrasts Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s personalities. Both are sensitive to slights. Both act surreptitiously to accomplish their objectives. Both have what some call libertine leanings with illicit female relationships. However, Jefferson is reserved and patrician in conduct while Hamilton is outgoing and vociferous in public. Jefferson is inclined to theorize while Hamilton acts. The consequence of acting versus theorizing is exemplified by the duel with Burr that ends Hamilton’s life and allows Jefferson to become the third President of the United States.
Both Jefferson and Hamilton suffer from their secretive way of getting things done. Jefferson loses his relationship with Washington by writing correspondence to a friend that is critical of Washington’s presidency. Hamilton is openly hated and vilified by President Adams for his secretive manipulation of his only term as President. Adams’ hate is magnified by Hamilton’s interference in Adams’ attempted re-election.
Ferling makes a strong case for the importance of both Jefferson and Hamilton in forging the American nation. One is reminded of the humanness of all leaders. After listening to Ferling’s book about “Jefferson and Hamilton”, one is convinced that America will prevail, even in the worst of times; which, to some, may be today.
Ferling notes that Jefferson’s prediction that industrialization and movement away from an agrarian economy risks oligarchical control of the United States. Jefferson predicts the rise of wealth held by the few will subvert the underlying principles of the Declaration of Independence. This is an example of Jefferson’s genius. Though flawed as human beings, many of Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s political insights resonate throughout the history of America.