Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the Development of the American Republic, Essay Example

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Essay

Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783 via the signing of the Treaty of Paris, two outstanding men came to the forefront with the shared goal to create a new American Republic, a Grand Experiment based on the principles of several major French and British philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Hobbes, not to mention the ideals and principles expressed in a little pamphlet called Common Sense by Thomas Paine. These two men were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and although born and raised under very different circumstances, “shared a common commitment to the American cause” by risking their lives in defiance of the powerful British Empire (Cunningham, p. 7).

Yet despite this great commitment, Jefferson and Hamilton did not share a common vision related to how the young Republic should take shape, but because of the Revolution which “ultimately brought them together as the young American nation took form” (Cunningham, p. 7), Jefferson and Hamilton were often forced to put aside their differences in order to help develop the Grand Experiment known as the United States of America.

As the first Secretary of State under the Presidency of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was by avocation a farmer and landowner with a deep and abiding interest in science, architecture, literature, philosophy, and not surprisingly politics. Thus, his personal vision for the New Republic was founded on the ideals associated with an agrarian society or one in which the economy is fueled by farming and agriculture. Jefferson was also steadfast in his belief that the American colonists should be in control of their own destinies and must serve as  administrators of the New Republic. In essence, since Jefferson was “born into the privileged world of colonial Virginia planters” (Cunningham, p. 1), he desired to see the New Republic adhere to the path of agrarian tradition, similar to Great Britain with its vast agricultural regions dedicated to farming and raising crops which powered the economic backbone of the British Empire.

For example, Jefferson was more than confident that the American colonists could fend for themselves and had the wisdom and knowledge to build a powerful economic engine based on farming and agricultural pursuits. Oddly enough, considering his background, Jefferson was dead-set against any kind of special privileges, a possible reflection of his hatred for European nobility and the old system of feudal serfdom in which the landowner possessed the power to control and manipulate those beneath him as the Lord of the Manor.

For many American colonists, Jefferson’s viewpoints on how the New Republic should operate and sustain itself were taken to heart, thus creating what came to be known as the Jeffersonians, mostly composed of small and independent shop owners, artists (i.e., writers, printers, bookbinders and booksellers), common settlers, and small landowners. Also known as Jeffersonian democracy, this belief system or way of living eventually led to the creation of the Republican Party or republicanism which today is one of two major political parties in the United States.

For Jefferson the politician and farmer, all who believed and/or practiced Jeffersonian democracy had to be willing to commit themselves to civic responsibility and were duty-bound to remain honest and forthright. They were also expected to be non-supportive of all the trappings of the monarchical system as found in Great Britain and the aristocracy, such as in France during the days of the French Revolution. It was also their responsibility to vote in elections and to fully support the candidates of their choice. Clearly then, it was Jefferson who developed the foundation of today’s political system and made it possible for all Americans to serve their country as concerned commoners with a sense of civic pride. In “A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans,” originally published in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1774, Jefferson proclaims that the “whole art of government consists in the art of being honest” (Cunningham, p. 8), a clear indication that Jefferson considered politics as an artform in which the artist was bound to represent the truth and to maintain personal integrity.

Jefferson was also dedicated to creating a central government that did not inherently possess unlimited power; rather, he favored strong state governments with the ability to decide their own destinies. In addition, Jefferson favored a rather narrow interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and believed that the liberties or rights of all Americans must be guaranteed by the imposition of laws and regulations. He also did not favor the creation of a national bank which in his view was not permitted in line with the U.S. Constitution. Strange as it may seem, Jefferson’s father, a “rising young planter and slaveholder” (Cunningham, p. 3) during his son’s early years, was quite wealthy, yet this  did not influence Thomas Jefferson as one might suspect, meaning that since his father was well-to-do, a national bank could have served him quite adequately.

In direct contrast to the beliefs and principles of Jefferson, those of Alexander Hamilton were polar opposites in almost every respect, but historically, Hamilton’s political viewpoints and his achievements as a member of President Washington’s cabinet and as the first Secretary of the Treasury did help to shape and mold the development of the New Republic in numerous ways. As Noble E. Cunningham points out, perhaps Hamilton’s most important contribution were the policies he enacted as head of the Treasury Department which played a “major role in establishing a firm financial base for the new American Republic” (p. 2).

As previously noted, Jefferson was convinced that the New Republic’s economic success hinged on advocating and practicing the agrarian tradition; however, Hamilton saw things in a completely different light. In his opinion as treasurer, Hamilton wanted the new country’s economic base to be wholly dependent on manufacturing and an open economic market in which the colonists could buy and sell commodities, such as cotton, tobacco, household goods, building materials, and other items that the growing nation would require in the years to come.

According to Hamilton, the foundation of this type of economic system was a national bank in the form of the First Bank of the United States. Hamilton’s reasoning for this type of financial institution rested on the fact that the New Republic was deep in debt because of expenditures made during the Revolutionary War and that every colony depended upon its own currency, meaning that at the time circa the late 1780’s, there was no national currency which in many ways made it difficult for the colonies to exchange goods and commodities based on an agreed monetary value. Certainly, Hamilton was way ahead of the game, due to realizing that in order for the New Republic to prosper, it needed a national currency and a standard monetary rate, especially if it was to succeed in relation to trading with foreign nations.

Hamilton also fully realized that by creating a national bank, the federal government would be able to offer credit to the colonists and also combine all of the debt generated by the colonies into a single entity which of course would be controlled by the government. This would also allow the federal government to create tariff laws related to importing goods from other nations and government-sponsored subsidies to help protect and promote manufacturing in the colonies.

As might be expected, Jefferson was solidly against Hamilton’s economic approach, due in part to its mandate that the power of the individual colonies and later on the states would be severely limited; Jefferson also strongly opposed Hamilton’s suggestion that the economic foundation of the New Republic must be manufacturing or the production of goods and commodities. It is interesting to note that Hamilton’s economic approach, an early type of model for the American capitalistic system, became the standard of the day when the Industrial Revolution reached the shores of the American colonies in the late 1790’s and early 1800’s, a timeframe that ironically coincides with the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

This is only one example on how the ideas and principles of Jefferson and Hamilton diverged while members of President Washington’s cabinet. Several others include Hamilton’s belief that wealthy and well-educated men as opposed to the common man should have the power to rule and determine how the government of the New Republic operates. Hamilton also believed that the overall structure of the federal government must replicate the bicameral system of the Great Britain and that the U.S. Constitution must be interpreted in a sort of detached manner. One other important difference is that Hamilton favored internal taxes via taxing the colonies in order to add to the coffers of the U.S. Treasury.

Unfortunately, Alexander Hamilton did not live long enough to witness how his ideals and principles eventually formed the core of many federal government systems and ways of doing business, especially his economic ideal of a manufacturing base for economic growth and prosperity. On July 12, 1804, Hamilton died from wounds received in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr over a dispute involving personal honor and integrity. As for Thomas Jefferson, he went on to become the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809 during which America was greatly expanded by the Louisiana Purchase. In conclusion, as Cunningham reminds us, “Despite the vast differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, both men contributed greatly to the shaping of the American nation in its formative years” (p. 169) by sharing one distinct ambition–to create a New Republic in which men could live free to decide their own fates without being shackled by the dictates of a foreign government.

Works Cited

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Confrontations that Shaped a Nation. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

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