Mr Jefferson, Mr Hamilton

My daughter kissing Alexander Hamilton in the National Gallery, 2017

Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? A. Lincoln, July 4th, 1861

The roots of the United States Constitution can be traced back to the sparkling salons of Paris and the intellectual circles of England. Termed the Age of Enlightenment, the era produced farsighted treatises and essays, that later influenced the principles of American law.  

One discussion pondered the character of humanity. By simply breathing air were all guaranteed fundamental rights? Was every person, by nature, competent to participate in the political process? In other words, if left unbridled, could citizens mutually ensure good order among themselves? 

Philosophers John Locke and Charles-Louis Montesquieu believed in that innate goodness. To their way of thinking, people, left in a state of nature, could be trusted, guided by enlightened self-interest. A limited central government best served in this model, trusting in individual virtue.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson nearly plagiarized Locke, justifying the causes for the break with Great Britain. The “Sage of Monticello” explained that Parliament had failed in protecting freeborn British Colonials, and argued that it was a duty to establish a better system that did.

Jefferson’s interpretation meant free landholders stretching across the vast continent required no political coercion. Government, in this scenario, left all persons in peace, limiting a federal system to foreign policy, tariffs and other national issues.

Jefferson’s political adversary, Alexander Hamilton held a starkly different view. Having come into the world without any standing, Hamilton rose in society by his own wits, and smarts. One had to earn the right to shape public policy. Hamilton championed a strong central government, endowed with enough power to found a stable nation-state. Economic authority, in particular, the power to tax, float bonds, and regulate tariffs was his prerequisite for lasting stability.  

In practice, by 1781, each state functioned as independent fiefdoms, loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. Chaos abounded. The various states battled over countless rival interests. A failure to levy taxes especially crippled the nation’s ability to function. 

From Hamilton’s perspective the nation would collapse if nothing was done to curb mob rule. Violent acts flared throughout the fledgling nation. From credit to taxation, Hamilton understood, without a healthy economy philosophical differences were moot. So with real alarm Hamilton vented to a political foe, “your people, sir–your people is a great beast.” 

What good was victory at Yorktown if America failed to function? The British could bide their time and reoccupy when the country eventually collapsed. In fact, war heroes like Ethan Allen were reaching out to the British in Canada, to protect settlers in Vermont, and land promoters in the south opened similar talks with Spanish. 

Young Hamilton too,had borrowed liberally from Enlightened philosophers.The theories of Englishman, Thomas Hobbes especially persuaded the New Yorker that people required a strong central authority. Impetuous citizens and resisting states posed a far greater threat than any adversary.

When the Constitutional Convention finally adjourned in September, 1787, the product of their work, the US Constitution fused Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. A new creation like no other ever.

Jefferson, fresh from Paris, flipped out a bit reading the new framework. He argued that the document must remain limited, exercising narrow authority. Hamilton argued for a much broader reading, insisting that ‘implied powers’ made the Constitution flexible.

This difference established the first political parties: The Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson, and the Federalists under Hamilton.

 Americans still find a home somewhere between the beliefs of Mr Jefferson and Mr Hamilton. Except for the great beasts who overemphasize their 2nd Amendment rights to attack the halls of government, and wage war upon us all..

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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