Mr Jefferson, Mr Hamilton

My daughter kissing Alexander in the National Gallery, 2017

The roots of the United States Constitution can be traced back to the glittering salons of Paris and the buzzing intellectual circles of England. The era, called the Age of Enlightenment, bloomed with treatises and essays that would shape the political principles of American law.  

The core question concerned the character of humanity. By virtue of simply breathing was man guaranteed political rights? In that same vein, was every individual by nature good? If left alone could societies peacefully honor the rights of others, and in so doing, protect their own? 

Locke and Montesquieu promoted this notion that the rights of every individual would make for a natural order. Citizens, through mutual agreement, would give authority to a central government, that in turn protected their rights. People are the source of power, government protects rights.   

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 to protect colonial rights, and the colonists had a duty to establish a system that would.

Jefferson’s vision of American growth pointed toward a rural future. This interpretation meant free landholders dotting the continent, where no coercion was necessary. Government, in this scenario, dealt with foreign powers and general lawmaking.

James Madison, a protege of Jefferson, also made use of Locke, when he began the Constitution with “We The People.”

Jefferson’s political opponent, Alexander Hamilton held a starkly different view. Having come into the world without any standing, Hamilton rose in society through his own wit, and smarts. For America to gain stability Hamilton championed a strong central government with enough power to control the unruly. 

In practice, by 1781, each state functioned as independent fiefdoms, loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. Chaos thrived. The various states battled over waterways, currency, and trade. Worse, failure to levy taxes crippled the nation’s ability to function. 

From Hamilton’s perspective the nation would collapse if nothing changed. In Massachusetts, for instance, western farmers stormed foreclosure hearings, demanding justice through the barrel of their guns. State tax collectors found themselves risking life and limb at the hands of angry mobs. And these violent acts were erupting everywhere, not just in New England, but throughout the fledgling nation. 

What good was victory at Yorktown if America failed to get its footing? The British could bide their time and reoccupy when the country 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. 

A worried Hamilton, along with Madison designed a plan that became the Constitution.Their combined work essentially mounted to a rescue operation for the flailing country. With real alarm Hamilton declared to another statesman “your people, sir–your people is a great beast.” 

Young Hamilton too, borrowed liberally from Enlightened philosophers.The theories of Englishman, Thomas Hobbes convinced the New Yorker that people required a strong central authority to maintain order: excesses from individuals and states a far greater threat than the British. A strong central government, with the power to tax would harness control and curb lawless behavior, because to Hamilton, the nature of man meant selfishness, and mindless brutality.

Mr Hamilton focused his energy on economic growth, encouraging industry, invention, and commerce. From credit to taxation, Hamilton understood, without a healthy foundation philosophical differences were moot. 

When the Constitutional Convention finally adjourned in September, 1787, the product of their work, the US Constitution became an amalgam of both Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Upon returning from France, Jefferson flipped out a bit reading the new framework. He argued that the document was limited in scope, strictly interpreted with 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 in the beliefs of Mr Jefferson and Mr Hamilton. *Except for Mr Trump who has no political beliefs, only a lust for power and money. 

Are people in fact, good? Or are we a beast? We all find a political home somewhere between.

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

Aftermath

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The Constitution was slightly over twelve years old. The rules on presidential elections read precisely on paper, and in 1800 the front runner, Thomas Jefferson looked to enter the White House with ease. However, though designed by the best minds of that era, the flaws built into the Electoral College failed to deliver Jefferson his expected victory. Something had gone terribly awry triggering America’s first electoral crisis. 

New York Republican, Aaron Burr was chosen as Jefferson’s running mate. The thinking was to balance the ticket with a Virginian at the top, and a New Yorker in the second spot drawing Northern votes. Thus the stage was set for a painless triumph over the faltering Federalist Party. However, when the electoral votes were tallied as prescribed by Article 2, the running mates unexpectedly tied for the top spot.

The fault lay in the statute itself, by failing to anticipate such a scenario. Jefferson soon grew furious as Burr passively declined to concede the office, and the tie was forced to the House of Representatives for resolution. In the end the stalemate broke when Alexander Hamilton intervened, persuading the hold-over Federalist majority to choose Jefferson as the lesser of the two evils. (One of the grievances leading to the later duel with Burr). But why?

This was personal. New Yorkers both, Hamilton and Burr had come to detest one another, Though no political friend of Jefferson, Hamilton recognized a fellow patriot, despite deeply held differences. Burr, however was only interested in Burr. Hamilton’s intent was to protect the new nation, and block a scoundrel from assuming the highest office in the land.

Jefferson was sworn into office, and later, in 1804, the Constitution was modified with the Twelfth Amendment, rectifying the design flaws in the original document. 

Twenty years later, in 1824, another impasse materialized that touched off national outrage for decades. The shifting winds of political change found a champion in the person of General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory had built his reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter, slave holder, and conqueror of Spanish Florida. His feats were celebrated throughout the growing nation, and Jackson’s prospects for election seemed assured. But again, events proved otherwise.

When the Electoral Vote was counted Andrew Jackson had received 99 votes. New England’s John Quincy Adams, son of the Second President, had secured 84 electoral votes. William Crawford of Georgia, though quite ill, earned 41 votes, and lastly, the former Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, 37. The magic number in 1824 to claim victory was 130 votes, so the race was once more, referred to the House of Representatives. Still, Jackson clearly had been the choice of the people.

When John Quincy Adams was unexpectedly named President the public outcry was deafening. In defiance of the people, Henry Clay, the former Speaker used his considerable influence to place Quincy Adams in the White House. When Clay became Adams nominee for Secretary of State, cries of “Corrupt Bargain” blazed across the nation. A furious Andrew Jackson at once began his bid for the presidency in 1828.

Quincy and Clay were stunned. They took actions they believed were best for the nation. They saw the capricious Jackson as a danger to democracy, a man who demonstrated the tendencies of a despot. Still Adams was politically wounded, and the Administration did little of substance in the four years left to them. As for Henry Clay, he never fully restored his reputation.

Other questionable elections repeated through the years. In 1876 with the election of Ruther”fraud” B Hayes, and again in 2000 with the Bush V Gore “hanging chad” debacle.

Today America is dealing with another administration struggling for legitimacy.

The Election of 2016 has left the American public uncertain that  their votes actually count. Russian interference, through social media, and electronic hacking was an exculpatory factor in the outcome. Sinister and new in electoral history, cyber espionage has given America a Chief Executive markedly sensitive to the dark subversion undermining his victory. 

Losing the popular vote by over 3 million ballots, the new president claims those votes were cast illegally, and demanded voting rolls from the states be turned over to a government committee for analysis. Nothing significant came of that effort, and questions continue to swirl around this fishy election cycle. 

Somewhere in the chaos the Russian government has reaped what it apparently wanted: domestic turmoil. A long-standing enemy of the United States, the former Soviet Union aims to re-elevate its international stature. What better way could objectives be met, than by hijacking an American election, causing enough confusion to find a sort of sweet revenge.

Deals have been brokered since the beginning of the Republic, but the players have been competing American interests. We may squabble our political beliefs among ourselves, but that is the messy nature of freedom. Now the arrangements appear to be negotiated by foreign players. This foreign interference cannot be repeated, we have future American generations to protect. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight.

Available on Kindle