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 brilliant 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 wit, 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 thrived. 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, 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

New Name Same Party

Unknown-1.jpeg

On Twitter, Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Congressman Louis Gohmert, R-Texas have been been busy disseminating political fiction.

Both have tweeted on the Democratic Party as the perpetrators of the Civil War, racism, and other misleading accusations.

Were these two guilty of sleeping through their history classes, or purposefully spreading propaganda to other former classroom snoozers? 

The Democratic Party evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to the US Constitution. Jefferson had been abroad during the Constitutional Convention and upon his return quickly made his objections known. A planter and slave master, this “natural aristocrat” resisted any higher form of government that checked his own authority.

Jefferson rejected the notion that a distant power knew better than he, the master of Monticello. He favored a small, disinterested government that coordinated foreign affairs, trade, and not much more. Men such as himself could better govern localities than any distant political power.

As America’s third president, Jefferson envisioned a Republic of “farmers,” like himself, running their own fiefdoms across the continent. (That is until he bought Louisiana, where he stretched the Constitution plenty).

That’s about it. That was the essence of the 18th, and early 19th Century philosophy supporting the Democratic Party. Oh, and the party shuffled names over that time, as well, though never wavering from the belief that local government served democracy best.

First, called Antifederalists, for opposing the Constitution, then Jeffersonian-Republicans, opposing Hamilton’s Federalists. Later, after the War of 1812, the name became Democratic-Republicans, then simply Democrats under Andrew Jackson. Still the philosophy endured; curb centralized economic, and other domestic investments and maintain local control.

The late 20th Century’s Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War brought about yet another rebranding of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election moved the Solid South from Democratic to Republican.

Reagan’s famously asserted that big government wasn’t the solution, but the problem. And that suited former southern Democrats just fine. Less government, less in taxes, and more local control. Relaxing economic regulations, and starving domestic programs rounded out the 1980 agenda. 

When Ted Cruz and Louis Gohmert spout off on the villainy of the Democratic Party, don’t be fooled. Remember that these sons of the South embrace the same old Jeffersonian ideology today, neatly packaged under the now-eroding GOP.  

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com