An Image Through Time


The Jefferson and Jackson Years

The presidential election of 1800 effectively relegated the Federalist party, including Hamilton, to political and popular irrelevance. Jefferson, the "Sage of Monticello," had risen to the nation's highest office and, despite the near-hysterical warnings of Federalists against anarchy and "Jacobinism," went on to preside over an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. The country had entered a new century and had never seemed on such sure footing. In this climate, Hamilton soon retired from the political sphere to pursue his private New York law practice.

During the election, the Federalists, with Hamilton leading the charge, had contributed to their own downfall by embroiling themselves in ugly internecine disputes (which ultimately would result in Hamilton's duel with Burr). Hamilton made known his low opinion of President Adams, who, against Hamilton's strongest wishes, was pursuing a policy of peace with France. On a personal level, Hamilton considered the president an unstable, jealous, vacilliating man prone to unseemly outbursts of temper. Hamilton's plan for the election was to maneuver Federalist electors into choosing Charles Pinckney, a South Carolina Congressman, and leaving Adams to be content with the Vice-Presidential spot on the ticket. Entering into Hamilton's preference, no doubt, was the fact that Pinckney had demonstrated a greater susceptibility to Hamilton's personal influence than had Adams.

In October, 1800, in response to a charge by Adams that he led a faction of "British partisans," Hamilton distributed to Federalist leaders his Letter from Alexander Hamilton concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams. Here, he presented a variety of dubious evidence purporting to show the President's "disgusting egotism," "ungovernable indiscretion," and so on. Rather than swaying opinion against Adams (the letter, after all, conceded the president's patriotism and talent), Hamilton's move redounded to his own discredit. Moderate Federalists rallied behind Adams, and even Noah Webster, a erstwhile admirer of Hamilton's, was inspired to write, "Your ambition, pride and overbearing temper have destined you to be the evil genius of the country!"

In contrast to such divisive intraparty politics, the Republicans put forth Jefferson and Aaron Burr with relativley little fuss. As the election approached and the Federalists saw the writing on the wall, some of them began to support Burr over Jefferson, whom they still regarded as embodying the worst kind of dreamy, agrarian populism. But Hamilton, partly out of personal dislike for Burr and partly out of a desire to keep his party from forming an alliance with any Republican, swallowed his pride and endorsed Jefferson. If Jefferson won, he reasoned, the Federalists would be able to survive as a party by concentrating their fire on their traditional bete noire, rather than being absorbed into a more sympathetic Burr administration.

As it turned out, his reasoning was off the mark. When Jefferson, in his inaugural address, declared that "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," he signalled not only a conciliatory attitude, but the undermining of the Federalists that Hamilton feared. The Jefferson administration effectively appropriated key aspects of the Federalist platform, and left the Federalists little room in which to form a relevant opposition ideology.

Once in office, Jefferson proved to be a pragmatist who could appreciate the benefits of an energetic central government. He also seemed to have matured in his view of the executive office, saying in 1810 that the people were "looking to the executive to give the proper direction to their affairs, with a confidence as auspicious as it is well founded." Even more significantly, since Jefferson recognized the infeasibility of reversing the Hamiltonian financial system, his administration simply began to use it effectively. The Bank of the United States survived and even thrived, the adminisration aided individual banks with government funds, and business went on much as it had before. Politically, Jefferson made the smart decision to repeal the excise tax, depriving the government of some funds, but winning public favor in the process. Hamilton found himself in the unenviable position of supporting the widely unpopular tax.

As the country surged into the new century and as public support for Jefferson steadily mounted, the Federalists were reduced to harping upon increasingly unpersuasive themes: the rise of demagoguery in the form of a Jacobite regime, the dismantling of republican government, the growing threat to virtue and property. The opposition task was a dreary and not very effective one, and many Federalists retired from politics altogether. Hamilton himself, becoming further separated from the mainstream of public opinion and further isolated in his stale critique of Jeffersonianism, returned to his law practice in the fall of 1801.

In an 1802 letter to his friend and political ally James Bayard, a representative from Delaware, Hamilton spelled out some of the reasons he thought underlay the Federalists' decline. The letter suggests that the Republicans' appeals to reason and enlightened sensibility were self-serving appeals to vanity that would also trump the Federalists' sober emphasis on principle. Hamilton wrote:

"Unluckily ... for us, in the competition of the passions of the people, our opponents have great advantages over us; for the plain reason that the vicious are far more active than the good passions; and that, to win the former to our side, we must renounce our principles and our objects, and united in corrupting public opinion till it becomes fit for nothing but mischief. Yet, unless we can contrive to take hold of, and carry along with us some strong feelings of the mind, we shall in vain calculate upon any substantial or durable results."

Hamilton's diagnosis, while biased, was largely correct, but the Federalists were unable to enact a cure. The image of Jefferson remained unassailable during the decades leading up the Civil War. In the election of 1828, for instance, both the National Republicans, under Henry Clay, and the Jacksonian Democrats invoked Jefferson's memory as the banner under which their respective parties marched.

Jackson, in his gruff populism, was a natural heir to the Jeffersonian legacy. The name of Hamilton was on few people's lips as Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Bank of the United States and the Maysville Road Bill, both of which represented the increasingly discredited Hamiltonian centralism.

A number of historians, however, recognized the implications of the country's adoration for Jefferson: while northern abolitionists seized upon the Declaration of Independence for their denunciations of slavery, southerners insisted upon Jefferson's doctrine of states' rights to resist any interference in their "peculiar institution." Thirty-two years after Jackson's election, the country would be plunged into a violent resolution of this conflict.

The Civil War and Gilded Age

Hamilton's public image underwent a dramatic revitalization during the decades following the Civil War. Increasingly, historians and political figures came to regard the Civil War as a validation of Hamilton's major philosophical tenets and a repudiation of Jefferson's. It was the Virginian's doctrine of states' rights, the argument went, that provided the South both the encouragement and the rationale to secede, while his lofty language asserting the equality of mankind denied the South moral authority in the eyes of the North -- a double bind that has been called the "Jeffersonian dilemma."

On the other side of the equation, then, stood Hamilton and his visionary assertion of the necessity of a powerful federal government. Where would the union be, post-war historians and nationalists wondered, were it not for the stability and strength of state that Hamilton insisted upon for his entire career? Moreover, Hamiton's opposition to slavery proved itself the ethic associated with the victorious Union forces, while Jefferson's Southern roots and acquiescence to the forces promoting slavery provided, as it were, comfort to the enemy.

Meanwhile, the whole era reverberated with the sounds of industrialization and modernization. Reconstruction had provided significant economic opportunities for both North and South, while westward expansion and new methods of manufacturing and transportation lay the foundation for booming capitalist enterprises. In this climate, the Hamiltonian virtues of laissez-faire and free trade enjoyed an unprecedented ascendancy, while the simple agrarianism of Jefferson seemed badly outdated. As Hamilton had predicted, the United States was establishing itselt as a preeminent industrial force in the world.

Teddy Roosevelt himself admired Hamilton's reputation for dynamism and, in a 1910 letter to Gouverneur Morris, praised Hamilton's "touch of the heroic, the touch of the purple, the touch of the gallant, the dashing, the picturesque." These years also saw the opening of Chicago's Hamilton Club and the raising of Hamilton statues in Paterson, New Jersesy, a town which Hamilton had founded.

Significantly, the restoration of Hamilton's image took place primarily on the plane of academic history. It is important to note that many of the new scholarly histories published during this time were written by New England historians steeped in Federalist tradition, who tended to see Hamilton as vindicated by the course of American history.

The major works included George Bancroft's History of the United States (1834-1874), John Bach McMaster's The History of the United States (1883-1913), and Henry Adams's History of the United States ... 1801-1817. Hamilton's son, John C. Hamilton, also got into the act with a tome entitled History of the Republic of the United States, which argued that the Civil War could have been avoided altogether, if only the country had more closely followed the elder Hamilton's policies.

The language of these books, to a modern reader, can seem shockingly biased. McMaster, for instance, portrayed Jefferson as a man "saturated with democracy in its rankest form" who "remained to the last day of his life a servile worshipper of the people." On the other hand, wrote McMaster, "Of all men who, in the judgement of posterity, are ranked high among the founders of the republic ... by far the most brilliant and versatile was Hamilton."

Beside the histories, a number of biographies and other writings sympathetic to Hamilton also appeared during the post-bellum years and Gilded Age. Gertrude Atherton, in her romantic novel The Conqueror (1902), wrote that Hamilton with his "inherent philosophy," pursued "measures in whose wisdom he implicitly believed, and which, in every instance, time has vindicated." Similarly, Herbert Croly, the future founder of the New Republic, put a distinctly positive spin on Hamiltonianism when he wrote in The Promise of American Life (1909) that it "implied a conscious and indefatigable attempt on the part of the national leaders to promote the national welfare."

The momentum of the Civil War in the resurrection of Hamilton's image lasted, with natural variations of intensity, all the way through the 1920s. In 1923, President Harding and Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon dedicated a statue of Hamilton placed in fron of the Treasury Building, where it stands to this day. The next year saw a successful movement to save Hamilton's Manhattan residence, The Grange, which had been steadily deteriorating. Later in the decade, President Coolidge invoked Hamilton to praise Mellon, who had managed America's financical system with "a genius and success unmatched since Hamilton."

In retrospect, the praise smacks of irony. The year 1929 would see both the crash of the American economy and the corresponding decline in Hamilton's image -- a decline that has never been significantly reversed.

The Great Depression

At first glance, one might expect that the Great Depression would have elevated Hamilton's standing in the public consciousness. After all, the New Deal involved the greatest expansion of federal power that the country had seen, and the vast majority of Americans supported its programs. James M. Beck, in a speech to Congress in 1934, declared that the Roosevelt administration "is realizing beyond any dream of Alexander Hamilton his ideas as to the nature of our government and what its desired form should be."

Yet Hamilton's star faded precipitously during the 1930s, and here we return to the proposition that administrative successes matter much less than emotional populism in the realm of public opinion. The economic foresight and efficiency of Hamilton's policies, their direct relevance to the New Deal, did not change the popular conception of him as an aristocrat unsympathetic to the plight of the "little guy."

Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning in 1932, sounded the theme that stirred many Americans' souls during the 1930s, a theme distinctly non-Hamiltonian in character. Invoking the early struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton, Roosevelt referred to a "a new day" in the nation, "the day of the individual against the system, the day in which individualism was made the great watchword of American life." This formula clearly favored Jefferson's rhetorical emphasis on personal liberty and individual virtue over Hamilton's efforts to construct a potent system of governmental control.

Although political groups ranging from the communists to the Republicans continued to employ Jefferson's image, Roosevelt and the Democrats did so most successfully. They presented Roosevelt as a champion of the common man in the true Jeffersonian tradition. Hamilton, on the other hand, was the man who had warned against the potentially dangerous nature of human ambition, and argued that government must be vigilant against the excesses of human nature.

In 1943, a play by Sydney Kingsley pitted caricatures of Jefferson and Hamilton against each other. The fictional Hamilton boasts, "And when you stir up the mobs, remember -- we who really own America are quite prepared to take it back for ourselves, from your great beast, 'The People'." The portrait of Hamilton that Kingsley drew is not entirely deserved, but not entirely off-the-mark, either, and it captured a persistent image of him as a calculating patrician out to protect the interests of wealthy Americans.

Several developments give a sense of how far Hamilton had fallen. The Hamilton Club of Chicago went bankrupt. The anniversary of Hamilton's birth went unobserved, even at the site of his tomb in Manhattan's Trinity Church. Hamilton Grange in Manhattan sunk into decrepitude and obscurity.

Nonetheless, a collection of scholars and conservative Republicans still carried the Hamiltonian torch and argued that his vision was what had provided the ship of state sufficient ballast to carry it through the turmoil of not only the Civil War but of the early twentieth century as well. Broadus Mitchell, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins, and two Columbia economists, Joseph Dorfman and Rexford Tugwell, all sought to disentangle Hamilton's reputation from a speciously dichotomous relationship with Jefferon's. They sought to do justice to both men's lives. Mitchell, for example, wrote in Heritage from Hamilton that "the Federalists, pitching their case on the need for order and control, were correct at the outset. They were pragmatic and serviceable in the first formative period."

The Modern Era

A dispirited Hamiltonian revival occurred in 1957, the bicentennial of his birth, but it consisted mainly of another round of academic biographies. There was no memorial erected. A national bicentennial commission tried to whip up interest in Hamilton by sending out letters to various publications, libraries, radio stations and such, but garnered little more than statements of support from a variety of organizations including the American Bar Association, the American Dental Association and the Loyal Order of the Moose.

A signal of the dispassion that Hamilton aroused came in a 1956 commemorative speech, in which President Eisenhower gave flaccid acknowledgement to Hamilton's "sincere efforts and inspiring leadership in the work of the men who laid the foundations, raised the structure, and built the sustaining traditions of the Government of the United States."

The last two decades of the 20th century appear unlikely to herald any sort of renewal of interest in or respect for Hamilton. A resonant, even dominant theme, of modern political debate was sounded by Ronald Reagan when he vowed to "get the government off the backs of the people." The expansion during the 1960s of liberal programs in the spirit of the 1930s appears to be screeching to a half. Everyone, including the leadership of the Democratic party, agrees on the necessity of "downsizing" government in the 1990s.

If this situation indicates on one hand that the United States realized or even surpassed Hamilton's vision of a strong federal government, it suggests on the other that many Americans now want to move in the opposite direction. The concept of states' rights is heard more and more often. The image of a "bloated federal bureaucracy" represents a bugbear which everyone recognizes. Few people invoke Hamilton's name in praise, if at all. While visual images of Jefferson and Washington have become nearly ubiquitous, most people would be hard pressed to identify without help the portrait of Hamilton that hangs in the Capitol Building.


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