The question before a beleaguered Congress is: Should we expand government to meet the growing needs of the nation? Or is there already too much government?
One side of the aisle insists the government must be granted expansive new powers to make the nation safe and to rescue its economy, and the other side of the aisle insists just as vociferously that the federal government already is too intrusive and spends more than it can ever expect to recover.
Congress is so polarized that some pledge to tie the body in knots rather than give in. Others threaten to take their case directly to the people if Congress cannot get its job done.
The year is not 2009 or 2013. It is any of the closing years of the 18th century. Federalist President John Adams is seeking re-election. His effort would fail.
Former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson is openly courting the presidency in the name of the Revolution of 1800, a turn from strong central government by the moneyed elite toward the democracy he had envisioned in 1776. He would succeed but not before a tie vote in the Electoral College and an eventual brokered election in the House of Representatives.
Alexander Hamilton, the power in George Washington’s Cabinet and the proponent of a strong European-type government, by this time hated both Adams and Jefferson. He would try by scoundrelly sleight of hand to have Congress circumvent the will of the electorate and name president a Southerner, Thomas Pinckney, who ran a clear fourth. Hamilton would fail.
Adding to the intrigue, Aaron Burr would double-cross his fledgling Democratic-Republican Party and its standard-bearer while trying to wrest the presidency from Jefferson. He too would fail, but it would take 36 votes over seven days in the divided House to name a president.
Incidentally, four years later, Vice President Burr would fire the shot that killed former Treasury Secretary Hamilton, effectively ending both men’s political careers. Curiously, President Jefferson would characterize that fatal duel between his sitting vice president and the opposition party leader as no more than a “remarkable occurrence.”
And we think 21st century politics is tough.
These are just some of the events which American Revolution historian John Ferling describes in vivid detail in his “Jefferson and Hamilton,” a work which meticulously examines the personalities and philosophies of these two nearly polar opposite framers of the American Republic.
The turbulent early days of the Republic, from the opening shots of the Revolution to the solidifying of the new nation nearly 50 years later, is Ferling’s specialty. And the University of West Georgia professor doesn’t disappoint in this volume.
Most biographers form a close bond of affection with their subjects, but this is not the case with Ferling. The book clearly is not a biography of either man, and Ferling eschews both the idealized Hamilton and Jefferson in favor of two flawed giants whose rivalry, in Ferling’s words, “forged a nation.”
It was the master of intrigue, Hamilton, who recognized early on that America could never stand up to the powerful European nations without a strong executive and a highly centralized government and monetary system. Thus, the Articles of Confederation, our nation’s first constitution, had to go.
And it was Jefferson, always the quiet philosopher – if not one to always live his philosophy – who would be highly critical of the new constitution when he first read it during an extended government assignment in France. Some say dispatching Jefferson to France was the Federalists’ way of placing him at least six weeks outside the fray.
From his apartment in Paris, Jefferson disparaged the new constitution, describing the House of Representatives as “inadequate,” and writing that the new office of the President “seems a bad edition of a Polish king.”
The two men already had different visions for America. New Yorker Hamilton saw a financial and industrial powerhouse, ruled by the wealthy elite. Jefferson envisioned a loose collection of agrarian states where every free male would own land and be a full participant in a decidedly libertarian government.
This argument is as old as the nation, and as fresh as last Sunday’s morning TV news programs. Hamilton and Jefferson were the first poster children in the debate that has divided the nation for more than 200 years.
One important factor has changed in two centuries. As one colleague put it: At the end of the 18th century, even if the nation were polarized and Congress hopelessly deadlocked, farmers continued to farm, traders continued to trade, and world powers hardly blinked an eye. Whereas today, a shutdown of the U.S. government sweeps like a tsunami around the world.
Yet, the free-for-all between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians contains striking parallels to today’s fight between Republicans and Democrats. At its foundation were both an ideological struggle over opposing views of government and a very real quarrel over the government’s role in the distribution of the nation’s wealth.
Everyone took sides. Charges flew from every direction. The attack ad in the form of paid political pamphleteers was born. There were personal exposés published against both Hamilton and Jefferson, followed by the inevitable call for congressional investigations. Civility became a thing of the Colonial past.
Jefferson’s enemies accused him of treason, calling him a democrat and a Jacobin, which was akin to labeling him an anarchist.
Hamilton was dubbed “an impertinent ignoramus” and a man “devoid of moral principle.” His escapades became the butt of New York theater satire with shades of “Saturday Night Live.” Even the revered Washington’s name was sullied.
After reading Ferling’s rousing description of the battles between the nation’s early political factions, the dirty tricks and the name-calling, one wonders if maybe the words gridlock, rancor and polarization are not just modern words to describe our unique – and highly successful – form of government.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.
Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation
By John Ferling
436 pages, $36