For the past 3 weeks I’ve been reading John Ferling’s book “Jefferson and Hamilton: the Rivalry That Forged A Nation”. It’s a great book about two Founding Fathers who had opposing visions of what this country should be like, but who are both important in the creation of our nation.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had deep disagreements about the direction the young United States should go to. Hamilton believed the nation needed a strong federal government to create a stable environment for security and economic growth. Hamilton saw an urban vision of America where entrepreneurs and financiers could take risks to fuel economic growth.
Jefferson believed the United States needed strong state and local governments and a weak federal government, except in foreign affairs. Jefferson had a rural vision of the United States where yeoman farmers would be able to protect their individual rights and practice enlightenment ideals.
Each men were right about some things, wrong about some things. Both made great contributions to make this a greater nation. Hamilton provided the stable foundation where speculators could invest in mills, factories and commercial activities that would underpin American growth. Jefferson worked to end primogeniture, establish the separation of Church and State, expand voting rights to more men, and expand public education to create a more informed citizenry. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was the foundation for American egalitarian ideals that would inspire future reformers to fight for their rights.
Both men opposed slavery. Hamilton was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, a group dedicated to ending slavery in the state of New York. Hamilton gave them legal advice during the 1780s and 1790s that helped formulate their political strategy to abolish slavery.
Jefferson tried various times in the 1770s and early 1780s to pass legislation in the Virginia and Federal legislature to abolish slavery and end the slave trade. On June 16, 1777, Jefferson proposed a law banning the importation of slaves from outside the country into Virginia that passed the Virginia legislature in 1778. On June 18, 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill to the Virginia General Assembly to free all slaves that did not pass the legislature. In 1783 Jefferson proposed a constitution for Virginia that called for the freedom of everyone born after 1800. In 1784, Jefferson submitted to the Continental Congress the Report on Government for Western Territory that proposed to ban slavery from all new states of the western territories. The proposal failed to pass by a single vote.
Though both men were against slavery, Hamilton had far more enlightened views on racial equality than Jefferson. Hamilton’s views on racial equality was far ahead of his time. He believed African Americans were equal to whites and believed it was possible for blacks to be integrated into American society with the full rights of citizenship. Jefferson, on the other hand, believed African American were intellectually inferior to white people, and he didn’t think that free blacks could integrate into American society and become full citizens. He thought that once slaves were free, they had to be deported from the U.S.
As Hamilton and Jefferson show, this democratic republic thrives with the debate of ideas of different parts of the political spectrum. Looking at U.S. history, our nation has benefitted from the debate of the Left and the Right, arguing the ideas of liberals, conservatives, moderates, socialists, libertarians, and such. No one group or political philosophy has a monopoly on truth.
One of the things that has annoyed me the past couple of days has been the hand-wringing of some commentators who worry that the ambitious liberal proposals of some of the Democratic candidates may scare off more moderate Americans. I don’t think liberals or progressives should be silenced from proposing more progressive solutions to our nation’s problems. Instead, we should be encouraging a debate between the more progressive and the more moderate Democratic candidates, so we could weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. That’s the whole point of having a debate.