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Book Review: Jefferson and Hamilton

By (October 4, 2013) No Comment

Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nationjefferson and hamilton
By John Ferling
Bloomsbury Press, 2013

When Ambrose Spencer, lifelong political jobber, sometime New York high justice, and frequent spittle-spraying rant-monger reflected on the estimate of Alexander Hamilton, who had on more than one occasion made him look foolish in his own courtroom, he surprised himself no less than everybody else by declaring this man he had so many times despised a titan:

It was he, more than any other man, who thought out the constitution of the United States and the details of the government of the Union; and, out of the chaos that existed after the Revolution, raised a fabric every part of which is instinct with his thought. I can truly say that hundreds of politicians and statesmen of the day get both the web and woof of their thoughts from Hamilton’s brains. He, more than any other man, did the thinking of the time.

When it came time, in 1882, for the great Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge to write what the more slangy present would call a“quickie biography” of Hamilton for John Morse’s “American Statesmen” series (Lodge would eventually put his name to a few entries in that remunerative series, including Daniel Webster and George Washington, but it was the Hamilton biography on which, shall we say, he expended the most effort), he, too, found himself a bit surprised. Nowhere could a reader find more striking testimonies to Hamilton’s character, he wrote, than in the ranks of his enemies. In his biography (which was, like almost everything else he touched, a phenomenal success), Lodge, the veteran of countless quagmire committees and raucous caucuses, paid Hamilton his highest compliment:

… he was by no means a difficult counsellor, nor anxious to absorb all credit to himself. It the work was well done Hamilton cared little who did it … He was a severe and penetrating critic, but he was neither jealous nor captious.

In private, when quizzed about Hamilton and his famous rival, Thomas Jefferson, Lodge used to say,“The more I learned of Hamilton’s weaknesses, the stronger I found him; the more I learned of Jefferson’s strengths, the weaker I found him.”

That contrast is the subject of the new book by John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton, The Rivalry That Forged a Nation, in which he takes his readers through the very different childhoods and upbringings of these two men in order to illuminate how they came to be the opposite poles holding the magnetic field of entire people in remarkably stable flux. Like Spencer, Ferling views the opposition of these two men as fundamental to almost all of what followed them:

Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s contrasting views on the shape of the new American republic – its government, society, and economy – sparked a bitter rivalry. Furthermore, the ideas and issues that divided those two Founders have persisted from generation to generation in American politics. Their opposing views are like the twin strands of DNA in the American body politic.

Ferling is one of our greatest living historians of the Revolutionary period; his biography of John Adams is the single best book yet written on that contentious little toadstool, and his book on George Washington, The First of Men, though even more adulatory than the whopper Lodge wrote about America’s founding Oaf-in-Chief, is also excellent. Ferling has mastered that rarest of rare knacks: he can write careful, intelligent scholarly biographies that are also captivating to read. If there were a modern equivalent of the “American Statesmen” series, he might very well be its presiding genius workhorse.

And in this particular clash of personalities he finds perfect matter for his art. He presents short and adept biographical sketches of his two subjects at the outset, sketches that highlight the vast personal differences between Hamilton, famously described by John Adams as “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” and Jefferson, a slaveholding member of the Virginia aristocracy. He follows both men through the key events of their lives, enlivening with his confident prose even such ignoble episodes as Jefferson’s flight from Monticello in 1781 in advance of the British:

In the pale light of early morning, Jefferson rode down the hilltop and into the cool, dark forest, heavy with the dank scent of decay brought on by spring rains. A good horseman, he rode swiftly, up steep wooded slopes, down into foggy hollows, and now and again along flush green ridges.

But central to Ferling’s book is the ideological clash between the two men. Jefferson dreamed of an agrarian America, a counterpart to the Republican Rome of his imagination, with each citizen-farmer a self-sufficient civil lordling; despite owning human chattel himself, Jefferson talked often of individual human freedoms as set out in the Declaration of Independence, which he helped to write. Hamilton envisioned a far different America, a hustling, mercantile, industrialized America that throve in its towns and money-exchanges rather than in its fields and streams. He saw this world coming as clearly as anybody of his day could see it, and he worked throughout his public life to prepare his adopted country not just to live in it but to lead it. When Ferling maintains that this clash of visions persists to this day, he’s pleased to be over-generous to the mincing, cowardly slave-owner at the expense of the bastard brat; the United States of the last 170 years is more or less completely Hamilton’s country, for good and ill.

Ferling has always had a pronounced strength for conveying the complicated personalities of the past, and in this entirely personality-centered book his strengths are on fine display. This is Ferling’s dozenth book, as smooth and strong as tempered steel, and its main strength turns out to be its restraint: he marshals his sources as expertly as any historian ever has on this well-trod ground, but he makes comparatively few final calls. He knows how complex his two subjects are, especially in their relationship with their friends and enemies – including Hamilton’s most famous enemy and his executioner:

It is impossible to fathom the dark recesses of the souls of either Burr or Hamilton, but it appears that at the outset of this imbroglio, Burr never imagined a duel would be fought … Burr had ample reason for hating this man who had played a considerable role in frustrating his political dreams, but Hamilton was not in the grip of a seething rage. He did not even seem to dislike Burr. He feared Burr’s political success, distrusted him, and saw deep character flaws that in his judgment rendered Burr unfit for the highest offices. But though Hamilton was, in Samuel Johnson’s phrase,“a very good hater,” remarkably, Burr was not among those he hated.

It’s as easy to hate Aaron Burr now as it was two hundred years ago, but things are more complex with Jefferson and Hamilton themselves, and Ferling conveys that complexity with the sure hand of a master historian. Readers will be left to their own devices when it comes to picking a favorite there. Lodge didn’t find it difficult, but then, President Kennedy didn’t either.