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Comparison – Hamilton and Jefferson

George Washington’s cabinet contained two of the more brilliant Americans – Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Though both were committed to the United States, the two men had a different approach to how to help the U.S. achieve greatness. Their battles shaped the first two political parties of the nation.

For this assignment, read the attached accounts of both men. With your partner, complete a Venn Diagram comparing the lives, ideas, and policies of both individuals on the attached sheet. Then, in one to two paragraphs, compare the two men, taking special care to examine their background, their ideas, and their politics.

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

He may have been born, in John Adams' memorable phrase, the mere "bastard brat of a Scottish peddler." But Alexander Hamilton rose to become a Revolutionary War hero, key advocate for the Constitution, and rescuer of the nascent American government from financial ruin, all before dying in a duel just six months shy of his 50th birthday.

Self-Taught and Ambitious

Born illegitimate in the West Indies, Hamilton had nothing handed to him in his early years. His mother Rachel Faucett, of French descent, had been imprisoned previously for adultery. His father, James Hamilton, a Scottish trader, deserted the family on the island of St. Croix when Alexander was ten. His mother would succumb to yellow fever just three years later, leaving the boy essentially alone and increasingly self-reliant. Out of her modest estate Alexander inherited only books; this library, and especially its stories of the great statesmen of Greece and Rome, as told by the ancient Roman authors Livy and Plutarch, became his inspiration. In these years, Alexander's dreams far outstripped his lowly social class; as he confided to a friend, "My ambition is so prevalent that I disdain the groveling conditions of a clerk to which my fortune condemns me. I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station." The brilliance and ability he showed as a clerk in an American trading company led his boss and a local clergyman to help sponsor him, sending the prodigy to America for an education in 1773.

Hamilton in the Revolution

When war with England broke out two years later, Hamilton joined a New York artillery company, and General George Washington soon noticed the young man's talents, making him an aide-de-camp in March 1777. By 1781 Hamilton felt the frustration of nearly four years of working at what was essentially a desk job and making repeated appeals for a field command. He yearned to win glory on the battlefield. He took a minor incident and used it as pretext to quit Washington's staff, eventually getting a field commission and leading a dramatic charge against British fortifications in the decisive 1781 battle of Yorktown. After the war ended, he studied law, won membership in the New York bar and made a home in New York City with a wife, Elizabeth, and a growing brood of children. Hamilton drew attention for his willingness to take on an unpopular but, in his view, principled causes, such as the plight of former Loyalists whom he believed had been denied due process. During the post-war period, he also served as a delegate to the Confederation Congress and helped found the Bank of New York.

Federalist and Treasury Secretary

Hamilton believed in the need for a powerful central government and was a key advocate for replacing the weak Articles of Confederation with a stronger government. Although his participation in the 1787 Constitutional Convention was minor, Hamilton became a key player in the efforts to ratify it, penning the majority of a series of essays called The Federalist (later known as The Federalist Papers) that made the case for the Constitution in clear terms. Hamilton was also instrumental in New York's successful ratification of the document. When Washington became the nation's first president in 1789, Hamilton joined the Cabinet as secretary of the treasury. His years there were extraordinarily productive, and with Washington's backing, Hamilton secured ambitious legislation creating a national bank and dealing with government debts. A nationalist who lacked the fierce state loyalties of many other Founding Fathers, Hamilton willingly traded away New York's chance to house the nation's permanent capital in order to secure backing for his economic program in 1790's famous "dinner table bargain." When he left the Cabinet in 1795, Hamilton had put America on a firm financial footing.

Scandal and Intrigue

Hamilton was a better interpreter of markets than of men; his post-government years were marred by scandal and intrigue. His frank 1797 admission of an adulterous affair, made in the course of defending his financial integrity, exposed him to public ridicule, and his willingness to go to war with France earned the enmity of President John Adams, who was doing everything he could to prevent the conflict. Hamilton then turned against his fellow Federalists and divided the party on the eve of the pivotal 1800 elections, which were won by the Republicans. Forced therefore to choose between two political opponents for the presidency, Hamilton sided with Thomas Jefferson and worked to ensure Jefferson's victory over Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton considered unprincipled. When Hamilton again plotted to deprive Burr of an electoral victory in 1804, during New York's gubernatorial election, Burr finally took notice. When Burr read in a newspaper that Hamilton had expressed a "despicable opinion" of him, the vice president demanded a further explanation which Hamilton did not provide. Hamilton wished to respond to a specific insult -- which Burr could not provide. The conflict ended in a duel on July 11; Hamilton received a mortal wound there and died the next day.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton despised -- and feared -- him. The diplomats who called on him in the new capital at Washington were shocked by his casual behavior. But Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, saw himself as an important bulwark between the people and the Federalists. Jefferson feared that Hamilton and his Federalist colleagues were bent on stripping away the individual liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.

Born in Virginia in 1743, Jefferson grew up with an appreciation for learning. He attended the College of William and Mary, then studied law privately and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. Throughout his life, he devoted himself to learning. He read Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and Anglo-Saxon. He took a keen interest in science as well, and conducted numerous experiments in agriculture.

In 1769 Jefferson was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses. Soon after, he made himself a national reputation with his eloquent defenses of Colonial freedom. In 1774 he wrote "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which asserted that the British Parliament had no right to make laws for the Colonies.

In 1775 Jefferson was appointed a member of the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress. When the Congress decided to break with Britain, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams were among a committee of five chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the document's principal author.

Jefferson's commitment to representative government was a passionate one. As a representative in Virginia, he advocated for policies that would give more people access to land ownership, provide for higher education, and officially sever the connection between church and state.

Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779. He generally served well, but was criticized publicly after Virginia failed to repel invading British troops in 1780. An investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, and he served out his term. But a lingering stain on his reputation, as well as the terminal illness of his wife Martha caused him to withdraw from politics in 1781.

Jefferson soon returned to the political world, however, representing Virginia in the Continental Congress of 1783. Although he owned slaves himself, and believed blacks inherently inferior to whites, he proposed a bill to outlaw slavery in all new territories the federal government should acquire. The proposal failed by one vote.

In 1784 Jefferson traveled to France to replace Benjamin Franklin as ambassador. There, Jefferson witnessed the opening throes of the French Revolution, and he became a passionate supporter of it.

Jefferson returned to the U.S. in 1789 and became George Washington's first secretary of state. During his tenure, Jefferson clashed repeatedly with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson thought Hamilton's monetary policies exceeded the authority granted in the Constitution and favored the rich. In addition, Jefferson's favored closer ties with the French, while Hamilton backed closer ties with the British.

Both Jefferson and Hamilton left their offices during Washington's first term. Jefferson became the leader of the Republican Party, Hamilton of the Federalist. Jefferson was elected vice president in 1796 and served under President John Adams, a Federalist.

Under Adams, Federalist judges began to use the Alien and Sedition Acts to stifle Republican support for France in its war against Britain. The Alien Act gave the U.S. the power to expel foreigners deemed hostile to the government. The Sedition Act made it a crime to slander officials of the federal government. In response to these Acts, which he opposed, Jefferson wrote the Kentucky resolutions, a treatise declaring that a state had the power to "nullify" a bad law passed by Congress. Due in large part to the Alien and Sedition Acts' unpopularity, the Republicans enjoyed a rise in power.

Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800. A critical element of the campaign was choosing New York power broker Aaron Burr as his vice president, which enabled the Republicans to secure New York's electoral votes. In fact, the race for the presidency ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr. Jefferson was chosen the winner by a vote in Congress.

In his first term, Jefferson eased the rift between the Federalists and the Republicans, although he did attempt to loosen the Federalist hold on the federal judiciary by the use of impeachment. Ironically, he was thwarted by his own vice president, Aaron Burr. Jefferson barred Burr's nomination for a second term as vice president. This helped turn Burr into an adversary.

In 1803 Jefferson's reputation was damaged by the allegation that he fathered five children by ones of his slaves, Sally Hemings. But his popularity was restored when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase from France. The purchase added 828,000 square miles to the new nation and secured an untold wealth of resources that would help America expand. In the end, however, one of Jefferson' main goals -- that of creating a purely democratic, agricultural nation in America -- would fail.

After he left office, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his Virginia estate. There, he continued his lifelong pursuits in the arts and sciences. He also founded the University of Virginia, designing its buildings and even planning its curriculum. On July 4, 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died -- just hours before John Adams.

Source: American Experience: Alexander Hamilton.

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