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Jefferson and Hamilton: Opposed in Death as in Life

Stephen Knott, University of Virginia
February 26, 2005

Focus: How do you explain the cult of Thomas Jefferson that emerged in the 20th century? Why did New Deal advocates of a strong central government embrace Jefferson over Hamilton? 20th Century progressives were fond of advocating “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends” — what did they mean by that statement? Jefferson, it is alleged, conducted his Presidency in a Hamiltonian fashion — what evidence is there to support this contention, and what impact did that have on Jefferson’s successors? Throughout much of the nation’s history, American politicians turned to Jefferson or Hamilton and embraced their principles and practices to bolster their cause — why was this done and is this still the case? What role has race played in influencing both men’s reputations among scholars and the public? Abraham Lincoln often invoked Jefferson’s name and Jeffersonian rhetoric throughout his political career and seldom invoked Hamilton’s name or principles. Yet, one could argue that his policies were decidedly Hamiltonian. How does one explain this apparent discrepancy? It is said that Americans “honor Jefferson but live in Hamilton’s country” — is this true? Is it accurate to claim, as many Hamiltonians argue, that Thomas Jefferson’s world is a thing of the past, and that Hamilton is the “man who made modern America”? If Jefferson’s world is a lost world, then what have we lost?

Readings:

  • Stephen Knott, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2002)

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