A Lasting Debate between Hamilton & Jeffersonpict

by J. V. Siry, Ph. D.

opposites | land asset | meaning

There was a group of largely Southern writers called agrarians who hearly ninety years ago, tried to rekindle Jeffersonian ideals. These advocates of an agricultural ideal came together long before the suburban boom in land. They wrote of the virtues of farm life and their widely admired ideas assisted supporters of drainage and reclamation projects in the diversion of water for agricultural production. These writer's shared values and expressions of the dignity arising from working the land provided a rationale for aiding farmers in the last century. As groups of farm populists they pressed for internal improvements and crop price supports, which were also promoted by government irrigation and drainage schemes to bring water to the desert west and remove excess water from flooded eastern fields.


Unfortunately modern republicanism from Nixon and Reagan to the two Bush administrations has largely ignored the Jeffersonian values of limited government, local control of land decisions, tax levies based on property values, a small military, and staying clear of European and Asian wars. This was the body Jefferson's professed beliefs about government that also included his belief in religious toleration and the strict separation of church from state responsibilities, freedom to print what you wanted –especially against your political opponents– and a reliance of state militias to defend the nation of three million people, one third of which were slaves.


Jefferson's chief rival was Alexander Hamilton until Aaron Burr shot him dead in a duel Hamilton was a charismatic, West Indian born, and commercially experienced advocate of a strong central government, which he wrote about in the Federalist Papers that he and others used to advocate for a new government in the 1780s. He had served under Washington in the Continental Army at war with the United Kingdom and was selected as the new nation's Secretary of the Treasury.


To every idea Jefferson had, Hamilton had an equally unworkable but opposing belief in governing because he was primarily concerned with paying off the national debt and the debt of the states. The long revolutionary (from 1775 until 1783) struggle had left colonial (now state) treasuries empty. Farms were disrupted and trade nonexistent, except with the West Indies and Africa for slaves. Hamilton realized that Dutch, French and Spanish loans to the new republic had to be paid back, or else the nation faced continuing financial collapse.


So a cadre of people gathered around Hamilton who professed a belief in a strong central government with a Bank of the United States, which could buy debts and extend or sell credit and collect rents and disbursements as an official central bank (located in Philadelphia) for the nation. Hamiltonians who were called Federalists professed a preference for a strong and standing military, active government support of internal improvements, and the selection of a president for life. This group largely respected the colonial tradition of mercantilist and protectionist policies because they saw America as competing with the empires and colonies of The Netherlands, Britain, Spain, and France.


The kinds of improvements across the country that were needed included armories, training facilities for military or naval academies, and such undertakings as building canals, lighthouses and other navigational aids in order to make commercial transactions as safe as possible. An active promotion of manufacturing and finance was at the heart of the Hamiltonian's vision of assuring prosperity through fiscal confidence in national ventures.


The only real asset at this period was the national windfall that came from Franklin, Adams and Jefferson's negotiations with Britain at the end of the revolution when all of the land from the Mississippi River east to the Appalachian Mountains was given to the thirteen colonies. Somewhere north of Florida near the latitude of Columbus Georgia the claim extended to the south and an indistinct boundary between Maine and New Brunswick was the northern border. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 that granted independence to the nation nearly doubled the actual area under control of the rebellious colonists who now had to govern three million people.


The term "land rich and property poor" is an appropriate description of the nation during these bitter debates between Hamilton and Jefferson over how to create, maintain, and deploy a government based on non-monarchical principles.  Jefferson was for disposing of the western lands as quickly as possible granting them to settlers with the determination to create small farms all across the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee and Apalachicola valleys. Hamilton however had to his backer's minds, a better idea.


Jefferson the agrarian and Hamilton the mercantilist both understood the need for turning a "captive" asset into a lucrative commodity. A great problem for property owners was that land was worthless (so much of it) unless you had farm labor to maintain the salt-works, orchards, livestock or crops. Once you had land the problems grew; there were no roads to get your grain to market, let alone the pork, lamb, beef or timber to town.


Hamilton's fiscal genius proved to be his revealing and effective enactment of policies to borrow money based on land. But instead of giving land away in quarter (160 acres) or half (320 acres) sections he argued for an auction of all 640 acres in a section to the highest bidder. See land system.

The treasury (Land Office of the federal government) would auction the land and use the money to pay interest on the new debt Hamilton raised. The money borrowed (new debt) was used to pay old European creditors. The new debt had for collateral of all that land to be sold at auction. The Bank of the U. S. was the holder of all this capital and made money from the difference in interest between money loaned and money saved–peoples' savings (actually small banks put those saving into the Bank of the United States).


So politically speaking Jefferson became for all intents and purposes a "talisman." That is, his ideals were observed in speeches and ignored in practice. In trying to govern the republic, the Jeffersonian democrats eventually adopted virtually similar Hamiltonian perspectives by the 1900s. Jefferson is admirable for his trust in religious toleration and his rejection of sectarianism in established churches. But his faith in public education, was contradicted by his own political philosophy that was too far-removed from faction- based politics to be of enduring value. There was also his practical politics that were so anti-England that he pursued a policy of embargo that hurt the farmers because it raised their costs of acquiring manufactured goods. This policy unintentionally spread slavery westward, encouraged industrialization, and forced internal improvements. His seizures of British and Spanish territories after buying the Great Plains and the Mississippi Valley from Napoleon without any authority from Congress, established both "executive privilege" and the "doctrine of implied powers" based on the necessity to govern that ran counter to the strict constructionist view of the Constitution.


Jefferson and Hamilton are but two symbolic example of a binary vision of what might be possible in this new republic and as such they represented enduring values with respect to natural resources, land, wealth and the rule of commercial investment. So grew an abiding, if not necessary tension between a national respect for tradition and the opposite or counter necessity for revolutionary change that remains unresolved to this very day.


virtues | opposites | land asset | meaning



Writers were among others:

John Crow Ransom and eleven others write I'll Take my Stand in 1930.

Do read a review.

An outsider was :

James Branch Cable a writer from Virginia.

agrarianŠof the land or promoting the interests of agriculture in values, laws and policies.

"But many other minority communities opposed to industrialism, and wanting a much simpler economy to live by. The communitiesand private persons sharing the agrariam tatses are to be found widely within the Union."

I'll Take my Stand, p. xliii.

cadreŠa group of like-minded people, a team, core or sect.

Thus a tension grew between a national respect for tradition and the counter necessity for revolutionary change. For example in the contemporary milieu where subsistence farms are undermined by corporate agriculture and where corporate agriculture promotes the image for the masses through media of small farms, there is actually a huge industrial scale agriculture that draws on government subsidies for crops to maintain a guaranteed income on their investments in machinery, fertilizer and processing equipment.

sectarianŠseparatist, partisan, doctrinaire, dogmatic, extreme, fanatical, rigid, inflexible, bigoted, or narrow-minded.



We had until 1980 a widespread agreement on a "liberal ideal" of a "corporate state" all the while pursuing an 18th century mercantilist and protectionist policy for their own benefit, under the guise of creating abundant food, fuel and fiber to Americans at relatively cheap prices.


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