Hamilton vs Jefferson
Your History Questions Answered. Even If You Never Asked.
1) How did the political philosophies of these men differ?
Most clear thinking Americans could probably tell you at least the rudimentary facts of who Thomas Jefferson was. Far fewer would likely have a definite idea of who Alexander Hamilton was and what his contributions as a Founding Father were. Yet his conception of an American government was just as important as that of Jefferson. Both founders foresaw the new nation as a great future power, and both had very different maps of how to get it there.
Jefferson believed the nation’s strength lay in its agricultural roots. He favored an agrarian nation with most powers reserved for the states. He was very opposed to a strong central authority and believed that the people were the final authority in government. Jefferson also encouraged active support for the French Revolution
Hamilton favored a strong central authority. He believed a strong government was necessary to provide order so that business and industry could grow. He envisioned America becoming an industrial power. To this end he sought to establish a national bank and fund the national debt in order to establish firm base for national credit. Hamilton believed that the government should be run by those who were educated and wealthy rather than by "the mob." He opposed involvement in the French Revolution and worried Jeffersonians by appearing, and maybe even being, too cozy with Britain.
2) How was the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton a significant factor in the emergence of political parties?
The Jefferson/Hamilton conflict helped give rise to political parties by polarizing factions on opposite political sides. Those who backed Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans supported states rights, a strict reading of the Constitution, and support for the French Revolution. Those who back Hamilton’s Federalists preferred a much stronger central government, an "elastic" reading of the Constitution, and a hands-off approach to the French Revolution.
3) Which view do you think was best for the US – Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s – and why?
I don’t know if either view could be considered better or worse for America. Forced to choose, I would probably lean toward Hamiltonian ideas, but I believe both served a vital and necessary role in forming the government. Hamilton was a visionary and saw the potential of a great industrial power. His support of a strong central authority was a key reason the young nation was able to sustain itself in the early days, especially in such crises like Shayes Rebellion. One reason he may have felt as strongly as he did was his service in the Revolutionary War. Being one of Washington’s staff, he experienced first hand the difficulty the Continental army had with an ineffectual congress to keep it fed and supplied. The weak congress was not able to raise funds to pay for supplies because it had no real power.
For all his vision and innovation, Hamilton’s ambition may have carried him too far if left unchecked. The federal government may have become too powerful and curbed the rights of citizens, which in fact did happen to a degree during the Adams administration. Jefferson and his policies provided an important counter balance to Hamilton. Jefferson’s support of states’ rights and agriculture helped to offset the influence of the Hamilton-supporting merchants and manufacturers. However, without Hamilton’s counter-balance Jefferson’s policies may have left the government weak and ineffectual to deal with major crises both at home and abroad.
Each viewpoint needed the other to create a government that would be strong enough to protect itself and it’s people from internal and external strife, but not so strong that it would infringe on the rights of the people as enumerated in the Bill of Rights and in the Revolutionary spirit. These issues, of course, weren’t resolved or ceased to be relevant after Hamilton and Jefferson left the scene. These are still very much the issues we deal with even now, over 200 years later. As much as we might dislike, or even hate, the position of the "other" party, without some balance both sides would undoubtedly abuse their power…more than they already do.