Adams vs. Jefferson

by John Ferling

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 657

George Washington is the indispensable American whose steadfastness in the cause helped to hold the resistance movement together during the transition from the hoped-for reconciliation with Great Britain to the momentous decision for independence. When Americans had to form a new government in the 1780s, his presence gave authority to the proceedings of the Constitutional convention. He opposed political parties, excessive democracy, and American involvement in foreign wars, but by 1797, it was clear that an opposing faction was emerging with a very different interpretation of the meaning of the American revolution and a very different vision of America's future. Washington and his supporters became known as Federalists, for their support of the new federal Constitution. They were the forerunners of the Whigs and the Republican Party founded by Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Jefferson emerged as the leader of the opposition Democratic-Republicans, a party opposed to large central government. While the Federalists carried on the traditions of English liberty in resisting royal absolutism tracing back to Magna Carta, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution, Jefferson rejected this Anglophilia and identified with the French Revolution. He considered himself to be modern, as opposed to the Federalists, whom he considered to be on the side of the "ancients" in representing tradition. Whereas the Federalists considered the French Revolution an outbreak of dangerous fanaticism, Jefferson supported it and even excused its terroristic excesses. Jefferson's economic policy, on the other hand, favored small agriculture and free trade against the industrial development policy of the Federalists. Ironically, here Jefferson was the backward-looking traditionalist, and the Federalists were the forward-looking modernizers. Jefferson embraced popular democracy, while most of the other Founding Fathers sought to limit popular participation in government, noting that historically, democracies were turbulent, were short-lived, and usually ended in tyranny. Popular democracy enfranchised poor southern whites, ensuring that plantation slaveowners like Jefferson would be able to maintain their influence in Washington and maintain their slave-based economy, which the Federalists wanted to phase out. Jefferson was a great prose stylist, and his writing encapsulated the popular democratic version of the American revolution.

John Adams was the workhorse of both revolutions. Never a radical, he was allied with his cousin Samuel Adams, who had a well-deserved reputation for political organizing against the Royal Governor in Boston and for controlling the local mobs to those ends. Nevertheless, both Adamses were very much in the tradition of defenders of English liberties against encroachments by the crown, and despite their modern reputations, they did not believe in the social leveling pushed by the radicals who thought people lacking property and education should dominate the government. Adams was the most indefatigable speaker in favor of independence from Great Britain, long before others came around to that view, but, like most of the other Founding Fathers, he wanted to simply continue the tradition of self-government that the colonists had enjoyed without any major changes, apart from a new federal government unifying the former colonies. He was a voice of reason and moderation in constructing a new government that would balance all interests in an age where a new democratic egalitarianism was gaining in appeal among the lower classes.

Alexander Hamilton was Washington's trusted sidekick during the revolutionary war and in his administration, where Hamilton was the principal architect of the Federalists' economic plan for industrialization. This plan could not be implemented, because of opposition from the southern Democratic-Republicans, until after their defeat following their uprising against the United States in the Civil War. When fully implemented by Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party, the United States became the world's greatest industrial power within a few decades, vindicating the Federalists' forward-looking economic vision. Hamilton, having been excluded from John Adams's administration, wrote a lengthy and scathing critique of Adams which helped split the Federalist Party and aided Jefferson's victory and the eventual demise of the Federalist Party. Ironically, this ensured that America's economy would remain underdeveloped until after the Civil War.

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