Jefferson and Hamilton Critical Essays

Claude G. Bowers


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The dramatic and picturesque aspects of the birth of the United States are presented in Claude G. Bowers’ book about the political struggle of the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The surrender at Yorktown ended one phase of the Revolution, only to begin another, a battle of fundamentals of government. Should the new republic develop along aristocratic or democratic lines? Leaders in the conflict were Thomas Jefferson, who believed in the political sense of the common people, and Alexander Hamilton, who did not trust an illiterate people to develop government.

Professor Bowers shows how much more logical Hamilton’s distrust was than Jefferson’s faith in the common man. Yet because Jefferson was willing to try to organize and discipline not only the independent and individualistic towns but the remote farms and the vast open spaces of the West into a unity, he was able, in spite of the weaknesses and lack of ability of his helpers, to achieve success against a powerful opposition. Hamilton, despite his genius and the unquestioned ability of many in the Federalist Party, failed because he did not understand his countrymen and the spirit of the times.

Though Jefferson’s name heads the title, Bowers begins his study with a look at Alexander Hamilton after setting the stage in the capital of New York City, on September 12, 1789, as the Congress was about to meet. As he points out, Hamilton looked the born leader. Though he was not of commanding stature, he impressed men by the dignity of his bearing. But Hamilton had other qualities: an ability to write clearly and to assemble and present facts to convince an audience and not merely appeal to their emotions. Strangely, Hamilton was most certain of his genius as a military leader, though never given an opportunity to demonstrate it. He was honest and generally a man of integrity, with a capacity for long stretches of concentrated work.

Bowers also points out his flaws. Perhaps his success, despite his humble origin, and the praise given his brilliant youthful efforts had convinced him that he was superior to most people. Therefore he was unable to inspire enthusiastic co-operation. He showed himself opinionated and dictatorial, and his early insults to Jefferson in Cabinet meetings grew out of his feeling that he was really Washington’s Prime Minister. Jefferson disliked him as a man, in addition to distrusting his political beliefs.

The first step in the Jefferson contest with Hamilton was taken when James Madison tried in Congress in April, 1790, to force discrimination between the Revolutionary soldiers holding warrants given in payment of wages, and the speculators who had been buying them at a small portion of their value. After the House voted down his motion, it was...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)