Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton 1783-1800

The post-revolutionary war period of the Unites States saw the establishment of the first party system and an enlarging gap in viewpoints between the wealthy and the common man. One might argue that a political party develops in response to a series of controversial issues yet to a great extent the contradictory views of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over issues related to views of government, the role of government and social philosophy in foreign and domestic affairs, were primarily responsible for shaping the rise of political parties from 1783-1800. Originally feared by the forefathers, the rise of political parties emerged from intense ideological struggles over views of government between two political leaders important to President Washington’s Cabinet, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. Alexander Hamilton exerted the most influence within the newly emerging Federalist Party. He believed that only an enlightened ruling class could produce a strong, stable and effective federal government. The government therefore needed the support of wealthy men and the promotion of manufacturing interests. Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans defended more the rights of the common man and an agrarian society with limited power from the federal government. His basic principle was grounded in a belief that the people had a more honest and disinterested influence in politics than the wealthy. The Republican Party attracted more of the common people while the Federalist Party drew support from the aristocracy.

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Although neither side was willing to admit to it, these institutions were known as the “first party system.” Both parties stance on who should have more power in the government contributed to the largely diverse views of the common man and the wealthy man. Hamilton and Jefferson’s differences in social philosophy over the interpretation of the Constitution and the establishment of a national bank further strengthened the rise of established political parties. Federalists called for the national debt to be funded and hoped to create a large national bank credited by wealthy men. Hamilton defended it in a plan presented to Congress by claiming the general nature of the Constitution allowed for corporations to assist in carrying out by “all means” necessary that which is required to carry out the duties of government. If permitted, this vein of reasoning presented a broad interpretation of the Constitution, one that relied upon the “elastic clause” to justify that which is considered “necessary and proper”. Jefferson and the Republicans felt the bank was unconstitutional and his opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank (1791) required a strict or literal interpretation that drew upon a philosophy of government that stated powers not delegated belonged, or better, are reserved, for the people and the states. This included the incorporation of a bank which is not a delegated power given to government in the Constitution.

Hamilton’s rebuttal can be seen in a letter to George Washington that argued for a broad interpretation of the Constitution on the grounds that it gave to the government delegated and implied powers. In essence, all powers deemed “necessary and proper” for the fulfillment of delegated duties are constitutional, like the incorporation of a bank. This became known as the elastic clause and would be applied in later debates over constitutional interpretation. Both parties reaction to the Constitutionality of a national bank show their contrasting beliefs in how the Constitution was to be interpreted. Proving to be a major point of contention between the developing sides, Federalists also called for an excise tax to be placed on distillers of alcohol. The Whiskey Rebellion was the inevitable consequence of the enactment of this tax. Hamilton argued in his efforts to suppress the Whiskey Boys that the people, in ratifying the Constitution, had given the central government the power to tax for the purpose of paying off debts and providing for the nation’s defense. Since the Constitution had not been amended contrary to those powers Hamilton believed that President Washington had been justified in levying the tax and the Whiskey Rebellion was therefore an unjustified rebellion that needed to be put down by the central government.

The Republicans, highly suspicious of taxation as the American colonists had once been, did not believe the excise tax to be constitutional and celebrated the Whiskey Rebellion as an act of protecting rights against an abusive government action. The people had to be the safeguard of the new Republic. The Federalist political cartoon “Mad Tom in a Rage” portrayed Thomas Jefferson as a liquor soaked anarchist aided by the devil in order to bring the government down. The reactions to the Whiskey Rebellion reflect how the Federalists and Republicans differed in their interpretation of the Constitution. In social philosophy, the two politicians articulated their party’s disagreement over foreign policy concerns regarding the “revolution” in France. When the
French Revolution grew to its most radical peak the Federalists reacted with horror as citizens overthrew the aristocracy. In launching the New Ship of State Hamilton said he did not see the French Revolution as comparable to the American Revolution and doubted if a “free and good government” was likely to result from the war in France. Thomas Jefferson’s response was to stress the potential outcome of the Revolution, how it would benefit the whole of mankind, meaning the common man, and how this result could only be won with the spilling of blood, thereby justifying the excesses of violence in the name of republicanism. Many Republicans even imitated French Jacobins in dress and in speaking.

As tension in Europe grew Federalists favored an alliance with Great Britain while Republicans generally favored a greater alliance to the French. Jay’s Treaty was generally seen as a Hamiltonian move to increase the likelihood of a political relationship with Britain over one with France. The difference between the Federalist and Republican social philosophies regarding foreign relations is most easily seen among Hamilton and Jefferson’s different reactions to the French Revolution. When the Federalists tried to silence the Republican opposition the result was the vastly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts passed under the Federalist presidency of John Adams. The Alien Act ordered all foreigners considered dangerous to leave the United States. As a result many Republicans found much of its support grew within the nation. The Sedition Act Read “That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish….scandalous and malicious writings against the government of the United States…such person shall be punished.” The Sedition Act convicted ten men most of whom were Republicans news editors criticizing the Federal government. The Republicans interpreted these laws as an attempt to destroy them and violate the principles of free speech. They fought back with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The Virginia Resolution pointed out how the Acts violated the rights of free speech protected in the Constitution.

Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution argued the state’s compact (or state’s right) theory that acts by the central government could be nullified by the sovereign states if deemed unconstitutional as the Resolution so deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The resolutions nullified the laws and contributed to the rise of Republicanism and the fall of Federalism. The controversial issue contributed largely to the Federalist party’s defeat in the presidential election of 1800. The differing opinions on how the government in the post-Revolutionary war period should be run ultimately created the first rise in political parties. The Federalist belief in a government run by wealthy men and opposing Republican support for an agrarian society split the nations’ people in support of a government most beneficial to them. Differing reactions to the French Revolution showed the distinct difference in Federalist and Republican over foreign policy. The National Bank and the excise tax on liquor revealed differing views on how strictly the Constitution should be interpreted and the Alien and Sedition Acts reveal an attempt of one party to dissolve another. The contrasting views of Hamilton’s Federalism and Jefferson’s Republicanism were the ultimate contributors to splitting the nation on views of government and establishing the first political parties.

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