“#How Hamilton and Jefferson’s hatred gave rise to a polarized US”
The damp spring and hot summer of 1793 brought clouds of mosquitoes infected with yellow fever to close-packed Philadelphia. Twenty thousand residents fled for the safety of the countryside. Nearly 5,000 lives, a tenth of the city’s population, were lost.
As the death toll rose, workaholic Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton remained at his post. Priding himself as President George Washington’s most essential aide, he privately referred to the government as “my administration.” No one else could carry on the nation’s business, he was sure.
Until he and his wife fell ill.
A feverish Eliza Hamilton waved from an upper window to catch what might be her final glimpse of her five small children — baby John, the youngest, had marked his first birthday just two weeks before — as the kids were hustled to the safety of her father’s home in Albany. Edward Stevens, a distinguished physician and close friend of Hamilton’s, rushed to his bedside. Washington sent a get-well note and half a case of vintage wine as he evacuated the city.
But Hamilton’s colleague, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, simply scoffed.
“His family think him in danger and he puts himself so by his excessive alarm,” Jefferson sneered in a letter to his protégé James Madison.
“A man as timid as he is on the water, as timid on horseback, as timid in sickness, would be a phenomenon if [his] courage … were genuine.”
Washington was six months into his second presidential term, and officially the two-party system we know today did not exist. But outright contempt between his two top aides, Jefferson and Hamilton, was already poisoning what is now called the most viciously partisan decade in American history.
“They just hated one another from almost, it seems, the moment they met,” said Dennis Rasmussen, author of “Fears of a Setting Sun” (Princeton University Press), out now. “The personal animosity between the two helped the first parties to coalesce.”
From the start, Washington was wary about the formation of political parties, convinced that partisans would shred the young nation’s fragile unity.
But the first president had accidentally planted the seeds of the two-party system by placing Hamilton and Jefferson, the nation’s most ferocious partisans, in his cabinet.
“So seditious, so prostitute a character,” Hamilton said of Jefferson.
“A man whose history … is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country,” Jefferson wrote of his rival in a 1792 letter to their mutual boss.
When Stevens’ unorthodox yellow-fever treatment of quinine and cold baths restored the Hamiltons’ health, the treasury secretary celebrated his recovery with an open letter that rebuked the old-school bloodletting methods practiced by Jefferson’s ally Benjamin Rush.
Stevens’ cure was adopted by Hamilton’s Federalist followers; Rush’s became the prescription for Jefferson’s Republicans (proving our 2020 battles over hydroxychloroquine and “warp-speed” vaccines were far from unique).
The Hamilton-Jefferson rancor “was personal, for sure,” Rasmussen said. “Jefferson looked down on Hamilton as an immigrant upstart trying to exalt himself above his proper station.”
The boundlessly ambitious treasury secretary was forever expanding the power of his department, by far the new government’s largest, aggravating Jefferson.
Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, born out of wedlock and into poverty in the Caribbean, saw Jefferson as a hypocrite. “Jefferson poses as the embodiment of the common man and the yeoman farmer, but he’s pretty much an aristocrat, a major slave holder born to wealth,” Rasmussen explained. “So there was personal distaste.”
The two men’s shared interest in women heightened the tension. Both Founding Fathers maintained long-running flirtations with Eliza Hamilton’s sister, Angelica Schuyler Church, who dallied with Jefferson in Paris when he served as America’s ambassador to France. Jefferson presented her with one of a pair of miniatures of himself; Angelica gave Jefferson the first-edition copy of “The Federalist” that Hamilton and his wife had gifted to her.
But it was Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s deep political differences that truly drove their acrimony.
Hamilton believed Jefferson’s desire to elevate states’ rights over the federal government would mean a return to the chaos and fecklessness the nation had suffered under the Articles of Confederation.
“Whereas Jefferson thinks that Hamilton is essentially a monarchist,” Rasmussen said, “that he wants to return to something like British monarchy and put a crown on George Washington’s head.”
Hamilton became known as a Federalist while Jefferson was a proponent of Republicanism. And when their political differences arose, “neither side was able or willing to recognize the legitimacy of the other,” Rasmussen said. Instead, Federalists and Republicans could only see each other as members of factions promoting their own selfish interests.
“They treated each other not just as opponents, but as enemies of the Constitution,” Rasmussen said.
When Washington formed the first presidential administration under the new Constitution in 1789, he called on longtime allies for assistance: Hamilton, his Revolutionary War aide-de-camp, and Jefferson, his fellow Virginia planter.
“I feel myself supported by able Co-adjutors, who harmonise extremely well together,” the president wrote in June 1790.
But the “co-adjutors” didn’t see it that way.
“Hamilton & myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks,” Jefferson later wrote.
“Hamilton,” the smash-hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, depicts frequent face-to-face debates between the two secretaries, with Washington acting as referee.
But, in fact, “the number of in-person Cabinet meetings decreased over time. Eventually, Washington started asking for written reports instead of getting them together,” Rasmussen said.
In 1792, the vitriol between Washington’s top deputies reached such a fever pitch that the president wrote them nearly identical letters begging them to dial it down. Each was almost comically shrill in his reply: Jefferson complained that Hamilton’s fiscal policies were “calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.” Meanwhile, Hamilton moaned, “I have been the frequent subject of the most unkind whispers and insinuating from [Jefferson’s] quarter.”
He wasn’t being paranoid. Behind the scenes, Jefferson had been stoking partisan frenzy with a media strategy bent on Hamilton’s destruction — using taxpayer money to boot. He hired a fiery Republican polemicist, Philip Freneau, as a State Department translator, then got him to start an opposition newspaper going after his foe.
In Freneau’s reports, “Everything Hamilton does is destroying the republic,” Rasmussen said, “while Jefferson is the true patriot. And Jefferson paid his salary!”
Hamilton responded in kind, writing anti-Jefferson screeds under pseudonyms and planting them in pro-Federalist publications.
By 1798, the enmity between the two founders and their camps burst out into the open, exploding in an all-out brawl on the floor of Congress between Federalist Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut and Vermont Republican Matthew Lyon.
It all started in the House chamber when Lyon spat in Griswold’s face. Days later, Griswold launched a surprise attack on Lyon, clobbering him with a heavy hickory-wood cane. Lyon grabbed a nearby pair of fireplace tongs and whacked Griswold back. The two were soon grappling in an unseemly wrestling match on the carpet until their fellow congressmen pried them apart.
Neither man was badly hurt. But the melee brought scornful press coverage and dishonor on the whole legislature.
By then, Federalist John Adams was president, and he signed the now-infamous Alien and Sedition Acts to silence Republican dissent. But Adams’ crackdown had the opposite effect, helping to sweep the Republican Jefferson into the presidency in 1800. His inauguration marked the first transfer of power from one party to another in American history.
“We are all republicans; we are all federalists,” Jefferson proclaimed in his inaugural address.
But in private, the new president vowed “to sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.” (With Jefferson as president, and Republicanism on the rise, Hamilton founded a newspaper in 1801 to promote federalist principles. You’re reading it.)
Despite Washington’s best efforts, America had given birth to a polarized, two-party system — and an ideological battle that continues even today.
“We take parties for granted as a normal part of everyday democratic politics,” Rasmussen said. But they actually arose from “pretty petty personal animosities.”
“The Founders, high-minded people that they were, hoped that their leaders at least would be impartial and do what was best for the country as a whole,” he added.
Unfortunately that ideal was “impossibly naive.”
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