For my first book of 2017 I read…
Jefferson and Hamilton the Rivalry that Forged a Nation by John Ferling
Upon reading this book I seriously considered making a “Which Founding Fathers Hated Each Other” flowchart, but wasn’t sure how to reflect all of the changes through time. Most of the notable figures of the Revolution, except for Washington, had an axe to grind with Alexander Hamilton. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were friends, enemies, and then friends again. One of my favorite random facts of the founding fathers is how Adams and Jefferson both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1826). Reportedly Adams last words were something to the effect of, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” It is unfortunate that Adams lived before the age of social media or he would have known that Jefferson had been dead for a few hours.
Thanks to a Broadway musical Hamilton is very popular today, but I wonder if the recent Hamilton love hasn’t overcompensated for his legacy’s historic neglect. I guess what I am wondering is when the cast of Hamilton says to the soon-to-be Vice President, “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us,” do they realize that Hamilton was the guy who said, “It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” Hamilton didn’t trust the American people, and he was instrumental in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Neither Hamilton nor Jefferson fit the narratives of 2017 very well. Like small government? Jefferson is your guy. Want laws and lawmaking to be more compelled by history than the whims of the moment? Hamilton is your man. In the right context Hamilton or Jefferson could be the patron saint for either political party. Hamilton advocated for the Electoral College (I agree), and lifetime tenure for senators and presidents (good Lord no!). We have a lot to learn from history, but maybe “Hamilton was the man” isn’t one of them? This tweet by the irrepressible Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett summarize it well.
My favorite quote from this book is a combo of the author and John Adams. Regarding Hamilton it was said that he was, “A toady of ‘the greatest intriguant in the World.” First, I really wish that Adams had called Hamilton a toady, but that was Ferling. Second intriguant is a great word and one that aptly described Hamilton. Today everybody just drops an F-bomb to let you know how they feel. We need to get back to the days of the well-versed, big-vocabulary verbal slam.
The elephant in any room about the Founding Fathers is slavery. I like that Ferling incorporated a decent amount on that issue into a book that could have easily ignored it. Hamilton certainly had the better track record on the issue. Jefferson, for all of his philosophical brilliance about liberty, was as hypocritical as they come. The best way to describe Jefferson seems to be double-minded. He had fantastic ideas about personal liberty, but wasn’t really willing to let all of those ideas impact his own world and pocketbook. The black eye that Jefferson has in this regard is well-earned. Still, it is the easiest thing in the world to fry our ancestors for their sins when we are very comfortable overlooking our own. I would not excuse Jefferson’s record on race any more than I would suggest that we overlook Hamilton’s affair or duel, but I am suggesting that humility might be more in order than pitchforks when we read history.
Having read Ron Chernow’s biography on Hamilton a few months ago I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on who Hamilton was. Has there ever been a person more intent on self-destruction than Hamilton? Honor was such a powerful concept at the time that people like Hamilton craved it. I have always found the Burr/Hamilton duel one of the strangest and most incomprehensible in U.S. history, and I still do.
How many stars did I give this book on Goodreads? 4
In what format did I consume this book? Audiobook
Team Hamilton or Team Jefferson? USA! USA! USA!