A Republic, If You Can Keep It: More on the Recent AHI Colloquium

“You must find Philadelphia much changed, Mr. Jefferson.”

“More changed than I could have imagined, Mr. Hamilton. Not the city itself—all cities swallow everything … that’s no surprise to me; that’s why I abhor them. But I have been, as you know, in revolutionary France, where the streets are filled with the sounds of liberty and brotherhood and the overthrow of ancient tyrannies of Europe. And to return from there to this, our cradle of revolution, and find the dinner-table chatter is all of money and banks and authorities is — an unwelcome surprise.”

“Unwelcome perhaps, but necessary.”

Hamilton’s response to Jefferson (in the HBO “John Adams” series) is followed by his explanation of the new nation’s need to grow its economy and finance its government. Jefferson then warns the Treasury secretary that if his plans were implemented, “the opportunities for avarice and corruption would certainly prove irresistible.” “Well, there you have it,” Hamilton counters. “As I have heard said: ‘If men were angels, then no government would be necessary.’ ”

To understand these founders’ often clashing beliefs about the American experiment, the next-best thing to time travel is the opportunity to hear a wide-ranging discussion by experts who have, to an extent, lived intellectually in the past in order to grasp it. Students who attended the Alexander Hamilton Institute’s recent colloquium in Charlottesville, Virginia, titled “Hamilton v. Jefferson: On History, Freedom, and Republican Government,” were able to benefit from such a dialogue.

Like the AHI’s previous annual conferences, it featured a well-chosen panel of more than a dozen thoughtful scholars whose discussions based on a set of readings were structured—although not inhibited—by a moderator. Each theme in the conference title had its own session, with a fourth session allowing something of an overview.

The readings, spanning several decades, ranged from private letters to major public documents like Hamilton’s Federalist Papers 1 and 6 and Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address. They provided insights into each figure’s views on major events of the times, advisable governmental policy, political strategy, and how crucial principles of government should be applied.

Hamilton is known as one of the most practical American founders, and as having one of the most cautious perspectives on human nature—yet at the same time an especially favorable, optimistic view of strong government. He emphasized the new republic’s need to survive and economically prosper in a dangerous world.

Jefferson, in contrast, stressed the preservation of liberty and self-government. A relatively quiet man (not at all fond of public speaking, for example), he is widely believed to have been far less practical, too optimistic about human nature and especially the political instincts of the people, and too strict in his belief in minimal government.

Panelist Peter Onuf noted that whereas Hamilton believed the people’s “confidence” in the newly formed government would be essential to national strength, Jefferson thought such confidence would be dangerous, since it would indicate too little vigilance. He warned: “free government is founded in jealousy [watchful suspicion] and not in confidence.” Yet as panelist Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out, Jefferson was the most talented politician of his era and founded a lasting political dynasty.

Studying the two founders together, and hearing in-depth about them together, makes particular sense because each exerted a different kind of influence on the early (and the modern) nation. Late in the conference, panelist John Ragosta cited and endorsed the view that “we are a Hamiltonian republic with a Jeffersonian soul.” The readings and discussions left all of us, I think, with a fuller understanding of the ways in which this is true.