One of our most popular professors is Rutgers Professor Louis Masur, who has lectured for us many times on many subjects. A favorite is his lecture titled Hamilton vs Jefferson, where Professor Masur digs far deeper into this complex relationship than the Broadway Play “Hamilton” ever could. The video above and text below is an excerpt from the talk.
Louis Masur / Rutgers University
When Thomas Jefferson received an early copy of what the Constitution was going to look like, he did not like the omission of a Bill of Rights providing clearly for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restrictions against monopolies, Habeas Corpus laws, trials by jury, etc.
A Bill of Rights was so important to him, that he felt people were entitled to one against every government on Earth. Jefferson felt if we were going to create a stronger government, people have to have assurances that individual rights and liberties are protected. So, if Hamilton was the engine behind the ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson was one of the strong voices behind the Bill of Rights to counteract some of the effects of the Constitution, some of the anxiety that it created.
Hamilton and Jefferson met for the first time in 1790, in New York, at Jefferson’s home at 57 Maiden Lane. He would later write about Hamilton; “Each of us perhaps thought well of the other man, but it was impossible for two men to be of more opposite principles” There’s a story that Jefferson will tell later in life. Looking back, there’s no reason to doubt it, although I’m sure he was telling it from his own point of view. He says that once Hamilton came to dinner, and Jefferson had portraits on the wall. He had a portrait of Bacon, Newton and Locke, three of his heroes, and he says to Hamilton, “These are three of the greatest men who’ve ever lived”, and Hamilton says, no, “Julius Caesar is the greatest man who ever lived.” Okay, this is just a story. Jefferson is telling it many years later, but it captures the anxiety that Hamilton created in men like Jefferson.
They said Hamilton was power-hungry. They thought that he wanted to take over and create a monarchy for the new nation. Well, he certainly was an anglophile. He loved the English. He loved the British way, especially The Bank of England. Our commerce industry and all the kinds of things that Hamilton is thinking about in his mind are actually modeled by Britain. And Jefferson? Well, he thinks of the British as a bunch of “rich, proud swearing, hectoring squabbling carnivorous animals!” Not surprising at all – because Jefferson loves the French. He loves the sense of ideas and liberty and the culture of what’s going on in France. This is another one of their most important differences. Hamilton is very early on, someone who understands the importance of a nation, but the concept of ” nation” is going to take a long time to develop. Democracy is still an epithet in the 18th century. This comes as news to a lot of you, right? None of America’s important founders even like the word democracy. What was the problem with democracy? They felt it put too much power in the hands of the people, who ultimately can’t be trusted.
Hamilton is experiencing a well-deserved revival. Often forced to take a back seat to other Founding Fathers, his vision of America as an economic powerhouse with a dynamic and aggressive government as its engine has found many followers. Hamilton helped get the Constitution ratified, helped found the Federalist Party, and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury. An orphan born in the West Indies, he was like a son to George Washington and perhaps should have been like a brother to Thomas Jefferson.
But Jefferson fought bitterly against the Federalists and his election as president ushered in the “revolution of 1800.” Ironically, it would be Hamilton who helped assure Jefferson’s triumph over Aaron Burr. Jefferson articulated a different vision from Hamilton’s, promoting an agrarian democracy built upon geographic expansion—an “empire of liberty,” he called it. In 1793, he would resign as Secretary of State to protest Hamilton’s policies. In retirement, Jefferson would reflect on the differences between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and express fear for the future of the new nation.
Learn about the conflict that took shape in the 1790s between America’s first political parties—the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton vs. Jefferson: The Rivalry that Shaped America.
Looking for more great lectures about Hamilton and his rivalry with Thomas Jefferson? Check out ‘A Jewish Founding Father? Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life‘ and ‘Broadway’s Hamilton: Separating Fact from Fiction‘.
Louis Masur is a Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at Rutgers University. He received outstanding teaching awards from Rutgers, Trinity College, and the City College of New York, and won the Clive Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard University. He is the author of many books including “Lincoln’s Last Speech,” which was inspired by a talk he presented at One Day University. His essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, and Chicago Tribune. He is an elected member of the American Antiquarian Society and serves on the Historians’ Council of the Gettysburg Foundation.