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Hamilton vs. Jefferson:

The Rivalry That Shaped America

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.

Louis Masur

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