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3.8: Hamilton versus Jefferson

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Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were two of the most important political leaders of the young United States. Hamilton had been George Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and was a leading advocate for a strong central government during the Constitutional Convention. The Federalist Papers, which he wrote along with James Madison and John Jay, are the most extended and influential defense of the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and an influential leader of the other political faction, the Anti-Federalists. Hamilton was a New Yorker and an advocate for merchants and city-dwellers. Jefferson came from rural Virginia and envisioned the United States as a nation of farmers. Despite their disagreements, President Washington brought both men into his cabinet, Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury and Jefferson as Secretary of State. The letters below show one of their squabbles. As you read, note phrases that show each man’s personality.

Letter to George Washington - Alexander Hamilton

Source: This letter was written by Alexander Hamilton to President George Washington on September 9, 1792. Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury in Washington’s administration.

Philadelphia,

September 9, 1792.

Sir:—I have the pleasure of your private letter of the 26th of August.... I most sincerely regret the causes of the uneasy sensations you experience. It is my most anxious wish, as far as may depend upon me, to smooth the path of your administration, and to render it prosperous and happy. And if any prospect shall open of healing or terminating the differences which exist, I shall most cheerfully embrace it; though I consider myself as the deeply injured party....

I know that I have been an object of uniform opposition from Mr. Jefferson, from the moment of his coming to the city of New York to enter upon his present office. I know from the most authentic sources, that I have been the frequent subject of the most unkind whispers and insinuations from the same quarter. I have long seen a party formed in the Legislature under his auspices, bent upon my subversion. I cannot doubt from the evidence I possess, that the National Gazette was instituted by him for political purposes, and that one leading object of it has been to render me, and all the measures connected with my department, as odious as possible.

Nevertheless, I can truly say, that, except explanations to confidential friends, I never directly or indirectly retaliated or countenanced retaliation till very lately....

But when I no longer doubted that there was a formed party deliberately bent upon the subversion of measures, which in its consequences would subvert the government; when I saw that the undoing of the funding system in particular (which, whatever may be the original merits of that system, would prostrate the credit and the honor of the nation, and bring the government into contempt with that description of men who are in every society the only firm supporters of government) was an avowed object of the party, and that all possible pains were taken to produce that effect, by rendering it odious to the body of the people, I considered it as a duty to endeavor to resist the torrent, and, as an effectual means to this end, to draw aside the veil from the principal actors....

Nevertheless, I pledge my honor to you, sir, that if you shall hereafter form a plan to reunite the members of your administration upon some steady principle of coöperation, I will faithfully concur in executing it during my continuance in office; and I will not directly or indirectly say or do a thing that shall endanger a feud....

With the most affectionate and faithful attachment, etc.

Letter to George Washington - Thomas Jefferson

Source: This letter was written by Thomas Jefferson to President George Washington on September 9, 1792. Jefferson was Secretary of State in Washington’s administration.

To the President of the United States.

Monticello Sep 9, 1792.

DEAR SIR,—I received on the 2d inst the letter of Aug 2.... I now take the liberty of proceeding to that part of your letter wherein you notice the internal dissentions which have taken place within our government, & their disagreeable effect on it’s movements. That such dissentions have taken place is certain, & even among those who are nearest to you in the administration. To no one have they given deeper concern than myself; to no one equal mortification at being myself a part of them. Tho’ I take to myself no more than my share of the general observations of your letter, yet I am so desirous ever that you should know the whole truth, & believe no more than the truth, that I am glad to seize every occasion of developing to you whatever I do or think relative to the government....

If it has been supposed that I have ever intrigued among the members of the legislatures to defeat the plans of the Secretary of the Treasury, it is contrary to all truth. As I never had the desire to influence the members, so neither had I any other means than my friendships, which I valued too highly to risk by usurpations on their freedom of judgment, & the conscientious pursuit of their own sense of duty. That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknolege & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference. His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic....

When I came into this office, it was with a resolution to retire from it as soon as I could with decency.... In the meanwhile my main object will be to wind up the business of my office avoiding as much as possible all new enterprise.... I am more desirous to predispose everything for the repose to which I am withdrawing, than expose it to be disturbed by newspaper contests. If these however cannot be avoided altogether, yet a regard for your quiet will be a sufficient motive for my deferring it till I become merely a private citizen, when the propriety or impropriety of what I may say or do may fall on myself alone.... If my own justification, or the interests of the republic shall require it, I reserve to myself the right of then appealing to my country, subscribing my name to whatever I write, & using with freedom & truth the facts & names necessary to place the cause in it’s just form before that tribunal.... I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped it’s honors on his head.—Still however I repeat the hope that it will not be necessary to make such an appeal. Though little known to the people of America, I believe that, as far as I am known, it is not as an enemy to the republic, nor an intriguer against it, nor a waster of it’s revenue, nor prostitutor of it to the purposes of corruption, as the American represents me; and I confide that yourself are satisfied that, as to dissensions in the newspapers, not a syllable of them has ever proceeded from me; & that no cabals or intrigues of mine have produced those in the legislature, & I hope I may promise, both to you & myself, that none will receive aliment from me during the short space I have to remain in office, which will find ample employment in closing the present business of the department. In the meantime & ever I am with great and sincere affection & respect, dear Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant.

Section Questions

  1. Sourcing: When were these letters written? What do you predict they will say?
  2. Context: Why are both Hamilton and Jefferson writing to George Washington? Based on both of these letters, what seems to have been happening in George Washington’s administration? How can you tell?
  3. Close reading: Which letter is angrier? What specific words and phrases support your claim?
  4. What do the letters indicate about each man’s personality? What specific quotations support your claim?
  5. Corroboration: Who do you believe “started” the fight? Based on what they wrote, whom do you trust more: Hamilton or Jefferson? Why?

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