America’s consciousness is indelibly shaped by the competing legacies of three distinct personalities: a fast-talking New Yorker, a quintessential Yankee and a Virginia squire. In his book, “Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding,” historian Darren Staloff explores the social, intellectual and personal dynamics that shaped these men and helped define the nation. Staloff teaches courses in colonial and revolutionary America at The City College of New York. He has published two books, “Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson” noted above and “The Making of the American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts.”
Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson probed the themes of both books in an interview with Staloff. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: You use three figures — Jefferson, Hamilton and Adams— to weave a kind of intellectual history of the founding of America. For many people today, it’s the competing legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton that represent the divisiveness that permeates our politics. Is this parallel an accurate one?
Darren Staloff: The differences between the two parties in the 18th century were every bit as vicious as they are now, maybe worse. Hamilton and Jefferson had hard feelings toward each other, which makes it easy to forget how much they agreed on. They both wanted a popular republic, for example. They both wanted a fiscally sound state. They both wanted ordered liberty. They disagreed about the precise configuration, but even where they disagreed, there was a lot of overlap. Hamilton certainly favored a program of manufacturing. He thought that was the future. But to be fair, Jefferson also thought that was the future. They had a different sense of the timing of it and of how desirable it was, but if you asked them, “Do you both ascribe to a stadial view of history?”, both would have said yes. And if you’d asked Jefferson, “In the long run, is the future going to be manufacturing and urbanization?”, he would’ve said, “Yes, but I’m not in a rush to get there.” It’s not so much a judgment of reality, because I think they agreed on a lot of that. It’s a judgment of style of thought and of preference. Hamilton was a city slicker who couldn’t get there fast enough. Jefferson wasn’t. He saw that this was going to be the future at some point, but it wasn’t to his taste.
In the things he was interested in, Hamilton was actually deeper. He was a real nerd. When he studied something, he worked hard and got to the bottom of it. But he didn’t have the breadth that Jefferson had. Of all of the founders, Jefferson definitely had the most catholic tastes. He not only read political philosophy and moral philosophy and metaphysics and epistemology and critical religion, but he was also an aesthete. His literary tastes were impeccable. He was incredibly well read. His gustatory tastes were spectacular. He drank wine like a grown-up. He’d fit right among us. To some extent, that’s what’s happening today. Some of our differences are aesthetic. Part of the country, although they’re in the party of Jefferson, identifies with the Hamiltonian sensibility of urbanism and immigration and diversity.
Governing: The exchange of letters between Jefferson and Adams that spans the country’s first 50 years is unparalleled in its historical significance. Late in their correspondence, the two founders got into a famous fight when Adams learned that Jefferson had quoted him to another as saying that all the wisdom in the world is in the past, that nothing new ever happens. Certain that Jefferson had mischaracterized him, Adams called him on it.
Darren Staloff: All three of these guys fight with each other. That’s why I picked them to represent their regions. It’s a fair and even fight. In this case, you picked the key letter for illustrating their philosophical disagreements. What Jefferson is essentially saying is that Adams has given up on the Enlightenment. The Federalists have, too. They’ve become reactionaries. Jefferson and Adams are really fighting for the mantle of enlightenment there. This exposes their very different strains of enlightenment, as well as the different reading they did. Jefferson had never stopped reading or learning or developing. It takes Adams a couple of years to figure out why Jefferson thinks he’s such a horrible reactionary, but he finally recognizes that Jefferson has become a devotee of the school of French thought called ideology, the science of ideas. For the ideologues, if you start with the right metaphysical premises, you can deduce everything that can be known, including the ideal and perfect political and legal system. In Jefferson’s view, for Adams not to see and follow this was a sign that he was reactionary. But for Adams, this was never the Enlightenment. Realizing how far Jefferson has drifted, he stops debating with him. It wasn’t Adams that strayed, it was Jefferson.
Governing: Doesn’t Adams also think that however you look at it, the core problem is human nature? It’s not always a pretty thing, and if you’re not realistic about that, you’re going to create a system that cannot succeed.
Darren Staloff: That’s definitely Adams’ view, though I don’t know that he has a dour view of human nature. I would call it enlightened. Adams thinks that people are capable of love and kindness. He believes they have benevolent dispositions, but he also believes that they have an ungodly will to power, and that you’ll find that in the apprentice shop as well as in the White House. Adams had gotten that largely from Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” If you believe in God, and I think Smith did, you realize he gave us our emulative principles and competitive drive for domination so that they could be useful for other people, if you structure them correctly. That, weirdly enough, turns out to be Adams’ tragic vision toward the end of his life. He is obsessed with the passion for distinction, driven by the desire to be recognized. He says something very chilling and profound at the end: “You realize the desire for power and distinction is not good for the person who has it. It’s good for everyone else.”
Governing: There is much to read and talk about with Jefferson and Adams, as well as with Jefferson and Hamilton. What about the Adams and Hamilton relationship? Hamilton wrote a searing denunciation of Adams during the latter’s run for re-election in 1800.
Darren Staloff: The Hamilton and Adams relationship has not been sufficiently explored. It’s clear that at one point Adams thought very highly of Hamilton. Part of understanding their split is realizing that, among the big league founders, Adams and Hamilton, along with Franklin, are unique. They’re plebs. Hamilton has aristocratic blood, but he’s a poor boy and a pleb. So is Adams, at least in his origins. Jefferson is there from his brains, but also from his birth. He knows that because a lot of Virginians with less brains than him have done well politically. But for Adams and Hamilton, it’s only brains, so it’s important to each that they be the smartest guy in the room. And like in an old Western, there’s not enough room in town for both Hamilton and Adams. Hamilton is frustrated by the fact that Adams doesn’t defer to him. In some ways, he’s right. Adams doesn’t understand anything about executive government. Hamilton has been senior aide to George Washington. That’s as close as you’re going to get to cabinet government. Jefferson has two terms as governor. Adams has none of that. It would’ve been well worth his while to have consulted with Hamilton. At the same time, Hamilton is convinced that there’s nothing that Adams can teach him. It all makes for a crazy clash.
Governing: “Checks and balances, Mr. Jefferson,” wrote Adams in one letter, “are our only security, for the progress of mind, as well as the security of body.”
Darren Staloff: As long as we all respect the checks and balances, we’re going to be OK. It’s when we get impatient with them that we have problems. Consider FDR’s court packing. It was a mistake, but what made Roosevelt a truly transcendent president is he never tried that again. He said, “Oops, my bad.” Every single major piece of legislation he passed, every title legislation and every regulatory legislation, had bipartisan buy-in, and he went the extra mile to get it. Roosevelt was an Adamsian. He knew you have to reach across the aisle. I’m the president and I’ve got a majority, and I’m going to get my way, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the other side. It may be on my terrain, but I have to pull them together.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes — actively solicits even — your comments and critiques of his essays, interviews and reviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.