If you ever dreamed of spending an evening chatting with one the Founding Fathers, have I got a book for you.
The title sounds academic but don’t let that deter you. The book is “Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding” by Darren Staloff. Staloff is an academic (City College of New York) who knows how to tell a story.
His book is a well-researched and well-reasoned biographical sketch of three leading intellects of the founding generation, and a page-turner to boot.
Of the book’s 396 pages, Staloff devotes 43 pages to the Enlightenment, 88 pages to Alexander Hamilton, 102 pages to John Adams, and 128 pages to Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton and Jefferson come off as charming and brilliant--and inflexible in their beliefs--while Adams is decidedly contrarian, brutally honest, and his own man. In Staloff’s narrative, Adams prickly personality rankles but in the end he’s the one you come away respecting most.
The chapter on Alexander Hamilton is mostly about Enlightenment economic principles and how Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury applied them to resolving the republic’s burdensome war debt. Hamilton was a visionary set on recasting the nation’s economy, from one of agriculture and IOUs to one of manufacturing and money.
Hamilton may not have been an egalitarian, but he saw his economic principles as having a great leveling effect on society. He did not want money hoarded by the wealthy few, but free-flowing and ever-changing hands, rewarding the initiative of anyone willing to work hard to get ahead; not merely investors, but common folk: butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Hamilton was among the nation’s first abolitionists. He may have spoken like an elitist, but his economic policies were color-blind and class free, and therefore democratic. More than all other founders, Hamilton personified Enlightenment ideals.
John Adams, on the other hand, grew skeptical of Enlightenment ideals, especially after his time in Europe and meeting Rousseau and his ilk. He came to loathe Franklin, Hamilton and Jefferson, until his last years, when he renewed his friendship with Jefferson through a series of now-famous letters. Adams was that rarest of individuals—an honest man—and came through when it counted most.
While in Europe, Adams negotiated a loan with a consortium of Dutch financiers that proved vital to sustaining both the confederation government and the federal government that replaced it. Without such money, Hamilton’s economic policies would not have gotten off the ground. As President, he opposed Hamilton and his own party by negotiating the controversial Treaty of Mortefontaine, thereby ending the Quasi-War with France. It split the Federalists and cost him a second term as Presidency but history vindicated his decision.
Adams lived to see Jefferson get all the credit for the Declaration of Independence, to see his “Thoughts on Government” be eclipsed by Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” and to see his “Defense of the Constitutions” and “Discourses on Davila” be dwarfed by “The Federalist Papers.” He was correct when he predicted, “Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me.” It wasn’t easy being John Adams.
As with John Adams, France had a transforming affect on Thomas Jefferson. Unlike Adams, he embraced Rousseau’s romantic notions, and tweaked them a bit to make them his own. Jefferson was an artist, architect, mathematician, poet, dreamer, and--shall I say it--space cadet. Out of necessity, he became a politician and an astute one at that. He embraced John Locke but never warmed up to Adam Smith and David Hume (Hamilton’s heroes). He was a purist who demonized anyone who opposed him. To paraphrase Walter Lippmann, he was captive of the pictures in his head, and believed the privileged and sheltered world he experienced was the world that existed for everyone.
Like all successful Presidents, he spoke like a Jeffersonian (in praising small government) and acted like a Hamiltonian (by expanding the powers of the presidency). He acknowledged slavery as a great evil and devised a highly idealistic and therefore unworkable plan for its abolition. In the end, he remained what he had always been, a staunch believer in states’ rights. In his later years he was highly incensed with anyone who criticized “the peculiar institution” of slavery. Jefferson could never reconcile the world with the images in his head.