Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Agrarian Past, Industrial Revolution, Federalists, Republicans, Reynolds Affair and Philip Freneau

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 20th, 2012

Politics 101

Jefferson could not Turn a Profit on his Plantation and was Forever in Debt Leading to a Lifelong Disdain for Merchants and Bankers

At the time of the Founding America was (and would be for a long time) an agrarian nation.  A country of farmers.  Big and small.  Rich plantations.  And lots of hard-working family farms that were far from being rich.  Yeomen famers.  Who, to borrow a phrase from Oliver Wendell Douglas, “got their hands dirty!”  For those of you too young to recognize this line it’s from the 1960s classic sitcom Green Acres.  Where Douglas was a rich New York City (NYC) attorney who moved out of NYC to Hooterville to be a farmer.  Who he called the backbone of America.  Much like Thomas Jefferson.

Douglas and Jefferson shared a lot in common.  Both were lawyers.  Both were part of high society.  And both could make a good speech (or put something great in writing).  Douglas lived on Park Avenue in NYC.  And he and his wife travelled in the top social circles.  Just like Jefferson.  They both enjoyed the best of the best.  But neither were very good farmers.  The Douglas farm was a disaster despite his best efforts.  While Jefferson could not turn a profit on his plantation.  And was forever in debt.  Leading to a lifelong disdain for merchants and bankers.  Especially merchant bankers.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the British Isle of Nevis.  And raised in St. Croix.  Hamilton was a bastard child.  Illegitimate.  A stigma that spurred him to do everything aggressively in his life to show he was not a second-class person.  He worked at an early age.  In commerce.  And he was very good.  A natural.  Very smart.  And brave.  A veteran of two American wars.  He loved America.  But having been born and raised outside of the country he had no allegiance to any state.  Put it all together and it made Hamilton a nationalist.

Jefferson wanted to hold on to the Agrarian Past while Hamilton wanted to bring on the Industrial Revolution

Hamilton was just as much a Patriot as the other Founding Fathers.  Perhaps more so as he actually served in the Continental Army.  And while serving he saw how poor military power and poor financial power made a country dangerously weak.  The Americans almost lost their Revolution because of a weak nation that could not provide for her army.  So he wanted to make America strong.  And united.  The key in Hamilton’s eyes to making America a powerful nation (like Great Britain) that could stand up against any enemy was a strong union.  And in the Washington administration he advanced policies towards that end.  Ironically, policies that would do more to drive the nation apart.

So Hamilton (Secretary of Treasury) and Jefferson (Secretary of State) could not be more different.  And as they started to push their agendas in the Washington administration they grew to hate each other.  For their visions for America couldn’t be more different.  Despite both being ardent Patriots.  Jefferson wanted to hold on to the agrarian past.  While Hamilton wanted to bring on the Industrial Revolution.  Jefferson believed in the landed aristocracy built upon virtue and talent.  Not the aristocracy money could buy you.  Or birth or a title like in a monarchy.  Which Jefferson believed Hamilton was trying to turn America into.  As did all the farmers throughout the South and in the West.  Who all hated bankers and merchants.  Those people who made money off of other people’s labors.  Investors and speculators.  While speculation in land, on the other hand, was perfectly acceptable as it was what the southern gentry did to acquire their wealth.

And so began the political parties.  The Federalists were for a strong national government that Hamilton tried to make as strong as possible.  And the anti-Federalists.  Who already felt that the national government had grown too strong.  Or as they would become under Jefferson’s leadership, the Republicans (which were NOT the forbears of the current Republican Party).  In general, southern planters.  While Hamilton led the Federalists.  In general, northern businessmen.  The game of politics was born.  And it got dirty pretty quickly.  Thanks to each party’s friends in the media.  The newspapers of the day.  Which were pretty much political arms of these parties.

The Newspapers launched Vitriol at each Other including a Lot of Lies, Slander and Libel

The Treasury Department was the largest government department.  It was huge.  With a huge budget.  Whereas the State Department was basically Jefferson and a few clerks.  Hamilton no doubt felt he was the most important man in America next to the president.  And Jefferson was sure that Hamilton was using his position to steal money from the treasury.  So sure that Jefferson and his Republicans launched Congressional investigations that turned up nothing.  Convincing Jefferson that Hamilton was a better thief than even he had imagined.  Jefferson still pressed and had a colleague introduce multiple resolutions in Congress against Hamilton hoping to get Hamilton thrown from office on a House vote.  The House voted down all resolutions.

James Reynolds was a con man who made his money by defrauding veterans.  And other criminal pursuits.  Tired of the scale of these scores he came to Philadelphia to make some bigger money.  By using his wife, Maria, to seduce and have an affair with Alexander Hamilton.  So he could blackmail him.  Which she did.  Then he did.  When Reynolds’ criminal past caught up with him and sent him to jail he talked about the affair.  Which was more than just an affair.  He told some Republicans that he and Hamilton were using treasury funds to fund speculation for personal gain.  Jefferson and the Republicans were overjoyed.  Sure that they at last had a way to get rid of Hamilton. When confronted in his home to answer these charges he fessed up and told the truth.  Which included no speculation with treasury funds.  While all the money paid to Reynolds came from his own pocket.  All treasury funds were present and accounted for.  Politicians being the gentlemen they were then were satisfied and promised to never speak of Hamilton’s marital indiscretions.

So the political battle between Hamilton and Jefferson would carry on in the press.  Hamilton contributed most of his writings to the Gazette of the United States which wrote positively about Federalist policies.  And enjoyed a national circulation.  So Jefferson countered that by setting up a Republican national paper.  The National Gazette.  Who James Madison helped kick off by convincing Philip Freneau to come to Philadelphia to edit the paper.  Which he did.  And Jefferson helped him with his finances by hiring him into the State Department.  Putting him on the payroll to attack Washington’s treasury secretary while he was the sitting Secretary of State.  Trying to undermine the very administration he belonged to.  And the war between the two men escalated.  The papers launched vitriol at each other.  Including a lot of lies, slander and libel.  Enlisting other papers to join in the journalistic malfeasance.  People who talk about negative political campaigns today have no idea how ugly it was back then.  There was no interest in reaching across the aisle.  They just wanted to destroy the opposition so they could advance their policies.   Much like it is today.  Only without it being about principle.  But advancing the privileged government class.  That other aristocracy that Jefferson hated.

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