Mr. talleyrand, during his exile in Philadelphia, passed by the house of the American Secretary of the Treasury late one night and observed a light burning in the study where the Secretary, having finished his official duties for the day, was slaving over the papers of a private client.
Mr. Talleyrand went his way, filled with wonder touched with contempt. “I have seen a man who made the fortune of a nation laboring all night to support his family!” he said later. It was not a sight of which the future Prince de Benevent could approve. A man who had handled millions of public funds under an accounting system largely of his own devising had no excuse, in Mr. Talleyrand’s opinion, for remaining poor. Years afterward Mr. Talleyrand declared that of the three greatest men he had ever known, Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton, he would rate Alexander Hamilton first; but this was in spite of, rather than because of, the American’s failure to establish his own fortune by abstracting a reasonable quota from the government money that passed through his hands. In Mr. Talleyrand’s opinion, this would not have been stealing, but the collection of a just debt from a rascally debtor; and Hamilton’s failure to exact an adequate fee for his services in restoring order to the national finances Mr. Talleyrand regarded with no admiration whatever. Nations, his experience taught him, never voluntarily pay for the services rendered them, so a man who is in position to collect his own fee is not only justified in so doing, but is guilty of weakness or folly if he omits collection. As a matter of fact, no one in recent years has seriously contended that Hamilton was a materialist in the sense that Talleyrand was. A.11 recent students concede that he believed in the immaterial concept of honor—indeed, how can any rational man deny it, in view of the fact that he actually went to his death to defend that abstraction? The accepted view of Hamilton seems to be that he was a realist, not in comparison with Talleyrand, but in comparison with his great opponent in this country, Thomas Jefferson. The argument advanced to support this theory is simple but, if true, conclusive. It is that Hamilton’s theories worked and Jefferson’s didn’t—or, more precisely, that the country followed the course of development predicted by Hamilton, rather than that predicted by Jefferson.
Partisan prejudice long ago subsided sufficiently to permit historians of any capacity to perceive that both men were essential. Even writers with a distinct Federalist bias have for many years granted the enormous size of Jefferson’s contribution to the making of the nation, and no Jeffersonian who is taken seriously hesitates to admit that without Hamilton the republic probably would have collapsed before its history was well begun. The process of building up one man by attempting to tear down the other was abandoned long ago by all sensible students; for the reputation of each is too well supported by incontestable fact to permit any hope for the success of sapping and mining operations.
It must be borne in mind, however, that this truth was never apparent to the men themselves. Hamilton, dying early, while the heat of the contest was still intense, perhaps had no chance to formulate a clear judgment; but it is a sardonic commentary on the value of contemporary estimates that Jefferson, at eighty-one, still lacked any clear comprehension of the significance of Hamilton’s contribution. He died believing that the net result of Hamilton’s work was to set up a tendency toward disruption and destruction.
Jefferson, however, died in 1826 and there is no lack of reason to assert that in 1826 the pull of the Hamiltonian philosophy was in the direction of disruption and destruction. It was the Hamiltonian philosophy that was drawing the country toward the Tariif of Abominations, which all but precipitated civil war less than ten years after Jefferson’s death. Jefferson understood this clearly. He was not deceived by words. He knew that the concentration of legal power in Washington, under the conditions then prevailing, would end by creating, not a strong government, but a weak one, because the concentration would set up internal stresses that the fabric of the country could not stand. In 1861 he was proved to be right.
Yet this clear-eyed man, after dominating the political thinking of the country for half a century, gradually acquired the reputation of an impractical idealist whose intelligence, although undeniably powerful, did not save him from falling under the spell of dreamy fantasies. For three-quarters of the last century it has been accepted almost as axiomatic that the Virginian was a visionary and the Jamaican a realist —that the hopeful Jefferson was of the poetic temperament as contrasted with the hardheaded, unsentimental Hamilton, who represented the peasant type. Perhaps they were, if you choose, poet and peasant, but one of the ironies of American history is that their roles have been reversed by events and the hardheaded realist is held up as the dreamer, while the poet is reputed to be the materialist.
Only one of Jefferson’s countless biographers, Chinard, seems to have understood this clearly, although Nock certainly perceived it in part. As far as I know, none of Hamilton’s biographers has touched it at all.
Yet, in the case of Jefferson, strong evidence, if not conclusive proof, of this theory can be summed up in a single word—Monticello. It is, perhaps, remotely possible, but it is certainly far from probable that a genuinely poetic temperament would or could have produced that amazing palace of gadgets. The architecture, to be sure, is far from trivial; the grace and serenity of its exterior were created by a philosopher, not by a tinker. But Jefferson was a great man. The argument is not that his intelligence was small, for any such suggestion would be fatuous, but that his temperament was essentially prosaic. The argument is sustained by an examination of the house he built. Jefferson was genuinely interested in the spaciousness of life; the territory his mind traversed was bounded only by the limits of human thought, and to have his attention diverted from the cosmic to the small necessities of daily living irked him. It irks a poet, too, but a poet rarely, if ever, does anything about it. Jefferson did. He proceeded by direct and highly practical means to eliminate as far as he could the distractions that easily interrupt a train of thought. By means of a pointer on a spindle brought through the roof of his porch from a weather vane above he was enabled to. tell, by glancing at the ceiling, the direction of the wind. Within arm’s reach of his chair in the dining room was a dumb-waiter just large enough to bring up one bottle of wine from the cellar. When the discussion around the mahogany was lively and interesting, he could refill the gentlemen’s glasses without the intrusion of a servant, and its inevitable interruption of the talk. The famous bed in the wall, from which he was able to arise, either in his library or in his dressing room, was a startlingly practical solution of a genuine problem. The “unintended benefit to the bureaucracies of all civilized lands,” the swivel chair, undoubtedly was intended to enable Mr. Jefferson, when writing at his desk, to turn and extract a volume from a bookcase behind him with the smallest possible interruption of the progression of his ideas. The place is filled with a practical man’s highly practical devices for eliminating small nuisances; and if there is anything characteristic of the poetic temperament, that thing is its incapacity to deal with the trivial disturbances of ordinary life.
When we turn to Hamilton, however, the evidence of his possession of the opposite temperament is nowhere so neatly collected. As a young man he perpetrated some pretty bad verse, but he was not a versifier after he had reached maturity. He began life in a merchant’s countinghouse, and he attained fame as a fiscal expert; and the ability to keep exact accounts, developing into an ability to balance a national budget, is not commonly accounted among proofs that the man possessing it has been touched with the divine afflatus.
But here, again, we are dealing with a great man who played the cards that Fate dealt him with a skill and resourcefulness that only a great man could command. To point out that Hamilton was fundamentally romantic is not at all to suggest that he was
A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery, Foot-in-the-grave young man,
which would be as silly as to suggest that Jefferson, the gadget maker, was nothing but a maker of gadgets. Men of the first rank do the work that is required of them in first-rate fashion, regardless of their temperamental preferences; the capacity to master themselves is one of the marks by which we recognize their greatness. The fact that Hamilton, preferring to be a lieutenant general, yet made a great Secretary of the Treasury, is more to his credit than would have been an equally fine record based upon a passion for ledgers and accounts.
Men of first-rate ability can never be labeled neatly and thrust into pigeonholes, for the man of extraordinary talents invariably has a touch of universality, a mentality with many facets. Everyone knows that, but nobody applies it; so it is needful to point out that the suggestion that Jefferson was essentially prosaic and practical is not a denial that he indulged in occasional flights of fancy, nor is the suggestion that Hamilton was romantic a denial that he was capable, when he deemed it necessary, of trudging indefinitely with his feet very flatly on the ground. The emotional natures of the two men do not affect the work they did in the world, nor the influence that each wielded upon the development of the republic; but a misconception of a man’s emotional nature blurs and distorts the picture that later generations have of him. It makes it more difficult, if not, indeed, impossible for us to understand him, and so makes the story of his life duller.
But if there is anything in the theory that Alexander Hamilton was the impractical idealist and Thomas Jefferson the clear-eyed realist, there must be some explanation of the prevailing opinion that the reverse is the truth. There is an explanation but until it is itself explained it is more confusing than the original assertion. The explanation is that from the standpoint of the last century the popular impression is the true one. The test of an impractical idealist is that his ideas, when applied in practice, do not work out; but Hamilton’s did. The realist is the man whose notions stand the test of translation into practice; a good many of Jefferson’s have not done so. Where, then, is there an excuse for saying that the man whose advice turned out to be sound was the dreamer, and his opponent the practical man of affairs?
The excuse lies in the fact that these results were brought about by factors that did not exist when the two men died and that could not reasonably have been foreseen by them. The places of Jefferson and Hamilton were exchanged by two men who, as far as the material is concerned, were more truly the founders of the existing nation than Washington and his colleagues. These two were not statesmen, and one of them was not even an American, but between them they eliminated the republic of the early days and substituted for it another and quite different country. They were George Stephenson and Samuel Finley Breese Morse, inventors, respectively, of the locomotive and the electric telegraph.
This suggestion clashes with the view of many recent students of American government. Mr. Simeon Strunsky, to mention a late example, found in his survey of Revolutionary America a remarkable homogeneity of opinion from Massachusetts to Georgia. The differences between the sections were superficial, almost always explainable by climatic or topographical differences. In their essential ideas, in their aspirations, in their manner of thinking, all Americans at that time were remarkably alike.
For this reason Mr. Strunsky is inclined to deprecate the importance of technological changes in changing the nature of the republic. It was already a unit before these things were introduced, so why credit them with unifying it? Why assume that they made any essential change in its development? Above all, why assume that they invalidated the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?
The answer is that Mr. Strunsky examined the country as it was in 1775. His conclusions, as they relate to that period, are sound enough. But if he had made his examination in 1820, he would have discovered no such unity. By that time the “fire-bell in the night” had begun to clang, and not only were manners and customs sharply differentiated, but men’s basic conceptions of the republic and what it stood for were widely divergent. New England had already made a serious threat to return to old England; and when the country of John and Samuel Adams was almost persuaded that the Revolution had been a mistake, it is idle to contend that there was any real unity left. Some echoes of the Hartford Convention still lingered, even in 1820; and by that time the profound discontent of the South had begun to give anxiety to every thoughtful national leader.
Yet the development of political ideas during those forty-five years was perfectly logical and predictable by anyone who accepted the facts as they existed in 1775 and based his reasoning upon them. This is the mental procedure of a realist. It was the procedure of Jefferson. Taking the facts, and nothing but the facts; taking the rate of change as it had proceeded between 1607 and the Revolution and assuming—as he had every right to assume—that it would continue at something in the order of the same rate; he worked out a prophecy of the development of the country that events fulfilled with remarkable precision for more than a generation. He realized that the trend toward centralization was bound to be opposed by the development of particularist interests, and his calculations convinced him that if both trends continued unchecked, stresses would develop that would rend the country.
All this was logical and accurate. The trends did continue, the stresses did develop, and the country was rent. Nevertheless, Jefferson, although an admirable logician, was a false prophet, for the country survives. Yet the error was not in his logic. The error was in that inescapable, irremovable factor that every logician faces when he assumes to deal with human beings. He may predict the movements of a planet or of an electron for a thousand years with almost absolute accuracy. He may predict the development of fruit flies, or of guinea pigs through many generations with a factor of error of negligible proportions. But the moment humanity enters the equation, mathematical calculation loses its authority; in the presence of this incalculable element, the realistic approach may be anything but real. Long ago Calverley spoke the last word on the scientific approach with reference to nicotine: after noting
How one (or two at most) Drops make a cat a ghost— Useless, except to roast— Doctors have said it,
he proceeded to the summation of wisdom respecting the application of scientific calculation to human affairs—
We’re not as tabbies are.
This great truth Thomas Jefferson never apprehended, or, if he suspected it, he knew of no way to apply it to the solution of his problem.
At the time he was writing his “Notes on Virginia” Jefferson assumed that the conquest of the continent would require from four to five hundred years. It was a bold assumption, since in the preceding hundred and seventy-five years civilization had marched only about two hundred and fifty miles back from the Atlantic coast. Jefferson’s estimate was based on the assumption that the march would be speeded up greatly—in twice the time he expected the conquest to proceed more than ten times as far. This was certainly making a liberal allowance for technological progress. Hamilton probably thought it too liberal; it is unbelievable that any rational man thought it scant. But the thing was done in a single century; and two-thirds of it was done in the half-century following the introduction of the railroad. Any such terrific displacement of the temporal element on which it is based must necessarily have a profound effect upon a political philosophy, probably invalidating it, in large measure.
The Hamiltonian philosophy of a strong central government, supported primarily by “the rich and wellborn,” necessarily rested upon two bases. One was the permanence of a substantial identity of interest among the rich and wellborn; the other was that means of physical control would proceed at least abreast of territorial expansion. If the aristocracy were to be divided, then the chief support of a Hamiltonian government must be split. If means of control were to fall behind territorial expansion, then a strong central government would be a physical impossibility. Without these bases, the theory would have been insane. Hamilton was no madman; hence he must have assumed their solidity.
Jefferson could not assume anything of the kind; hence to him the Hamiltonian scheme seemed fantastic to the verge of madness. To Jefferson it was perfectly apparent that, as the development of the country proceeded, a conflict among the commercial, financial, industrial, and agricultural I interests was inevitable. The rich and wellborn were bound to fight among themselves; therefore, all democratic theory aside, to base support of the government on an identity of interest that was only apparent, and that for no long time, seemed to him hopeless. He was a traveler, too, not only here but in Europe. Abroad he had observed how difficult it was for a central government to maintain control over compact countries with excellent transportation facilities; and he realized how immensely more difficult it would be to maintain it over a continental domain practically without roads. In fact, he believed it to be impossible to exercise anything like intimate control over so vast an area, and he heartily disliked attempts to perform the impossible. So do all intensely practical men.
On the basis of the facts before him, Jefferson was entirely right. He was still alive, and Hamilton had been dead less than fifteen years when the country was riven asunder. By 1820 the rich and wellborn were fighting furiously among themselves, and the patched-up truce of the Missouri Compromise was a confession of the central government’s impotence to impose unity upon so vast and diverse a domain. Hamilton’s two basic assumptions had both proved the insubstantial dreams of an impractical idealist, and it is small wonder that to the practical man the news of these events was “like a fire-bell in the night.”
But the ironical gods were ready to take a hand. Five years before the Missouri Compromise, the War Department at Washington had so little control over an army distant about as far as Warsaw is from Paris that it could not restrain that army from fighting a battle after peace had been made; forty years after the Compromise it was perfectly feasible for Washington to synchronize the blows of an army operating in the same territory with those of another army operating almost within sight of the Capitol dome. The possibility of effective control which Hamilton had assumed had actually come into existence, so one of his assumptions was established, after all. Again, within that period the industrial interest had advanced so far as to overshadow the agricultural and to contest the supremacy of the commercial, while the agile financial interest was already allied with it, rather than with agriculture. Thus there had been brought about re-establishment of a considerable degree of unity among the rich and wellborn. Hamilton’s second assumption was also being justified. Thus was created the appearance that Hamilton had been all along the practical man, and Jefferson the impractical dreamer.
I am not concerned to defend either theory of government; my point is that the misconception of the temperamental endowment of the two men has tended to make American history duller reading than it should be. Idealists, accepting Jefferson as an idealist, have been hard put to it to explain him. Materialists, agreeing that Hamilton was a materialist, have had to spin elaborate and1 tenuous hypotheses to account for his acts. The result is that the argument, when it is not wholly incomprehensible, can be followed only by devoting to it the closest attention. What men don’t understand, they find dull reading; and it is idle to expect men to read dull books unless they are compelled to.
The nation is the poorer for this misconception, especially as it affects Alexander Hamilton. I do not mean to assert that its written history is poorer. I am not prepared to say that our present conception of events would be radically modified by a modification of our conception of Hamilton. I am inclined to think it would not. There is plenty of diversity of opinion as regards the significance of events, and there is no reason to suppose that that diversity woidd be eliminated, or very much reduced by the adoption of a differ- I ent attitude toward the man who started the series of events, I What men wish to do, and what they intend to do frequently has little relation to what they actually accomplish in the world. It is the historian’s business to record the event and its significance, if he can determine it. It is the business of the biographer to consider the man’s attitude as carefully as his acts. Not the science of history, but the art of biography is the poorer for lack of an adequate interpretation of Hamilton as a poet.
The letters of the young Hamilton to his compeers ought not to be taken too seriously; but there is corroborative evidence that he was describing more than the vagrant dream of youth when, at the age of twelve, he wrote his friend, Neddy Stevens, “My ambition is prevalent, so that I contemn the groveling condition of a clerk or the like, to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station . . . I mean to prepare the way for futurity.”
Thirty-five years later he was still preparing the way for futurity when, on a summer morning, he climbed to a ledge of the cliff at Weehawken and confronted a venomous little man with a pistol. Nothing would have persuaded Hamilton to go through with that grisly farce except the fear that if he failed, he would lose his influence in the future; and the foundation of all his plans was his power to command the respect of men. So he went to his death by way of preparing to live.
From a groveling condition to exalt his station—at twelve Jefferson might have expressed a similar ambition, but not at twice twelve. The Virginian, of course, had the enormous advantage of birth and fortune. His station did not urgently demand exaltation; but John of Austria, Charles XII of Sweden, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, known as Nero, are proof that rank and fortune are not enough to extinguish the romantic temperament. It was not his position, but something in the structure of the man himself that rendered Jefferson incapable of being moved by such terms as “groveling condition” and “exalted station.” He examined men in the cold, clear light of day„ without regard for condition or station; and he saw them as they were, not as they might be.
It is true that Jefferson wrote, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds. . . . I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.” That seems to be a fairly romantic view of the farmer; but it was written in 1785, which was a long time ago, and it seems probable that at that time there was more evidence to support it than there was to controvert it. The declaration as to artificers, too, at this time seems more like the heartfelt expression of a member of the National Association of Manufacturers regarding the CIO than the considered opinion of a statesman; but factory workers, too, have changed much in a hundred and fifty years. More than that, it is conceivable that a Virginia gentleman of 1940, say the Honorable Carter Glass, remembering that the strength of Lenin lay in the cities, and the strength of Mussolini lay in the cities, and the strength of Hitler lay in the cities, would, if he told his inmost thoughts, say that “panders of vice and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned” is all too mild a characterization of a city proletariat.
The passionate Hamilton, on the contrary, viewed the world with anything but unemotional curiosity. “Your people, sir, is a great beast!” is merely an unusually strong statement of his characteristic attitude. He was committed to the romantic conception that there is an aristocracy of brains and character that is more or less self-perpetuating. His talk of the few and the many nowhere takes into consideration the truth that while there is, in fact, an aristocracy of brains and character in every nation, it is permanent only in the sense that sea foam is ever-present because, while it is always dissolving, it is always being renewed from below.
The massive proof of Jefferson’s impractical idealism is frequently held to be his optimistic belief in the fundamental decency of the average man. But Hamilton clung persistently to an even more startlingly romantic theory—apparently, in spite of a long career in business, law and politics, he never got rid of the idea that the rich are intelligent. Again and again he urged the policy of making it to the interest of the rich to support the government, apparently believing that thereby their support would be rendered inevitable. He ignored the fact that, to make this come true, the rich must first have the wit to understand their own interest. It is true that this was a century and a half before Thyssen financed Hitler’s campaign in Germany and the Dies Committee uncovered the contributions that rich Americans have made to Fascist organizations in this country; but even so, Hamilton had plenty of evidence that throughout history the incapacity of the rich to understand where their real interest lies has been their undoing.
It may be argued that this persistent belief in the existence of a superior class was a psychological necessity for a man of Hamilton’s obscure origin. The poor and nameless boy had made prodigious efforts, had fought long and bitterly, to batter down the obstacles that stood between him and a place in the favored class; therefore for him to admit that the class itself was a figment of imagination would have been, perhaps, intolerable. It would have left him in the position of the burglars who break into Heaven in Dunsany’s play. After long toil they force the lock of the golden gate and swing it open—to discover, on the other side, nothing but stars and the void. It is arguable that Hamilton had to believe in class and caste, on pain of invalidating his own life’s effort.
But it is difficult to see how his origin or the circumstances of his early life forced him to preserve to the end his rather adolescent delight in military glory. His wrath against John Adams when that honest, but unromantic patriot broke up the war with France, in which Hamilton had expected to shine, had important political effects; and all his life Hamilton felt a sense of frustration because fate had not permitted him to imitate the exploits of a Marlborough.
The quarrel between Washington and Hamilton is a psychologist’s textbook case of the explosion of a romantic temperament. Nobody believes now—in truth, nobody believed then—that the incident was actually based on a rebuke administered by the commander because the inferior officer was five minutes late for an appointment. Hamilton was a soldier, and no real soldier ever was cut to the heart by being bawled out for tardiness; he expects nothing else. The real trouble was that Washington kept Hamilton slaving at paper work when he wanted to be commanding in the field. Washington knew it, but, being a first-rate commander, it did not move him. He was aware that he could find twenty men capable of commanding a battalion acceptably before he could find one other man who was to be mentioned in the same breath with Hamilton as an adjutant. He therefore let the younger man rave up to the point where his raving touched the level of insubordination, and then he let him go. At that, he was not deceived. He knew that Hamilton’s conduct, although it was of a sort that no commander could overlook, did not spring from a mutinous spirit, but from the wild desire of a young, ardent, and romantic young man for the sort of military glory that comes from acts of personal gallantry.
One of the kindest things George Washington ever did was finally letting the boy have his way. Right at the end, when the war was practically won anyhow, he permitted Hamilton to have a command and sent him to take a redoubt at Yorktown, which he did brilliantly. By comparison with the really great services he rendered, both before and after this incident, the storming of that redoubt was a petty achievement; there were a dozen men on the field who could have done it, and without question one of them would have done it had Hamilton not been there. But there is much evidence that in Hamilton’s eyes it was the supreme moment of his whole life. He was prouder of leading that charge than he ever was of being Washington’s great adjutant and his still greater Secretary of the Treasury.
The proof of the inextinguishable quality of Hamilton’s romanticism lies in the fact that he was at this time already a veteran. Not only had he observed the operations of the army from headquarters in several hard campaigns, but as a captain of artillery he had stood in battle, and after the disasters in New York he had conducted that grimmest and most nerve-racking of military operations, a retreat imder pressure of the enemy. Such ample experience is enough to take the romance out of war for all but the incurably romantic; nevertheless, at the end of it, Alexander Hamilton still yearned to charge at the head of troops. He was not merely romantic, he was deeply, basically, incurably romantic.
The only verses ever written by Hamilton are some pretty sad productions of his extreme youth, not conspicuously better or worse than those written by most schoolboys and college youths. But surely the world has passed beyond the belief that poet and rhymester are synonymous terms. The vision that can pierce beyond the limitations of space and time, the passionate aspiration for a life larger, more spacious, nobler than the life it is given to mortals to live—these make the poet, and these Alexander Hamilton unquestionably had. He suffered the fate of most true poets in that all his brilliant worldly success was not sufficient to compensate him for the inner frustration which must be endured by any man avid to wring from life more than is in it. Nearly all his biographers have commented on the sense of bafflement and defeat apparent in Hamilton under circumstances in which most men would have been complacent. It is incomprehensible in a thorough materialist; but it is precisely what one would expect in a man whose temperament was fundamentally romantic, although reined in by extraordinarily fine judgment.
It explains, too, why he and Jefferson were bound to misunderstand and, in a very real sense, despise each other. Each respected the other’s ability, of course. Either must have been fabulously stupid not to realize that in the other he had encountered a man of superb intellectual capacity. They were not stupid, and each repeatedly acknowledged the power that he felt in the other. But Jefferson had no comprehension of the grandeur of Hamilton’s vision of the future republic, and if it had been explained to him in words of one syllable he would simply have said that the man was moonstruck. As it was, seeing that the fellow was far too shrewd to admit of any doubt as to his sanity, Jefferson could make but one inference, to wit, that he was secretly contriving a restoration of the monarchy. Jefferson sincerely believed his great rival to be traitorous, and therefore loathed him. Hamilton, on the other hand, could not understand how any man of Jefferson’s incontestably great intellectual powers could fail to perceive the vision that was so plain to him. He could make but one inference, to wit, that it was willful blindness, due to a conscious preference for popularity and present power rather than for a part in the creation of the greatness that was to be. Hamilton sincerely believed his great rival to be a timeserver and a cheat, and therefore loathed him.
Here is a dramatic element in our national history that has been far too much neglected. It was a tragedy in the Greek style, the catastrophe that was no one’s fault, but was inherent in the nature of things. Two of the greatest Americans of their time by virtue of the very elements that made them great were doomed to collision, to mutual misunderstanding, and to a contest that, if it had done nothing else, would still have been lamentable because it deprived both of them of the marvelous companionship that each could have given the other.
But what, after all, does it signify? Jefferson has been dead for a century and a quarter, Hamilton for nearly a century and a half. What they did is done. The effects they produced are fixtures in national history and cannot be erased. Suppose Hamilton’s mentality was that of the poet and Jefferson’s that of the peasant—what of it? Nothing can be done about it now.
That is not so certain. As to the influence upon events of the respective careers of the two men, one’s opinion is not likely to be altered by a revision of one’s estimates of their respective temperaments; but there may be a very considerable shift in the significance of the two men, not to earlier generations, but to Americans who are alive today.
The ironical fate that has reversed the relative positions of Jefferson and Hamilton in the estimation of their successors has little, if any, relation to the qualities of the men themselves. It originated in events that occurred after both were dead, events which they could not have foreseen. The same sort of thing might happen to anybody, may happen to some of the men prominent in public life today. It affects us, not Hamilton and Jefferson; but it may cause us to miss, or to misinterpret, the value of the record.
This view strips Jefferson of some of the “idealism” with which he has been draped; but what he loses is only the cheaper and flimsier sort of idealism. His serene faith in democracy remains and gains weight as one perceives in him the clear-sighted, unimaginative realist. The physical conditions existing in his lifetime he expected to change slowly. As a matter of fact, they changed with startling speed. At that, his prevision was justified with remarkable fidelity before the changes, swift as they were, had their full effect. He saw clearly that, under the physical conditions existing at the time of the Revolution, or under conditions at all resembling them, a strong central government in this country meant, not unity, but disunity. Before he died New England trembled on the brink of secession. Before he died the country actually had been divided along the line of the Missouri Compromise. Less than a generation after his death, the South actually did secede. Lesser men might blind themselves to the inevitable, but not this, the most highly prescient political philosopher America has brought forth.
But it was precisely this man, whose foreknowledge was so precise that nothing less than a revolutionary alteration in the environment in which men lived could invalidate it, who asserted flatly, and never wavered from the faith, that the people, given true information and a fair chance to be heard, are capable of providing for themselves a better government than can be provided for them by any other power.
Institutions are objective, and an alteration in the objective world means an alteration in its institutions; but habits of thought are subjective, and are affected only by subjective changes. As regards American institutions, Jefferson was but an indifferent prophet—only, however, because the conditions on which he based his prophecy were themselves altered after his death. As long as the conditions remained the same, his predictions were astonishingly accurate.
No rational man seriously maintains that the last five generations have witnessed an alteration in the habits of thought of the American people even remotely comparable to the alteration in their living conditions. There is, therefore, no convincing reason to assume that Jefferson’s estimate of the capacity of the people for self-government requires any such revision as his estimate of the strength of their institutions. The physical changes, in fact, as far as they impinge upon the people’s habits of thought, have been in the direction of making available to more people earlier, more accurate, and more comprehensive information about their government, and should, to that extent, increase, rather than diminish, their capacity to govern themselves. In other words, the clearest, least sentimental, coolest of our political thinkers was the strongest believer in democracy. It is something worth knowing at a moment when repudiation of democracy has gone the lengths it has reached today.
The knowledge is valuable, if only as protective armament against the prophets of doom. When the world is convulsed by war, these prophets multiply exceedingly, and the ordinary man is put to it to withstand them; yet their leadership can direct him nowhere save into the Slough of Despond. America at this moment is full of able, honest, and learned men who, by logical reasoning, based on irreproachable authorities, can show that inevitable ruin lies ahead. From a thousand fora they proclaim the imminent collapse of the national economy; in a score of learned journals they trace the progress and forecast the continuance of the degeneration of our people, physically, morally, intellectually; in every newspaper they announce daily the cracking of this or that pillar of the state. All this they support with incontestable facts, with graphs, charts, and statistics which a plain man is utterly unable to confute. In this pandemonium it is comforting to reflect—since there is really nothing one can do about it—that perhaps if these people were as clearsighted as Jefferson, they would be more confident of democracy ; and if they were as stouthearted as Hamilton, the greatness within them might sense and thrill to the greatness of their nation.
The sardonic fates who contrived American history have mocked the prophets ever since it began. Even the might-! iest, they have turned somewhat to ridicule. Jefferson, the realist, was right when he trusted the people, and wrong when he distrusted the future; Hamilton, the idealist, was wrong when he distrusted the people, and right when he trusted the future. Therefore, men who distrust both the people and the future, although they may overwhelm us with their learning, do not impress us with their wisdom. For American history is steeped in irony—thank God!