Two antithetical but complementary Founding Fathers, duly and exhaustively compared and contrasted.
Despite the enormous research already done in fleshing out the lives of the multitalented, ambitious Jefferson and Hamilton, Ferling (History, Emeritus/State Univ. of West Georgia; Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, 2011, etc.) leaves no stone unturned in sifting through the biographies, walking readers through their respective childhoods, and flushing out influences that shaped their livelihoods and helped form their fundamental ideologies regarding the new nation. Though he came from the Southern aristocracy, Jefferson grasped early on the need for land reform as the only way to render the new country into a classical Enlightenment model of “republicanism.” This radical ideology included emancipation of slaves, rejection of primogeniture, offering wider educational opportunities and granting freedom of religion. Hamilton, on the other hand, the survivor of a dysfunctional West Indies family, made good in life through his own industry, intelligence and connections. He was schooled in business and determined to distinguish himself in Washington’s Continental Army even as a college student; yet even there, he gleaned the need for a centralized levying of taxes and imposts, the creation of a national bank and, presciently, the use of black soldiers. Jefferson’s time as a diplomat in Paris underscored his views about alleviating the inequity of wealth, while Hamilton’s work as a tax collector and lawyer convinced him of the need for “bracing the federal system” against “unrestrained popular passion.” As Ferling scrupulously writes, the two founders had essentially different views of human nature: Hamilton believed in a natural elite, while Jefferson denounced the oppression of the many by the tyranny of the few. The author’s comparative study is bold, brisk and lucid.
From hammering out constitutional liberties and building the nation’s banking system to jockeying in early elections, Ferling draws crisp, sharp delineations between his two subjects.