Well, it’s the last day of February, and that means another year of Today’s History Lesson is about to enter the history books. I’ll have to do a count of the number of pieces that have come out since March 1st of last year. Three years. That’s how long we’ve been together. Some of the articles have been short, some long. Some alright, with a few stinkers thrown in for good measure. Tomorrow begins year four of this little experiment. I’m not sure how long it will continue, but I know we’ve got a little something for this evening.
On February 28, 1792, Thomas Jefferson met with George Washington. The topic of discussion between the nation’s first President and its first Secretary of State was supposed to be about the post office, signed into existence just the week before. But it turned out that the Secretary of State really wanted to talk about the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
In our three years together, it should now be obvious to you that our first Secretary of State (Jefferson) did not like our first Treasury Secretary (Alexander Hamilton). But in case it’s not yet obvious, let me try this…JEFFERSON COULD NOT STAND HAMILTON.
Hehehe…maybe that’ll do the trick.
Jefferson was absolutely, totally, completely, 100%, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die convinced that, from his position at Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was paving the way for a return to a British-style monarchy. And nothing could change Thomas Jefferson’s mind on the matter. Every little thing Hamilton did was twisted by Jefferson to smack of desiring a king. Hamilton could have mentioned that he measured a monarch butterfly with a ruler, and Jefferson would have told someone (likely James Madison or Philip Freneau, who ran the anti-Hamilton National Gazette) that Alexander spoke positively of “monarch rule.”
Seriously…it had pretty much gotten to that point.
Now, no legit historian (at least that I can see) really thinks that Hamilton, nor Washington, nor even John Adams (who made more pro-king comments than anyone) wanted a king. That’s complete hogwash. We know that Hamilton wrote the bulk of the Federalist Papers, and he alone was the single biggest reason the Constitution was ratified in New York. He liked elements of the British system of government and even suggested some of them when offering his plan at the Constitutional Convention (we’ve mentioned that before and will discuss it in greater detail in the future), but that’s as far as it went. Once a Constitution was created and agreed upon, he was behind it completely.
But President Washington listened to Hamilton…a lot. More than he listened to Jefferson. There is no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was the second most powerful man in America’s first government. He was more powerful than Jefferson, he was more powerful than Vice President Adams, and he was certainly more influential than either of them. And that created jealously. And let’s face it, Washington was the hero of the Revolution, and he was the unanimous choice as President. The vast majority of the populace loved him. He was unassailable. So, if you can’t rail on the top guy, go after the next guy in line. And that’s just what happened.
But a bit of balance. Thomas Jefferson had some legitimate differences with Hamilton. As a devout agrarian, he believed the Treasury Secretary was setting up a system that favored speculators, gamblers, and industrialists at the expense of farmers. This talk of stocks and bonds, of banks and financing the public debt, and the “city of the future” didn’t really appeal to Jefferson. He also had valid questions about the government’s role in these enterprises. Did the Constitution allow for such activity? Were people equipped to deal with this? These were all important issues, worthy of discussion and debate.
But Jefferson didn’t really focus on these issues. He (and others) simply decided that Hamilton wanted a monarchy and that was that. Everything was filtered through that prism. Jefferson warned the President that “the department of the Treasury possessed already such an influence as to swallow up the whole executive powers and that even future presidents…would not be able to make head against this department.” Of course, the Secretary of State immediately reminded his Commander-in-Chief that he had no political ambitions of his own.
Hehehe…I’m no expert, but other than getting a hundred times more intrusive, a billion times bigger, and a trillion times more expensive, I don’t think government in these United States has really changed all that much in all these years.
And with that, we’ll close the books on our third year. I’m so grateful to my good friend Michael for creating this venue and giving me the chance to contribute. Though it’s just me now, his influence lives on in these pages…and always will. And of course, I’m grateful to all of you. Your occasional thoughts and your correction of my mistakes sharpen me, as iron sharpens iron.