16 November 2010 ~ 1 Comentario

Once again, Jefferson vs. Hamilton

(FIRMAS PRESS) The colorful note in these recent elections was provided by the organizers of the Tea Party, enthusiastic conservatives who call themselves the heirs and defenders of the Founding Fathers’ political tradition. Are they? Yes, but only to a certain point.

The Founding Fathers did not have a single vision of the functions of the state. Beginning in the last two decades of the 18th Century, Federalists and Anti-Federalists confronted each other vigorously in all forums in a debate that is still occurring, which then featured two of the most brilliant minds of the era: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. There is, then, a Tea Party that we associate with the Republicans, but there very well may be another one, of a Democratic nature.

Hamilton, though of humble origin – he was an orphan from the English-speaking Caribbean – developed an urbane and sophisticated world vision and was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by George Washingon, to whom he was an aide during the War of Independence and who held him as the most outstanding intellectual in his Cabinet.

Hamilton supported the need for a strong central government that would stimulate trade and industry. He started a federal central bank to spread the credit, given that the Constitution did not forbid it, and introduced protectionist tariffs to develop the national productive apparatus by making foreign imports more expensive. From our contemporary perspective, Hamilton was a brilliant interventionist who could be declared the patron saint of the current Democratic Party.

In turn, Jefferson mistrusted a strong central government, while he postulated the idea of a virtuous republic controlled by society and sustained by small farmers. He thought that it was better to distribute the power among the states and the local entities to protect the individual rights from the danger of tyranny, his main fear.

Aside from his explicit rejection of the indebtedness that future generations would have to pay through taxes, his argument against the great federal bank disassembled and reverted Hamilton’s reasoning: because the Constitution of 1787 did not expressly authorize the creation of that credit body, the government should not found it.

To Jefferson, the limits of legality were very clear: the government could do only what the law ordained; society, in turn, could do anything the law did not forbid. These were two very different spheres of action and initiative. Very justifiably, Jefferson could be the guardian angel of today’s Republicans.

Unexpectedly, the quarrel between these two formidable statesmen was momentarily silenced by a violent event: Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president, killed Hamilton in a pistol duel, not an easy task considering that the famous economist had previously dueled on 21 occasions.

The two fathers of the nation, both heroes of the War of Independence, had maintained a growing hostility and mutual unpleasantness that climaxed in a bloody confrontation, as was then traditional between aggrieved gentlemen.

Burr ended up being hounded by Jefferson, not for having killed Hamilton but over an obscure conspiracy that had separatist tinges, allegedly originating in the huge Louisiana that Napoleon had sold for a pittance to Jefferson’s government as part of his anti-British strategy.

It is very interesting to see how the essential elements of that argument between Hamilton and Jefferson preserve much of their original vigor. The Republicans – at least theoretically, though they deny it when they occupy the White House – advocate smaller governments, fewer taxes, balanced budgets, limited expenditures and a certain isolationism in foreign policy.

In turn, the Democrats usually prefer a forceful public action, greater fiscal pressure leading to a more equitable redistribution of wealth and, sometimes, some interventionist vocation in foreign policy that emanates from the optimistic conviction that the federal government is capable of molding reality at will.
This time, Jefferson won. For how long? Two, four, eight years? At some point, Hamilton will regain popular favor but only to lose if after a certain time. More than two centuries ago, these two giants gave sense and form to the Republic, coincidentally creating the dialectical mechanism that would permanently animate the debate over the nation’s objectives and how to achieve them. It is still alive. There is something very beautiful in that extraordinary vitality.

One Response to “Once again, Jefferson vs. Hamilton”

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