Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation
Publication date: October 1, 2013
One of my professors in college was Broadus Mitchell. He was the foremost Hamiltonian scholar of his day, author of multiple biographies of Hamilton and associates. Not surprisingly, my freshman year at Hofstra’s New College with Broadus Mitchell was an intensive study of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of America. The textbook was (surprise!) one of the several biographies of Hamilton authored by Broadus Mitchell.
When I was given the opportunity to review this book, I was intrigued. I wondered what the author could tell me I hadn’t read elsewhere and if he could tell the story better or differently, perhaps offer some fresh insights.
I have patience with history books. I don’t expect it to read like fiction. Much to my delight, John Ferling’s opening chapters in which he compares and examines the youth, upbringing and psychological makeup of both men is beautifully written — entertaining and lively. Perceptive. Astute. What drove them, what inspired them to become the men who built America.
All was going swimmingly well until the war began. The Revolutionary War.
I am not a war buff and was not expecting a play-by-play of the revolution. But there it was. Battle by battle, troop movement by troop movement. I could feel my brain switch from engaged to stupefied. I’m not sure why the full details of the war are included. Aside from showcasing Hamilton’s military career (doable in a few paragraphs), it adds little to my understanding of either man. As far as I’m concerned, it mainly adds hundreds of pages where a page or two of summary would have sufficed.
If you are a military history buff, you might like it. If not, skip the war and move on. It’s a long book that includes a lot of great material. When Ferling is writing about the character and personality of his two extraordinary subjects, he’s lively and illuminating, but when he lapses into “authoritative” mode, it bogs down. Seriously dull. I read a lot of history, stuff that other people think is boring and which I find fascinating so it’s got to be pretty stultifying before I think it’s boring.
Yet it’s too good to miss, so skip sections in which you aren’t interested and read the rest. It is extremely uneven with sections so gripping I couldn’t put it down and others so dreary I couldn’t stay awake. I am disinterested in battles and troop movements, so maybe I’m the wrong person to judge, but I cannot see how this material adds anything useful. Jefferson never fought in the war. Hamilton did, but he was not a “military man.” Even though he had a distinguished war record, being a warrior was not a core piece of his character or particularly relevant to his story. A couple of hundred pages could (and should) be deleted.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were two of the most influential men in American history. The author said it well when he commented (sorry, this isn’t a quote … I’m paraphrasing) that there are lots of statues dedicated to Jefferson, but we live in Hamilton’s world. True enough. Hamilton was the consummate advocate of a strong central government with economic control through a central bank. Jefferson advocated extreme individual freedom, leaving most government to local authorities.
It amuses me that Hamilton is the darling of the GOP while Jefferson is the Liberal ideal. Given Hamilton’s belief in strong central government and Jefferson’s preference for isolationism, individualism and decentralization — well, it pretty much defines our nation’s massive problem with cognitive dissonance.
If you’re a history buff with a serious interest in early American history, there is much to like. It is said that “Both men were visionaries, but their visions of what the United States were diametrically opposed.” It may have been true in 1780, but it has long ceased to have any current relevance. In the end, the strands of their opposing philosophies have gotten twisted into a single ball of thread, both necessary to our American dream.
Jefferson and Hamilton is the story of the struggle — public and ultimately personal — between two major figures in our country’s history. It ended when Alexander Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president.
Worth reading for sure, but not light entertainment. This is history buff material. Fortunately, there are still a few of us around.
About the author:
John Ferling is professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of many books on American Revolutionary history, including The Ascent of George Washington; Almost a Miracle, an acclaimed military history of the War of Independence; and the award-winning A Leap in the Dark. He and his wife, Carol, live near Atlanta, Georgia.