The United States began its existence as an independent nation during a pitched battle over what direction the federal government should take and which party – the Hamiltonian Federalist or the Jeffersonian Republican – would rightly carry the banner of the American Revolution. This first ideological fight took place in President Washington’s Cabinet, which found itself torn between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The philosophical clash that began in 1789 continues today.
Hamilton’s arguments prevailed during both the Washington and Adams administrations, but Jefferson struck back with a great victory in 1800 and stopped the Federalist onslaught. The nation was governed, for the most part, by Jeffersonian principles for the next sixty years, and, despite some historians’ beliefs to the contrary, Hamilton’s entire big government program was eventually repealed.
However with Lincoln’s election in 1860 – Old Abe being from the school of Hamiltonian thought – and the secession of the Jeffersonian South, the Republican Party re-instituted all of Hamilton’s ideas – a strong central government, a national banking system, fiat currency, high tariffs and internal taxes, direct aid to corporations, loose construction of the Constitution, and suppression of civil liberties, with little opposition.
During this agonizing period of war and national reconstruction, the United States nearly lost its constitutional republic. “The war,” wrote Governor Richard Yates of Illinois in 1865, “has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country, to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ The war has not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.”[i]
Many historians, even those who lived through the conflict, understood the profound changes the war brought. George Ticknor wrote in 1869 that the war had left a “great gulf between what happened before it in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen thereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born.”[ii]
In short, the war destroyed the Age of Jefferson; the Hamiltonians had won the argument. The Party of Lincoln, the ideological heirs to Hamilton, controlled the White House for the next 24 years, and the ensuing quarter century of corruption, profligate spending, high taxes, and ever-expanding government was the norm.
The tide finally turned in 1884 when Grover Cleveland came into office and gave the nation a strong dose of old-fashioned, Jeffersonian values. Four years of Cleveland Conservatism resulted in a rollback of Hamiltonian programs, producing a more honest government, an end to presidential luxury, a slashing of the bureaucracy, a halt to out-of-control spending, the protection of the massive budget surplus, and a reduction of the national debt by 20 percent.
Cleveland’s second term, from 1893 to 1897, saw the nation suffer under a horrendous economic depression, a calamity known as the Panic of 1893. Members of both parties sought to use government to help correct the ravages of the downturn. Yet President Cleveland would not allow the implementation of any federal stimulus programs. There were no bailouts, no “shovel ready jobs,” no tax hikes, and no unemployment benefits. Instead, the Cleveland Administration ended inflation, cut taxes and tariffs, and reduced spending. With Jeffersonian principles, the depression ended within three years.
Today we find ourselves in an almost identical situation. The ideas of Hamilton have taken a firm hold in Washington, and as a result, the nation is in a steady state of decline. We need a new Grover Cleveland to instill the nation with the old ideals first espoused by the Jeffersonians. My new book, The Last Jeffersonian: Grover Cleveland and the Path to Restoring the Republic, examines our current predicament through the prism of history and offers answers that will put us back on the path set forth by our Founding Fathers.
[i] Governor Richard Yates, Final Message to the Illinois General Assembly, January 2, 1865, Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1865, as quoted in Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1996), 332.
[ii] George Ticknor, as quoted in Morton Keller, Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1977), 2.