Jefferson & Hamilton: Who's the Conservative?

I’ve always thought of Jefferson as America’s founding conservative. Of course, the meanings of words like “liberal” and “conservative” are ever-shifting, but I do see a tradition of states’ rights, skeptical-of-empowered-centralized-government-infringing-on-my-community’s-ways-of-doing-things, highly individualistic tradition in US politics which I think could reasonably called a “conservative tradition.” Richard Norton Smith, for example, has referred to a “Jeffersonian, if you will, Coolidge-to-Reagan tradition” in American history.

But on the other hand, Jefferson was psyched about Paine’s Rights of Man, written as a rebuttal to Burke…famously renowned as one of modern conservatism’s main founders! Hamilton, on the other hand, joined Burke in being deeply skeptical of the French Revolution. Michael Federici sees the political theories of Hamilton and Burke as very similar.

So who’s the real forerunner of conservatism, Jefferson or Hamilton? I’ve put this in the GD board to throw the question up for debate, but also, if you know of any books or articles which might shed light on the answer, I’d be much obliged.

King George III.

When this country was founded, everyone claimed to be a conservative. Eventually the modern hallmarks of conservativism, lying, stealing, and hatred of freedom emerged. Modern conservatives are the ones who think that’s a good idea. Some of them know that it’s wrong and try to use dodges like calling themself an economic conservative. The rest are proud of their lack of integrity.

I’m not a great scholar of the Founding Fathers, but it seems to me that Jefferson were around today would be far more comfortable with populist, grassroots movements along the likes of labor unions, the civil rights movement (assuming his views on race are considered a product of his time), and even Occupy Wall Street. I always viewed him as being a rabble-rouser and advocate for the little guy against big powers. I would certainly put him to the left of me, mostly because I read some of his statements, and I’m reminded more of folks like Ralph Nader than anyone else. But maybe that’s just me.

Well, according to the English politics of their times, Jefferson tended toward the Tories (rural aristocracy, weak parliament, Church of England, land-based economy) while Hamilton tended toward the Whigs (urban merchants, strong Parliament, Non-Conformist, trade-based economy). That would put Jefferson on the right and Hamilton on the left, although it’s really a moot point.

Yikes. Nothing like a good unbiased assessment.

It can be difficult to pin “conservative” or “liberal” labels to the FFs because the positions that make up the two sides morph over time. Jefferson was mostly liberal for his time. Hamilton is harder because he was a mix of the two; early on he was one of the biggest advocates for centralized power (or monarchy) but he also made eloquent arguments in the Federalist Papers for the US Constitution, which has to be viewed as one of the great liberal political documents in history.

Ok, so I added some gratuitous jabs. But I think the first sentence was accurate based on things I’ve read. Our founders all considered themselves to be conservative. They probably viewed it as an order vs. disorder thing, and were arguing about the type of order.

I admire both Jefferson and Hamilton. That being said, Jefferson was a radical, putting the principles of the enlightenment into action and overturning the old regime. The enlightenment was liberal at the time, being based on liberty. Modern conservatives would now call Jefferson a classical liberal. Hamilton was not so much a classical liberal. His ideal of the perfect leader, said at a party once, was Julius Caesar. This may have been half in jest. But he believed in strong rule and unified power. He was a brilliant financier having been the driving force behind the strong current in the US, even today, that no default on the debt should be allowed under any circumstances. Modern conservatives play chicken with defaulting on the debt every year. Despite that, I think he’d be a modern conservative except on social issues.

Hamilton. He was the one trying to stay with the established political principles of his time - and that’s the key factor.

Jefferson may have argued in favor of a decentralized and limited government, which is supposedly a conservative value now (albeit one often honored in the breach) but this was not an established political idea when Jefferson was arguing for it. So he was not a conservative arguing for a traditional idea - he was a progressive trying to establish a new idea.

Check out the article I linked in this post. It’s a .doc so you need Word or equivalent. Fascinating info about the development of the principles all these guys were familiar with.

Considering Jefferson was a Deist and sympathetic to the French Revolution (radicals like Jean Jacques Rousseau also disliked cities) I don’t think this is the case. Hamilton would have been a Whig along the lines of Edmund Burke while Jefferson would probably have been more like Charles James Foxe. In modern times Jefferson would be a moderate Libertarian while Hamilton would be a neocon. Another interesting comparison is if one compares Jefferson to JFK and Hamilton to Richard Nixon.

Bpleta, you have got to be the ONLY person that I’ve ever heard of that would consider Jefferson a conservative. Consider the fact that he was sent to France while the Constitution was being written since they didn’t want a lot of radical ideas floating around.

Remember that Jefferson was a university president. Hard-pressed to find many conservatives there. :stuck_out_tongue:

I can see you’ve been reading up. It shows. Good, keep at it.
Although I think, for reasons already covered above in this thread, such comparisons are likely to be facile and specious.

Threadwinner in 1! :smiley:

I seem to be misunderstood.

The word “conservative” is being used very differently in the responses than I described it in the OP. The teeming millions seem to be thinking of the general usage of the word, a skepticism of modern ideas with an emphasis on tradition. I was referring though to the intellectual tradition of conservatism, particularly as it has taken hold in America, regarding the role of federalism (hence, my quoting of Richard Norton Smith, my referencing Edmund Burke, and my description of this tradition) which has come to define political conservatism in America. To quote Wiki regarding conservatism in America, and show that others see this tradition: “Economic conservatives and libertarians favor small government, low taxes, limited regulation, and free enterprise.” I see Jefferson as the founding father of this tradition in America.

So far Alessan seems to be the only person who agrees with me.

You can’t use the modern definitions of the word when talking about the past. Jefferson was a progressive and a radical then; if he were alive today he would almost certainly be a progressive and a radical.

Now, see, I disagree with you. It’s hard to say where many political figures of the past would stand on the issues of the day. But, all things considered, I think Jefferson would either be a conservative (“Blue Dog”) Democrat or a Republican (Benajmin Franklin too FWIW). Al Smith, Coolidge, Reagan, and now the populist Tea Party…these are the modern Jeffersonians. I think his emphasis on states’ rights and his distrust of federal government would fit him nicely with GOPers who have been disappointed by their own party growing government in many instances.

I know the world disagrees with me on this, but one of my few Very Controversial Opinions: I think Hamilton would be the Democrat. His emphasis on centralized government protecting the people guarantees that to my mind.

Part of the problem with that view is that those viewpoints are not really descriptive of modern republicans and democrats.

The other part is what I was saying before. You can’t project modern political discourse onto the past and pretend that applying modern labels makes any sense. People who defend tradition and the status quo would be defending tradition and the status quo in any time or place. The actual tradition and status quo is irrelevant. Same for people who challenge the status quo.

This book makes the case that Hamilton was the first in a line of American “democratic nationalists” that includes Lincoln and TR and FDR, all believing a vigorous national government should play a proactive role to improve the lot of the people, which stated that way sounds kinda socialistic nowadays.

Hamilton was also very forward-looking, where Jefferson was reactionary, in an economic sense – he saw America’s economic future in industry as opposed to agriculture. Jefferson was leery not only of industry but even of modern banking.

Like! Exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. I’m definitely going to read that book.