Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson
Men of ideas
By Steven Martinovich
Announcing these days that the American Revolution was in part a manifestation of the European Enlightenment will not win any scholar points for originality. The links, both direct and indirect, between European philosophers and America's Founding Fathers have been so well established at this point that there seems little ground left to cover when it comes to documenting them and their effect on Americans.
Into this crowded field enters City College of New York professor Darren Staloff with Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding. While what Staloff covers is old ground, the story he tells is nonetheless an interesting one. Though Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared a common philosophical inspiration, the three men interpreted the Enlightenment in sometimes profoundly different ways.
In recent years Hamilton has enjoyed a brighter reputation with scholars and Americans and Staloff's effort reflects that. Referring to him as "the most important figure of the founding of the American republic," Staloff explores the lowborn Hamilton's fight to ensure the supremacy of the federal government and its intervention in the economy to promote industrial expansion. Nominally a republican, Hamilton was skeptical of the notion of popular will and embraced an expanded interpretation of the constitution to achieve his goals.
Adams, on the other hand, feared any concentration of power and constantly fought to ensure that each branch of government balanced the other. Although he fought for public education, hoping that an educated citizenry would serve as a check, Adams came to eventually worry that corruption and tyranny lurked in the hearts of his countrymen. Over time the combative Adams became what Staloff refers to as a "gadfly", serving the unpopular role of critic and conscience of his nation.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Staloff devotes the largest section of the book to Jefferson. His greatest contribution to American discourse, writes Staloff, may have been his visionary approach to politics. Transcending mundane realities, Jefferson preferred instead to practice the politics of principle -- though he was hardly adverse to compromise if it advanced his goals. That visionary approach continues to exist today and inspires ordinary Americans to push for radical change, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Hamilton's increasing popularity typically comes with a reassessment of Jefferson and Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson follows this trend. Though he clearly respects the near unearthly intellect that Jefferson possessed, Staloff also reminds readers of the Sage of Monticello's many real defects. His political career was mostly one marked by failure and his diplomatic efforts produced few tangible results. Most uncomfortable, however, were Jefferson's efforts to justify the continuation of slavery -- temporary or otherwise -- in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia.
As stated earlier, this is old ground. Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson's primary weakness is that Staloff rarely cites previous scholarly investigation of the three men and their writings and engages in relatively little of his own critical analysis. There is little attempt to build on previous work to explore the world of ideas that the three men trafficked in. While this isn't an entirely fatal flaw, the book easily serves as an introduction to the field, it nonetheless represents a missed opportunity for Staloff to introduce new thoughts on the subject matter.
Though Staloff does add little new to the field, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson nonetheless serves a purpose. It chronicles that the Founding Fathers were not a homogenous group of thinkers, that before, during and after the revolution a ferocious debate took place that for many has yet to be resolved. He shows that although the American Republic has moved away from some of its founding principles, the Enlightenment continues in many respects -- thanks to the efforts of men like Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson -- to be the course that America follows.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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