Friendship and Conflict: The Relationship of the U.S. "Founding Fathers"

By Jeffrey M. Estano
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

It is common for Americans to imagine the early leaders of the American Revolution as a group of agreeable, flawless men. However, this sentimental portrait fails to recognize the vast differences that existed between the founders, and the effect that these differences had on the early United States. The conflicts between the founders gave rise to a fundamentally different American nation than that which they originally intended to establish.  

Personal and political differences eroded the unity of the founding fathers, and undermined their attempt to form a classical republic. These conflicts emerged in the face of both domestic and foreign policy issues, and irreparably divided the founders along partisan lines. The founders’ original vision of a republican government, formed in the Greco-Roman manner, ended up a casualty of political struggle. The structure that emerged as a result embodied compromise and debate between factions, not the realization of shared vision.

As the American Revolution broke out, the colonists’ repertoire of antiquity permeated their conversation and writing. “Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education, and references to their works abound in the (colonial) literature.”1 In particular, the early pamphleteers and spokesmen of rebellious sentiment emphasized this classical repertoire.

“Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Euripedes, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon…among the Greeks; and Cicero, Horace, Vergil, Tacitus…among the Romans-are all cited in the Revolutionary literature; many are directly quoted. It was an obscure pamphleteer indeed who could not muster at least one classical analogy or one ancient precept.”2

The colonists’ understanding of classical writing was superficial.3 Nonetheless, their admiration and evocation of classical virtue and republican ideals proved to be more than mere window dressing for incendiary pamphlets. The colonists aspired to put the principles of ancient times into practice.

The founding fathers’ admiration of antiquity dramatically impacted their civic worldview, and in turn, their leadership. They went to great lengths to live out classical virtues and to imitate classical figures of the past. Samuel Adams, an educated gentleman, obsessively tried to embody republican values by forsaking personal wealth and fame. George Washington, like the Roman hero Cincinatus before him, wished only to return to his farm at Mt. Vernon after his victories in war.4 John Adams’ adherence to stern republican values led him to reflect skeptically upon the licentious, vivacious ways of the French, despite his admiration for some aspects of their culture.5 The founders belief that adherence to classical republican ways would bring not just fair government, but virtue of character, compelled them as they founded a new nation.6

Today, the terms “republican” and “democrat” are superficially interchangeable. In the eighteenth century they carried different connotations.7 “Democracy was not to emerge as a fully legitimate cultural value in America…until the 1830s’, with the appearance of a national system of mass political parties”8. Republicanism differed greatly from democracy, in the minds of the founders. The “world in which they all functioned was hardly a ‘democratic’ world…but an elite one…A key theme was public service by men (of) special merits…The people’s virtue was still primarily their capacity less to act than to choose wisely.”9 The founders saw themselves as the virtuous elite, capable of governing the less gifted common folk. 

Despite the founders’ passion for republican ideology, their dream would not come to fruition. The republican revolution aimed to reconstitute American society by breaking the mold of monarchial norms in favor of virtue, disinterested public leadership, and unity. Yet the ink on the Declaration of Independence was scarcely dry before many of the founders’ began harboring doubts about whether their vision could be realized. The virtue and unity of the republican revolution could not be sustained amongst intense political and personal disagreement.10

Divisive exchange occurred as the young nation’s future took shape. The founders engaged in disputes on a variety of issues, and found their ranks fragmented into opposing parties. Points of contention included questions of states rights, socioeconomic structure, and American foreign policy.

The question of strong individual states as opposed to a strong federal government sat at the heart of the founders’ disagreements, and caused discord among them. Within the young country, the Federalists desired a strong national government, whereas the Republicans did not. Republicans feared that a federal government could become too powerful, particularly in its ability to levy taxes, to raise standing armies, and to incur a national debt to foreign nations.11

Economic differences between Federalists and Republicans were a primary source of conflict. The most drastic point of contention centered on Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s plan for a national economy, and the opposition he faced from the Republicans.  Hamilton’s grand design called for the assumption of state debts by the national government, the formation of a national bank, and the establishment of national credit.12 A true genius (and a favorite of President George Washington), Secretary Hamilton stood in position to permanently elevate the federal government’s power over that of the state governments.13

 In Thomas Jefferson’s eyes, Hamilton’s financial scheme presumed a dangerous consolidation of the federal government.14

“Jefferson developed a full-blooded conspiracy theory in which bankers, speculators, and a…congregation of closet Tories …had captured the meaning of the Revolution and were now proceeding to strangle it to death…within the faraway corridors of the Federalist government).”15

In essence, the issues of both national economic principles and states rights stood in question. True division (not just ideological, but partisan) resulted. The actions of Jefferson, and his fellow Republican James Madison, to “systematically obstruct Hamilton’s program and to curtail his influence…went well beyond those appropriate simply to opposing specific measures in Congress…These were movements…that were preliminary to and characteristic of the formation of a political party.”16

Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison eventually compromised. Hamilton’s plan for a federal assumption of debt passed congress, in addition to the Republicans’ plan for a capital city on the Potomac River. Yet the assumption deal was one small compromise in a new age of political partisanship.17

The Republican and Federalist parties were not formed merely along political lines. Social differences between the two parties fueled their disagreements. Hamilton and the Federalists represented the urban elite; theirs was a world of bankers, business leaders, and merchants. Virginian planters like Jefferson and Madison, who led the Republican charge, did not share Hamilton’s desire for a strong national economy and an urban, commercial nation.18 The largely decentralized, agriculture nature of Virginia and the southern states gave them decidedly Republican sympathies, whereas New England and the Mid-Atlantic states were inclined towards urbanization and a centralized economy.19

Jefferson, during Washington’s administration, claimed to George Mason that “the only corrective of what is corrupt in our present form of government will be the augmentation of the numbers in the lower house so as to get a more agricultural representation, which may put that interest above that of the stock-jobbers”.20 His desire for an economy with a greater agricultural emphasis placed him once again in contrast to Hamilton, whose 1791 Report on Manufactures advocated a national plan to increase manufacturing. The southern Republicans viewed the plan as an attack on their way of life, further galvanizing the split between parties.21

As it does today, foreign policy proved a major point of disagreement amongst the political leaders of the young United States. While the country took its place in a world dominated by Britain and France, the Republican and Federalist parties disagreed on how to chart the best possible course to international security and prosperity. This partisan discord occurred at the highest level of government: the presidential cabinet.

As the first president of the United States, George Washington found himself in a particularly delicate position regarding international relations. The country, under his leadership, was diplomatically wedged between two great world powers. On one side sat Britain, a recent enemy yet a valuable potential trade partner. On the other side sat France, a recent ally in the midst of a dangerous, polarizing revolution.22

Alexander Hamilton favored a pro-British foreign policy on both economic and ideological grounds.

“The United States still had not escaped economic dependence on England, which consumed nearly half of American exports and accounted for three-quarters of American imports…whereas France specialized in wine, brandy, woman’s hosiery, and other luxury goods. As an exponent of commercial realism in foreign affairs, Hamilton thought it better for America to operate…in Britain’s global trading system than to try to undercut Britain and align itself with France.”23

Additionally, Hamilton strongly opposed the French Revolution’s violent nature.  He once “condemned apologists for the ‘horrible and disgusting’ scenes being enacted in France and branded (French revolutionaries) Marat and Robespierre ‘assassins’.”24

On the other hand, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson advocated for strong Franco-American relations. “Jefferson had not been so affronted as Hamilton or Washington by the Terror.”25 Whereas Hamilton saw the French Revolution as an exercise in dangerous anarchy, Jefferson celebrated it as an example of individuals overcoming monarchial oppression. He viewed the French Revolution as a continuation of the spirit of 76’.26 Jefferson complained that Hamilton was “not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.”27

Jefferson took issue with Hamilton’s proximity to foreign policy matters in the first place. “To Jefferson, it sometimes seemed that Hamilton wasn’t just content to run the Treasury Department but wanted to annex the State Department to his domain…even as Jefferson lobbied for closer trade ties with France in early 1791, Hamilton had launched freelance contacts with…the British government.”28 Thus, the cabinets’ battle for influence over President Washington (and consequently the nation’s direction) raged along party lines.

Antagonism between Hamilton and Jefferson frustrated the president deeply. “Animosity between them had reached the point where they could hardly bear to be in the same room…each privately complained of the other to the president.”29 Vice President John Adams, wary of the French, complained of Jefferson’s “‘blind spirit of party’…To Adams, Jefferson had become a fanatic.”30

The president chose a course of action in spite of party strife. Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality, made in 1793, kept the United States out of the French-British conflict. In 1794, the Jay Treaty formalized a pro-British economic and military policy.31

Jefferson’s anger with Hamilton, and his resentment over the French issue, drove him to leave the cabinet. On December 31, 1793, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state.32 Hamilton and the Federalists won the dispute, but as Jefferson left the administration, the former hope of shared republican ideals faded even more.

Economic, social, and diplomatic concerns divided the founders, yet their lack of unity was not entirely political. Opposing ideologies gave not only to partisan factionism, but personal tension, dislike and hatred as well.

Adams and Jefferson saw their friendship strained (but not permanently destroyed) by political feuding. Adams, a Federalist and an opponent of close ties to France, found Jefferson difficult to bear during their respective tenures in Washington’s administration. They stopped speaking to each other for years. By the end of their lives, however, they reconciled and shared a rich correspondence.33

Sadly, the final days of Alexander Hamilton’s life proved far more tragic than those of Adams and Jefferson. Hamilton’s fate was emblematic of the partisan enmity that ended the republican dream. The genius politician, economist, and war hero ended up a casualty of political feuding taken to extremes.

On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr (of the Republican Party) met at Weehawken Heights, New Jersey. The infamous confrontation began much earlier as a war of words, and was partly a product of eighteenth century notions of honor. Burr took offense when a newspaper challenged his bid for governor of New York, citing dismissive words that Hamilton had spoken. Burr wrote Hamilton, demanding that Hamilton retract his statement.34

In his response to Burr, Hamilton refused. “He could not, he explained, ‘without manifest impropriety, make the avowal or disavowal you seem to think necessary’”35. In response, Burr required an apology for all previous insults that Hamilton had ever made against his character. Again, Hamilton refused to acquiesce. When they met at Weehawken Heights, Burr shot and killed Hamilton, ending the long and eventful life of a monumental figure in American history. 36

The shared vision of the founders did not dissolve at one particular moment, but the duel between Burr and Hamilton served as a milestone in the deterioration of the founders’ unity. The two men shared much in common; both were daring, ambitious political leaders who had served in the Continental Army with passion against the British.37 Yet Burr was a Republican, and Hamilton was a Federalist. The “exchange of words that preceded the exchange of shots was itself merely a culmination of long-standing personal animosity and political disagreement that emerged naturally, in retrospect almost inevitably, out of the supercharged political culture of the early republic.”38 That the duel between Hamilton and Burr even occurred speaks volumes about the political temper of the times.

For political and personal reasons, including clashing egos and opposing ideologies, the revolution of the founding fathers failed. However, the nation they started did not. The accomplishments of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and the other founders cannot be understated; they crafted a viable country that became a leading world power.39

However, the United States that emerged in the nineteenth century was not the United States that the founders envisioned. “Today, we cherish the two-party system as a cornerstone of American democracy. The founders, however, viewed parties…as monarchical vestiges that had no legitimate place in a true republic.”40 The disparity between the system that the founders’ intended to establish, and that which came to fruition, bears testimony to the battle of wills fought by this remarkable group of men.

1.) Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap, 1992), 24.

2.) Ibid.

3.) Ibid, 28.

4.) Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993), 204-210.

5.) David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 192.

6.) Prof. McConville, Republicanism, 10/20/08.

7.) Ibid.

8.) Stanly Elkins and Eric McKittrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford Press, 1993), 451.

9.) Ibid., 22.

10.) Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993), 229.

11.) Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap, 1992), 335-338.

12.) Stanly Elkins and Eric McKittrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford Press, 1993), 93.

13.) Prof. McConville, Hamilton, 11/12/08.

14.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 140.

15.) Ibid.

16.) Stanly Elkins and Eric McKittrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford Press, 1993), 264.

17.) Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 330-331.

18.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 65.

19.) Prof. McConville, Party Politics, 11/10/08.

20.) Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 351-352.

21.) Ibid., 374-375. 

22.) Prof. McConville, The 3 Georges, 11/3/07.

23.) Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 393.

24.) Ibid., 459.

25.) Roger Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson (New York: Oxford, 2000), 120.

26.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 142.

27.) David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 436.

28.) Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 395.

29.) David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 436.

30.) Ibid., 442-443.

31.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 135-136.

32.) David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 448.

33.) Ibid., 600-608.

34.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 32-33.

35.) Ibid., 33.

36.) Ibid., 35.

37.) Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004).

38.) Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers (New York: Vintage, 2002), 32.

39.) Prof. McConville, The Last of the Fathers, 12/8/08.

40.) Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 390.

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