Great Debate (1791–1801)

Whose political theories and programs are more conducive to creating a strong, free Republic: Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s?

For Hamilton: The Federalists—led by Hamilton, Adams, Jay, Marshall, and Pickering; including merchants, urban upper classes and conservative clergy.


For Jefferson: The Republicans—led by Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Burr; including farmers, westerners, and urban craft workers and tradespeople.


ISSUE #1: Loose or strict construction. Should the Constitution be interpreted loosely to grant implied powers to the federal government?

Yes: Federalist Hamilton: “The means by which national exigencies are to be provided for, national inconveniences obviated, national prosperity promoted are of such infinite variety, extent, and complexity, that there must of necessity be great latitude of discretion in the selection and application of these means. If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to the end, and it is not forbidden by any particular provision of the constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.”



No: Republican Jefferson: “I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground—that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, or to the people. To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

ISSUE #2: Manufacturing versus agriculture. Should urban commerce and manufacturing be promoted as much as agriculture?

Yes: Federalist Hamilton: “The spirit of enterprise, useful and prolific as it is, must necessarily be contracted or expanded, in proportion to the simplicity or variety of the occupations and productions which are to be found in a society. It must be less in a nation of mere cultivators, than in a nation of cultivators and merchants; less in a nation of cultivators and merchants, than in a nation of cultivators, artificers, and merchants.”


No: Republican Jefferson: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.…Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.… Generally speaking the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts.…The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”



ISSUE #3: Should the common people be trusted with government?

No: Federalist Hamilton: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second; and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.”



Yes: Republican Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; wherever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

“I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom.

“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

ISSUE #4: The French Revolution. Should the United States view the French Revolution with sympathy and approval?

No: Federalist Hamilton: “The cause of France is compared with that of America during its late revolution. Would to heaven that the comparison were just. Would to heaven that we could discern in the mirror of French affairs the same humanity, the same decorum, the same gravity, the same order, the same dignity, the same solemnity, which distinguished the cause of the American Revolution. Clouds and darkness would not then rest upon the issue as they now do. I own I do not like the comparison.”


Yes: Republican Jefferson: “I still hope the French Revolution will end happily. I feel that the permanence of our own leans in some degree on that; and that a failure there would be a powerful argument to prove there must be a failure here.

“My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated; were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.”



REFERENCES: Richard Buel, Jr., Securing the Revolution: Ideology in American Politics, 1789–1815 (1972); Daniel Lang, Foreign Policy in the New Republic (1985).






Point of View Assignment

·           John Fiske, Essays Historical and Literary (1902).

A view of the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian conflict as fundamentally philosophical:

“It may be said that in American politics all men must be disciples either of Jefferson or of Hamilton. These two statesmen represented principles that go beyond American history, principles that have found their application in the history of all countries and will continue to do so.…The question always is how much authority shall the governing portion of the community be allowed to exercise, to how great an extent shall it be permitted to interfere with private affairs, to take people’s money in the shape of taxes, whether direct or indirect, and in other ways to curb or restrict the freedom of individuals.…Now if we compare parties in America with parties in England, unquestionably the Jeffersonians correspond to the Liberals and Hamiltonians to the Tories. It is, on the whole, the latter who wish to enlarge the powers of government.”

·           Charles Beard, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915).

A view of the Hamilton-Jefferson dispute as fundamentally economic:

“The spokesmen of the Federalist and Republican parties, Hamilton and Jefferson, were respectively the spokesmen of capitalistic and agrarian interests.…The party of opposition to the administration charged the Federalists with building up an aristocracy of wealth by the measures of government and appealed to the mass of the people, that is, the farmers, to resist the exactions of a ‘moneyed aristocracy.’ By the ten years’ campaign against the ruling class, they were able to arouse the vast mass of the hitherto indifferent voters and in the end swamp the compact minority which had dominated the country.”


1  What does each of these views see as the basic issue between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians?

2   How does each of them explain the extension of the Hamilton-Jefferson dispute into a sustained party conflict?

3   How would each of them explain the conflict over Hamilton’s Bank and governmental support for business?