John Ferling at the Savannah Book Festival
9 a.m. Sat. Feb. 15, Neises Auditorium in the Jepson Center for the Arts
THOMAS JEFFERSON wrote the Declaration of Independence, was our third president, and is remembered as one of the greatest and most influential Americans.
Alexander Hamilton is mostly remembered for having his face on the $10 bill and being killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.
But it's Hamilton's America we live in today, dominated by Wall Street banks, a centralized federal government, and an enormous standing military — all anathema to Jefferson.
Historian John Ferling describes the intense rivalry between these two very different men, one a Virginia farmer and Renaissance man, the other a brash New Yorker who was a war hero and close aide to George Washington. Indeed, our first president is almost the third main character in Ferling's book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation.
CS: You say you began as a Jeffersonian, but when you finished writing this book you almost admired Hamilton more. Why?
John Ferling: I didn't come away with a lesser appreciation for Jefferson, just a greater appreciation for Hamilton. That appreciation came out of two or three things: his military service — I was impressed by fact he stayed so many years and saw so much combat. Also, he came to understand economics better than anybody at that time.
CS: But doesn't modern history bear out that Jefferson was right, that central government leads to plutocracy and too much power and wealth in too few hands?
JF: Absolutely. Jefferson did see clearly what others couldn't see, that ultimately that's what Hamiltonianism was going to lead to. In some ways the pivotal point for Jefferson is the time he spends in Europe. He sees European society up close on a firsthand basis. He sees what monarchy can do, and what centralized government can lead to, especially if people have little power—and people were powerless in Europe. Jefferson really did understand what Hamilton's policies were leading to. But then again, today we live in Hamilton's world.
CS: I was shocked to read how intense the clash between the North and the South is even that early in our history.
JF: The very first clash between North and South is in the first Continental Congress in 1774. They wanted to pass a boycott against British trade to get the Brits to back down and forestall the danger of war. The South is willing to go along with a non-importation agreement but the North wants the whole country to stop exporting goods. The South says no, we can't do that, if we do we can't export rice and tobacco. There's a tremendous clash. So almost from day one when the sections get together, North and South are at one another's throat.
CS: Still, Jefferson is a paradox. He claimed to be against slavery but continued to own slaves.
JF: We don't know what would have happened if Jefferson not fallen so far into debt. He had quite a mountain to climb to extricate himself. Had he not been in debt he might have worked out an accommodation to slavery, and at least done what Washington did, free his slaves in his will.
CS: I didn't realize until I read your book how, despite being a Southern aristocrat, George Washington strongly embraced Hamilton's worldview instead of Jefferson's. It's really quite dramatic.
JF: That's what surprised me the most too! I found that letter by Edmund Randolph, Washington's attorney general, who writes that Washington told him in 1791 that partisanship had become so great that Washington thought it might destroy the union. He relates that if the union breaks up, Washington said he would move from Virginia to a northern state! I'd never seen or heard that before. It was the most striking discovery in the book.
CS: What was the attraction of Hamilton's ideas for Washington?
JF: It came both from their shared wartime experience, and also because of Washington's huge landholdings out west. He owned about 60,000 acres he couldn't sell. He's committed to a strong central government and so is the North, for its own economic interest. As a young officer in the French and Indian War at age 22, Washington's already out there fighting to open the west. It's a lifelong concern for him.
CS: Everyone knows about Jefferson's affair with his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. But you write about Hamilton's homoerotic crush on a fellow officer, John Laurens.
JF: Hamilton might have had bisexual proclivities. Certainly he is highly sexually charged all through his life. John Adams and others mention Hamilton's reputation as a womanizer. He was something like the Bill Clinton of his time period. When he's living there at HQ with Laurens that would have been a supercharged environment. A life and death business, exposed to enemy fire, not knowing how long they would live. They're at headquarters without female companionship for months on end. But then, the moment Hamilton gets involved with his future wife, he stops writing Laurens those very impassioned letters.
CS: Then there's the affair with a married woman, after which the woman and her husband shake Hamilton down for hush money.
JF: That's a common interpretation. But it may have been more of an insider trading thing, and Hamilton made up the story about the affair to cover that up. Hamilton goes down to Philadelphia and spends several days in a rooming house writing a pamphlet acknowledging the affair. Some people say Hamilton went there to write because he couldn't make himself confess he'd been disloyal to his wife while at home in the same house with her. But I thought he probably went down to Philly so he could look at the books of the National Bank. We have no way of knowing which side is really telling truth.