Maybe Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson, was right after all.
Sixteen years ago in this newspaper, I tried to answer a perennial question about American politics. Does the United States look more like the country predicted by Thomas Jefferson, or by his rival, Alexander Hamilton?
Jefferson asserted that ordinary people with sufficient education and virtue can govern themselves wisely, that liberty is the natural desire of all mankind, and that the world's monarchs and dictators will ultimately be overthrown. Hamilton, on the other hand, claimed Jefferson's view was folly, based on wishful thinking, because human nature itself precludes the kind of wisdom necessary for self-government.
In short, Jefferson speaks to our hopes; Hamilton speaks to our fears.
Back in 1992, I concluded that America, and the world, reflected features of both men's views – their great philosophical fight lay unresolved. Today, Hamilton clearly has the upper hand.
Before the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Hamilton observed the activities of a few state legislatures and concluded: "The inquiry [of legislators] constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people." But he went a step further: It's the people themselves, not the legislators, who are to blame. The people, he said, "murmur at taxes, clamor at their rulers" but then elect demagogues who appeal to our worst instincts.
Over the years, Jefferson became less optimistic about the wisdom of the people, but in the last letter of his long life, he summed up his life's vision: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." He hoped America's experiment with democracy would be "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."
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