Jefferson Reconsidered

Mark W. Hendrickson’s recent essay in Crisis Magazine offers a refreshingly nuanced appraisal of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The wisdom of pundits aside, the outlook of these two founders may be more complimentary than conflicting in our political life than we have been led to believe.

Dr. Hendrickson notes some of the weak spots in Jefferson’s career. He was naively enthusiastic about the French Revolution. “Jefferson’s strong suit,” says Hendrickson, “was his idealism, whereas in practice he was, at times, inapt or inept.” He favors the Virginia statesman’s attitude toward limited government, but notes that Hamilton was not the champion of a centralist Leviathan that he is made out to be. Hendrickson also remarks on how much both Republicans and Democrats have flip-flipped over the years in their espousal of “Jeffersonian” versus “Hamiltonian” policies.

Along these lines I’ve often wondered at a couple of Jefferson’s “un-Jeffersonian” accomplishments. The first was a taxpayer funded state school, the University of Virginia, which was the first major American institution to deliberately omit religious instruction as part of its curriculum. The second is Jefferson’s famed Louisiana Purchase. This was the act of an “imperial” president that bypassed the Constitution and senatorial approval. I think these points are worth recalling when evaluating Hamilton or other American statesmen.

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