Roman Jefferson v Carthaginian Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson

I’ve mentioned a few times just how much our Founding Fathers were influenced by — and saw themselves as heirs to — republican Rome. That’s why both our federal and state buildings tend to look like Roman temples.

Two excellent books I’ve been reading lately have brought home to me just how direct that influence was for specific Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson. Not only did Jefferson “inherit” certain Roman political ideals (as he understood them) but he also adopted the hatreds and propaganda of republican Rome. This meant:

  • Rome = good = America
  • Carthage = bad = Britain

Here Jefferson talks about Britain (from Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed):

Her good faith!The faith of a nation of merchants! The Punica fides of modern Carthage.

Punica fides means Punic faith. The Romans and Jefferson used the term ironically to mean faithlessness.

The Romans looked down on the Carthaginians (who were Phoenician traders) as merchants, and Jefferson inherited that attitude as well. (Napoleon, too, condescended to the English as “shopkeepers.”) Romans and Americans, Jefferson implied, were above such corrupt Carthaginian and British habits as commerce and banking.

Alexander Hamilton

When Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and other “republicans” (they deliberately named their faction to evoke republican Rome) began their hysterical conspiracy to bring down Alexander Hamilton, who in their fantasies had British and monarchical leanings, one of Hamilton’s friends warned him thus (from Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 391):

Delenda est Carthago, I suppose, is the maxim adopted with respect to you.

Delenda est Carthago means Carthage must be destroyed. It was the infamous phrase with which Cato the Elder ended every speech he gave until Rome indeed decided to destroy Carthage.

So to Jefferson, Hamilton was a sort of Hannibal?

Much more about all this in later posts. But you can already infer where my sympathies would have lain in this Founding Father soap opera.

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30 thoughts on “Roman Jefferson v Carthaginian Hamilton

  1. I’ve mentioned a few times just how much our Founding Fathers were influenced by — and saw themselves as heirs to — republican Rome. That’s why both our federal and state buildings tend to look like Roman temples.

    Bit of a stretch there, don’t you think? After all, virtually none of those buildings were built immediately.

    • I didn’t mean to imply that the Founding Fathers personally commissioned or built the buildings in the photos…

      I meant that they conceived of their fledgling nation as a new Rome. So they chose Rome’s symbolism for it (“Senate”, “Capitol” (from the Capitoline Hill), etc). The metaphor was then built upon by architects of subsequent generations….

    • You were being more illustrative than accurate, I think. There’s always that pesky obelisk in the midst of it all. Is the architecture of D.C. more a reflection of the perception of the architects, the commissioners, and pols regarding the Founding Fathers than of the Fathers themselves? They were a diverse lot, as I understand it, not an agreeable gathering of good friends. Pretensions of a “new Rome” may have been present but it is the inner workings of government that define a government quite unlike that of Rome. As I understood it, the the concepts and ideas were drawn from many different cultures and times. most, if not all, of these were modified through argument and compromise.

  2. I like the analogy and I think there is a lot to explore with it. Looking into Hamilton and Jefferson not only gives interesting insights into leadership and thinkers ( and even economics) but also has a lot of raw material for the hero debate as well–as least with respect to the way that heroes can be made or destroyed by chroniclers! I look forward to upcoming posts!

  3. I live very near Monticello (and Ash Lawn and Montpelier), all homes in either their design or decor show the influence of the French connection, cultural, military and commercial, and Italian art and architecture as conveyed via France. Clearly, Classical learning and the young nation’s relationship with the acknowledged center of the cultural world (Paris) at the time profoundly influenced the ideas of liberty, and government that were to become our law and our “tradition of freedom.” This is not to dismiss the contribution of other Enlightenment thinkers active in Europe, but they too were drawing from the same well.

    • Absolutely.

      Regarding specifically the French influence: This point became one of the major dividers between Jefferson and Hamilton, and Republicans and Federalists generally, once the French Revolution turned bloody. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe staid staunchly pro-French, even as the heads were rolling under the Guillotine….

  4. I think the analogies you draw are apt, but regarding the charge of “monarchism” against Hamilton and other federalists, Hamilton did at the constitutional convention propose 1) that the presidency be a lifelong post, 2) that one house of Congress also have lifelong tenure for its members, and 3) an “absolute veto” for the President.

    Also and interestingly it seems clear from both his writings in the Federalist and his statements at the Constitutional Convention that Hamilton didn’t consider the above ideas as incompatible with republicanism. Are they? I think you could argue persuasively both ways. The third at least is certainly less liberal.

    Yet he did go on in Federalist Papers 69-77 to make a vigorous and what is probably the most systematic defense of the Executive office as we see it in the final draft of the Constitution.

    I think the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict is so polarizing because it inherently brings out many questions of precise definition and differences of opinion not only on government and “politics” (in the Aristotelian sense) but of human nature. Besides, people like debates with characters/heroes/faces.

    P.S. I have been reading for some time and much enjoy your blog. This is my first post here. You do great work here and it’s fun and lively too.

    • Welcome to the HB, Nick. Delighted to have you as a regular reader.

      What I find most interesting about that particular anecdote about Hamilton at the Convention is how we know about it.

      After all, everything said at the Convention was supposed to remain a secret, so that the delegates could “brainstorm” (as we would put it) in freedom and safety. Madison was the one taking the most notes, and I suspect that we know about Hamilton’s speech from Madison, AFTER Madison decided to join Jefferson in attacking Hamilton. Hmmm.

      I also find it interesting that Hamilton, as soon as his suggestions were “ignored” and a different Constitution was adopted, became the staunchest defender of that same constitution, alongside Madison until their break.

      But yes, if you picture the distance between monarchy and Athenian-style democracy as not a gulf but a spectrum, then Hamilton would be located nearer the monarchy pole than Jefferson et al.

      Which, as it happens, is roughly the location on the spectrum where we ended up.

    • Your point about the integrity of the source of Hamilton’s statement is well-taken. As you say, Hamilton’s sudden and fervent support of the final draft makes us pause. (Did he ever really disagree with it?) Likewise Madison, perhaps suspiciously to some, appears the ingenious moderate solving the dispute between the extreme and intractable parties of Hamilton and Jefferson.

      Yet I do not think the matter should cause us severely to impugn the motives or consistency of either man. Hamilton’s support of a more monarchical system (otherwise put as a “fear of absolute democracy”) is certainly consistent. Likewise Madison’s notes, which are clearly not comprehensive based on their brevity relative to the length of the convention would thus reasonably sway towards the most extreme statements, most significant statements, or those worthy of/demanding further consdieration. (Perhaps the original documents bear evidence of revision, excise, or “suspicious incompleteness?” )

      On the one hand we are of necessity trusting to their objectivity, admittedly perhaps to truth’s detriment. On the other hand we need more than suspicions to discredit Madison’s accounts as historical documents.

      Lastly, Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” is indeed excellent and I eagerly await his Washington biography due this October.

  5. Hi Nick–very interesting blogsite BTW. I agree with you about the polarizing nature of the Hamilton/Jefferson debate because at the root of it is each man’s very different view of human nature. Hamilton can easily be branded as elitist by today’s standards. Jefferson is harder to pin down but his PR tells us he was more egalitarian.

    • Thanks for your kind thoughts on my blog, Thomas. I think the debate, being as you say philosophical in nature, is potentially very healthy, it itself being a sort of balance of powers. (Who wants democratic tyranny or monarchical tyranny? Who wants agrarianism or corporatism?)

      As Andreas said in a reply above, and I think Ron Chernow said this too (though I’m not sure precisely where) is that what we have today is certainly closer to what Hamilton had in mind than Jefferson. But is this the inexorable result of our system or a perversion of it? I incline towards the latter both philosophically and as a historian, though originalism/textualism being what they are, conservative in disposition, they incline toward the advantage of “progressive” readings.

      Yet this debate is more often a political football than object of truth-seeking discourse, a great deal of study being needed to arrive at the questions, let alone the answers. It’s hard to say how genuinely *grateful* I am to scholars like Chernow and Malone (and Adrienne Koch, whose “The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson” is, sadly, out of print) who did so much work for us.

      Sorry, that’s me putting my conservative/curmudgeon cap on again!

    • Well, I’m not only glad you’re here, Nick, but I hope you’ll stick around, because I want to talk a lot more about the Founding Fathers soon.

      I’m thrilled to hear from you that Chernow will bring out a Washington sequel in the fall.

      Is there a Jefferson or Madison biography you recommend?

    • And I am most glad to be here. Actually my formal training is in Classical Languages so your project, site, and work is right up my alley. That this current discussion intersects with my great interest in early American history and “political philosophy” (amongst others) is quite exciting.

      Regarding books, I wish I could recommend something on Madison. I’ve not really been satisfied with what I’ve read though I have more on the docket. The hunt is still on!

      Of Jefferson I thoroughly enjoyed and frequently return to Dumas Malone’s multi-volume work. Jefferson is clearly a demi-god to Malone but it is first rate scholarship nonetheless. This set has recently been reissued, but in separate volumes.

      For books on Jefferson with specific focuses I would recommend Adrienne Koch’s “The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson,” Noble Cunningham’s “In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson” and Edward J. Larson’s “A Magnificent Catastrophe” (on the election of 1800.)

      Of new scholarship I have two books I hope to get to soon: William Hyland’s “In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal” and Michael Kranish’s “Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War” (on Jefferson’s wartime governorship of Virginia.)

      I also found going through a volume of [a selection of] his personal writings quite fruitful. (I also occasionally like to double-check the context of quotes cited in other volumes.) I have found many such volumes are freely available as PDFs via Google Books.

      As I said I really am glad to be here (and thank you for the very warm welcome.) I look forward to being a part of your future discussions.

    • Nick, this may make you the world expert on the Founding Fathers. You’re a walking bibliography! Kudos.

      Jefferson comes off rather badly in Chernow. I wonder what your view of him is.

  6. Andreas–I had a moment of synchonicity. While looking into some more background on the Hamilton/Jefferson dichotomy, I came across a book called American Political Tradition published in 1948 by Richard Hofstadter. Having been written so soon after WWII and before the days of political correctness, etc., it is very interesting to read–like the history of history. He has a chapter about the Founding Fathers which describes Hamilton’s contributions and perspectives and an entire chapter on Jefferson entitled “The Aristocrat As Democrat.” There is also some fascinating stuff in later chapters about Lincoln and Wilson.

    Nick, I’m sure you’ve heard of Hofstadter. What is your view of what he has to say to us today?

    Anyway, the synchronicity moment. Totally out of the blue I found a quote by Hofstadter which you might want to use for a future post idea Andreas:

    “One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underpriviliged.”
    – Richard Hofstadter, historian (1916-1970

  7. Were “merchant nations” or merchants, for that matter, looked down upon in those days?

    Other than the tobacco merchants (and I guess the slave traders), America really wasn’t a merchant nation?

    • Merchants have been looked down on by “warriors” for much of history. And yes, some people (like Jefferson) preferred to view America as a nation of small farmers rather than traders.

  8. Look at that! Snooty “sympathies would have lain” loses some of its haughtiness when placed next to humble “soap opera”. And in the attention-grabbing last line of the post! If this continues, ordinary people might forget their anxieties and venture into the lay/lie Bermuda triangle without fear of error or accusations of priggishness. Yay!

    • The lie/lay Bermuda triangle. Gawd, I looove that. Must steal it.

      You’re making me feel like the conjugator’s equivalent of the silverback alpha gorilla: I’m thumping my chest.

  9. I’ll wait and see what comes out from all this Rome-Founding Fathers thread. I need this type of knowledge being very ignorant on American history. Although, in my opinion, one should be concrete and not get carried out by the fascination of the whole thing.
    I am not saying this to you.
    I am saying this in general (and possibly to myself) 🙂

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