America Divided – The Liberty Philosophy of Jefferson vs Mercantilist Hamilton

America Divided

The Daily Bell – by Dr. Tibor Machan

Guest Editorial


Dr. Tibor Machan

For all its existence America has been torn between two political positions. Originally the two were represented, mostly, by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although neither was a simple partisan of the positions at issue here.

Hamilton had been a supporter of the revolution but also quite sympathetic to big government, even to monarchy in the British style (not absolute but relatively limited). Jefferson, in contrast, supported the polity implied by the Declaration of Independence (which he largely authored), although he was no libertarian, not even like Thomas Paine who came quite close.

The two positions differ mainly on how much a country should entrust its ideals to government. The Founders general thought that once the king has been deposed, one could live with government comfortably enough, although Jefferson had uttered some sentiments that suggest he was beginning to find government altogether problematic. “That government is best that governs least” shows no enthusiasm for even limited government, the sort one associates with the classical liberal tradition, although the logical implications of the principles Jefferson included in the Declaration, mostly derived from John Locke, were pretty close to the libertarian minarchist theory, the kind of government that is committed to nothing more than the protection of the citizens’ basic rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and whatever is consistent with these (mostly the right to do anything that’s peaceful). So this faction of America’s political legacy does not so much support a small as a limited scope type government. (Who can tell ahead of time how large an organization devoted to securing our rights would have to be to get its job done!?)