In honor of Independence Day, this week's sermon explores the depths of the dispute between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
A Few Great Men: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on Group Loyalty
It’s been one year since I started working here at B’nai Jehudah, and my family and I couldn’t be happier! I look into the congregation on a weekly basis and see a whole community of friendly faces, and while I still don’t know everyone, the relationships I’ve formed here these past twelve months have been both professionally as well as personally enriching.
A year ago, in my first sermon here, I recalled that July 4 is the yortzeit of Thomas Jefferson, the father of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, and the third President of the United States.
Last year, we explored Jefferson’s conception of freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence as well as in his other magnum opus, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
But this year, a new hero has arrived on the scene: Alexander Hamilton. A year ago, he was facing eviction from the face of the ten dollar bill. But since then, he has had a phenomenal resurgence in popularity, owing in large part to his role as the main character of a new smash hit on Broadway. Hamilton: An American Musical dominated this year’s Tony Awards, with more nominations than any other play in history and with a keynote performance introduced by the President of the United States and the First Lady. Michelle and Barack Obama described Hamilton as “a musical about the miracle that is America, … a place of inclusiveness where we value our boisterous diversity as a great gift.”
Heralded by critics and world leaders alike, Alexander Hamilton is enjoying a rare extended moment in the spotlight. But, if ever there were a “boisterous diversity” among America’s Founding Fathers, it was between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Historian David McCullough has written of their “unrelenting feud,” noting that “Animosity between [Jefferson and Hamilton] reached the point where they could hardly bear to be in the same room.” Both men built their careers on the written word; each of them served in George Washington’s cabinet; and under their leadership, our political system was conceived and built. So what drove them so dramatically apart?
Ron Chernow, who literally wrote the book on Alexander Hamilton, reports that Hamilton believed that Jefferson was a “despot in disguise.” And Jefferson, for his part, believed that Hamilton was—in his own words—“not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.” Hamilton argued that Jefferson was a coy pretender, an opponent of the Constitution who bided his time until he could seize “imperial domination.” And Jefferson tried to persuade President Washington that Hamilton had organized a “monarchist plot,” intending to seize power as the King of America by manipulating the fledgling government.
Clearly, these two personalities were absolutely incompatible. But more than ego fueled the fire between them. Each man represented a set of ideas and a way of thinking about America that was at odds with the other. Some of their arguments have been put to rest: Hamilton won the battle to create a national bank; Jefferson succeeded in formalizing ties with France. But one of their key disputes has yet to be resolved, a contention over the proper object of our loyalty: Do we owe more to our small home group or rather to the larger corporate entity? This is a question which continues to resonate today on national, communal, and personal levels.
Historian Rogers Smith summarizes a profound difference in perspective between Jefferson and Hamilton:
Most of those that were born in the British American colonies—particularly the Virginians like Thomas Jefferson—actually thought of their colony of Virginia as their homeland, and they had only weak sense of American national identity. Hamilton, in contrast, thought of himself first and foremost as an American and was determined to help build up the new American national government as an expression of that identity.
So on the one hand, Jefferson, philosopher and aristocrat, proclaimed tremendous “faith in the wisdom of the common [person].” He was wary of strong central leadership and preferred to reduce the power of the federal government as much as possible. For him, primary loyalty was to the state, not the Union. And on the other hand, Hamilton, an immigrant of humble origins enchanted by the potential of the Revolutionary cause, pledged allegiance not to a home state but rather to the United States. In sum, Jefferson and Hamilton’s argument boils down to the large group versus small groups.
In one sense, this is a debate about the defense of the few versus the advancement of the many. A Hamiltonian will focus on the greater good while a Jeffersonian will advocate for individual freedoms. Hamilton will ask us to make personal sacrifices for a higher cause; Jefferson will caution us against losing our individuality in the face of abstract ideals. Hamilton’s position favors the collective wisdom; Jefferson’s urges us to trust in the innate nobility of our neighbors.
Of course, this isn’t a new question. Our Torah portion this week recounts Korach’s rebellion against Moses. Korach rises up and addresses Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3). Jefferson would be proud – does Moses truly believe that he’s more virtuous than every other Israelite? In the end, though, Moses’ position is vindicated, and a strong central leader is upheld. Hamilton’s side wins the day.
Not so in today’s United Kingdom, which voted last week to exit the European Union. In my view, the central question in this vote was whether it is reasonable to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. Agree or disagree, the main argument of those in favor of leaving the EU was that it’s better for Britain to be independent regardless of the consequences for the rest of Europe. This time, the Jeffersonian position prevailed, and priority was awarded to the smaller group over the larger one.
Situations like these arise all the time. Sometimes, we find ourselves defending the minority from the tyranny of the majority; other times, we find ourselves urging self-restraint in the interest of more global concerns. To take just a few examples: How do we feel about issues of personal privacy versus national security? Free market exchange versus federal regulations? Tax revenue spent on our own school systems versus redistribution elsewhere? None of these issues is cut-and-dry. We may feel more strongly about some of them than others, and as we consider our own position, we can affirm that well-meaning and intelligent people can indeed order their priorities differently from us.
The same condition holds true for issues of Jewish concern, of course. Should an event or a venue be kosher, costing more for everyone while enabling a relative minority to participate? Should I go out of my way to attend a shiva minyan? Should I preference Jewish issues or even Jewish candidates in national elections? Should I keep traditions I don’t understand for the sake of Jewish continuity? Should I invite everyone in my b’nai mitzvah class to my party? The list goes on and on.
How do we answer these questions in our personal lives, our community organizations, and our national institutions? It seems to me we have three main choices. Side with Jefferson, side with Hamilton, or waver between the poles.
Option one: siding with Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson believed in humanity and by and large trusted us to take care of ourselves. Accordingly, he felt that larger institutions should always adjust themselves to accommodate the needs of smaller constituent groups. If we, upon honest reflection and careful consideration, agree with this principle, then it is fitting to apply it as often as we can in our lives and to advocate for it in society. Whenever possible, we look out for the little guy.
Option two: siding with Hamilton. From the opposite direction, we may take the view of Star Trek’s Mister Spock: “…the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” And like Mister Spock (spoiler alert from thirty years ago), we would willingly sacrifice our own wellbeing for the benefit of society … and we’d expect others to do the same. Alexander Hamilton believed far more in the United States of America than in any smaller group of Americans, and policies that were good for the nation superseded concerns over whether they were good for individuals. If this is our view, then as before, it’s appropriate to seek to apply it across the board.
And then, the inevitable option three: a little of both. We may find that sometimes we favor the small group while at other times we favor the larger group. Some sacrifices we’re willing to make; others go too far. Option three attempts to let us have our cake and eat it, too – we can preference both the individual and the collective. Now, what we lose in this deal is the benefit of consistency: It can be very hard to justify our beliefs and actions to ourselves and others without an ideological North Star charting our course. But what we lose in consistency we make up in nuance, carving out space for intuition, ambivalence, and exceptions.
Hillel, perhaps the greatest sage of our tradition, summarized this ancient struggle in a few short words.
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי?
And when I am for myself alone, what am I?
וְאִם לֺא עַכְשַׁיו, אֵימָתַי?
And if not now, when?
~Pirkei Avot 1:13~
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Thomas Jefferson reminds us that we must attend to our own needs rather than cede ourselves to an overarching power.
“And when I am for myself alone, what am I?” Alexander Hamilton reminds us that without higher causes and greater goods, our lives bear little meaning.
“And if not now, when?” Finally, Hillel himself urges us not to set aside this essential debate for an imagined time in the future when it may be more convenient to address it. The urgency of the present moment—globally, nationally, and personally—demands that we clarify our values and put them into practice.
As a new year of the American saga dawns, may we find inspiration in the spirited debates of our forefathers that continue to the present day. And may all of us—Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians, and Hillelites alike—celebrate this year’s Independence Day with conviction and purpose.
 John Adams (2001), p. 435-436.
 Alexander Hamilton (2004), p. 407.
 Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1818, introduction, Franklin B. Sawvel, ed., The Complete Anas of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1903), 36-37. Quoted in McCullough’s John Adams, p. 436.
 Alexander Hamilton p. 407.
 Ibid. 408.
 Ibid. n.pag.
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