Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics


April 29, 2024
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics by H. W. Brands. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2023. $32.50 cloth)

“’We shall be tossed at any rate in the tempestuous sea of liberty for years to come, and where the bark can land but in a political convulsion I cannot see.’” (page 3)

John Adams was not a firm believer in the idea of democracy, allowing for the people to completely rule themselves. The possibility of his once close friend Thomas Jefferson becoming the President of the United States was a dangerous thought. But regardless of who sat in the chair of the chief executive, the nation would have to endure a stormy political climate. Such is the focus of Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics by the prolific H. W. Brands. The book is an examination of how the new nation tried to find its way as its most famous Founders battled each other over very different visions for it.

From the start, people were not sure what kind of government would be best for the war-weary American “experiment.” Would it be a republic with the states retaining their sovereignty and liberties? Or would it be one strong national government? Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, the only Founders to have been in combat, witnessed the inefficiency of the states in fighting the war. They firmly believed a stronger government over the states was the only way to go. James Madison pushed for reforms to the weak Articles of Confederation. The final product of the 1787 Philadelphia convention did not satisfy Madison or Hamilton completely, but at least it was seen as a step above the Articles. The ratification debates between the Federalists (strong government) and the Anti-Federalists (strong states) showed that the battle between the two viewpoints would be long and bitter.

While Hamilton, Madison and even Washington put the finishing touches on the Constitution, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in Europe serving as ministers to the European superpowers of Great Britain and France. Once the government plan was ratified and Washington was the obvious choice for the presidency, Adams and Jefferson returned to take up their positions in the Washington administration. Although they were absent during the creation of the Constitution, each man personified the opposing visions of the nation’s future. Adams was like Hamilton in preferring a strong national government like that of Britian. Jefferson and Madison were supportive of a weak government that was to protect the rights of the states. The revolution in France divided the cabinet, and Washington’s hopes for a unified administration disappeared. Both sides came together to support Washington’s second term because they recognized that the nation would not survive his departure.

It is a wonder that the United States, a weak nation at its start, survived the events that the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans battled each other over. The Jay Treaty was fodder for the Republicans to attack the Federalists for favoring Great Britain, but then the Federalists went after the Republicans who supported France’s arrogance and condescension during the XYZ Affair. John Adams could not even control his own party because of the machinations of Alexander Hamilton, whose personal attacks on President Adams destroyed Hamilton’s reputation. And just when one would think that Hamilton could not stomach Jefferson as president, the arch-Federalist supported the Virginian against someone Hamilton feared even more – Aaron Burr. Jefferson looked poised in 1800 to steer the ship on the Republican path, favoring states’ rights. History is 20/20 vision, but there was no way President Jefferson could predict the consequences of state concepts like nullification and secession.

It was interesting to read about who the Founders relied on for advice and support. Washington needed Hamilton and Madison, while Madison sought the guidance of Jefferson. Hamilton was happy to rely on himself, and John Adams had an important political partner in his wife, Abigail.

Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics stands out in one particular way. Brands has mined the writings of the Founders so effectively that he essentially allows them to tell the story all throughout the book. It is the very words of Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, taken from numerous letters, speeches, and articles, that make the narrative “come alive” in a way that creates a sense of urgency and expectation. Brands serves as a guide for the reader, introducing each paragraph briefly before letting the Founders speak for themselves. As with all of H. W. Brands’ work, his newest is an excellent resource for American political history.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN CLOTH or KINDLE(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

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