In one of the first in-person speaker series since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jack Miller Center welcomed Peter McNamara of Arizona State University to its annual Constitution Day Initiative Lecture. McNamara, whose research focuses on Early Modern American political thought, presented his talk “Hamilton, Jefferson, and the Constitution” on Monday, September 20.
McNamara, who holds a doctorate in political science from Boston College, spoke with a group of eager students and professors in Devlin Hall about how the political philosophies of key Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson shaped the Constitution as we know it.
Opening with an anecdote about how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical soared to commercial success and became a cultural phenomenon which reinvigorated American interest in the nation’s origin, McNamara began to construct his talk around the fundamental discord between Hamilton and Jefferson in crafting initial American legislation.
“All of our histories recognize the existence, from the very beginning of our national career, two groups of ideas: Jefferson and Hamilton,” said McNamara.
He furthered the discussion by delineating the principal differences between Hamilton and Jefferson in regards to the framework they believed the new American government should possess.
A great deal of the foundational work the Founding Fathers carried out revolved around solving complex and practical problems at the governmental level. Examples included how to organize legislative powers, who should have the power to write treaties, how to tax citizens, and, most importantly, how power should be divided between the states and the federal government.
While Jefferson criticized Hamilton’s broad interpretation of legislative powers, arguing that it gave too much power to the federal government, Hamilton believed Jefferson’s regulations at the federal level would “reduce the government to the same infacility that rendered the Articles of Confederation useless.”
Despite rudimentary differences in political theory between the two, Hamilton and Jefferson were ultimately political visionaries who thought through questions of policy and morality during the birth of a nation. Both founders maintained the importance of individual rights and ultimately set out to protect those rights by binding American politics in the Constitution.
“The founding period is so interesting,” McNamara concluded, “because it was one of the few times where individuals were quite literally making history.”