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Roots of U.S. politics stem from clash between Jefferson and Hamilton, says Hockett

Much of America's political structure and national policy can be traced back to the conflict between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, said Cornell law professor Robert C. Hockett, speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York City June 2.

And while the divide between the two founders is still a source of controversy, the nation has evolved to incorporate the ideals of each, he said.

"It's striking how our national and political culture as well as our history of national policy making can be viewed as a combination of Hamiltonian views on one hand, and Jeffersonian views on the other," said Hockett in his lecture, "A Jeffersonian Republic by Hamiltonian Means."

The source of the conflict can be traced back to each man's background, Hockett said. As a member of the Southern planter aristocracy, Jefferson was biased toward a "yeoman republic," in which each citizen would have a small, self-sustaining plot of land. He was wary of a central government and opposed to heavy industries and crowded cities, preferring a civic republic of small landowners who arrived at sensible, common-interest agreements through mutual discourse.

"This meant in turn that there wouldn't be much of a role for a federal government to play, because a federal government would only exist to deal with national problems that everyone across the polity shared," Hockett said. "Hence you get the old Jeffersonian maxim, that government is best when it governs the least."

Hamilton, in contrast, believed that technological development and a diversified economy were crucial.

"In order to be a great nation in the future, a well-developed, diversified economy that's not resting on one industry would be necessary," Hockett said. "Furthermore, all kinds of new technologies were being developed at this time, and Hamilton realized quite quickly that the basis of national power would be a strong, industrialized economy where a nation can produce its own goods."

Hamilton also placed more emphasis on the value of individual achievement. "Hamilton wanted a meritocratic republic, because that's the kind of republic that Hamilton himself had prospered and succeeded in," Hockett said. Having relied on his own intelligence and hard work, Hockett said, Hamilton wanted the country to reward others who did the same. He thought the best way to bring that about was through a strong, centralized government with the power to act on behalf of everyone.

This clash of ideas between Jefferson and Hamilton ultimately led to a partisan divide, with Jefferson's supporters known as the Democratic-Republicans, and Hamilton's supporters as the Federalists.

That rift still exists, Hockett said. Like Jefferson's followers, members of today's Republican Party remain wary of federal government and taxation, while the Democratic Party, which is more favorably inclined toward federal power, taxation and government programs, is the successor to Hamilton's Federalist Party.

Many current social policies can be viewed as "Jeffersonian policies pursued by Hamiltonian means," Hockett said. Consider the system for financing home ownership since the 1930s, and the spread and financing of higher education since the 1950s and 1960s.

"If you think about these programs, essentially what we did was we helped to create a kind of Jeffersonian republic in regard to home ownership, with more and more people owning their own homes, and we did it through Hamiltonian means such as financial innovation on the part of the federal government," Hockett said.

"The programs designed by the government to finance higher education since the 1950s effectively replicate those that it pioneered in the 1930s to finance broader home ownerhship," Hockett added. "It bears noting, by the way, that all of these programs worked quite well until some elements -- notably Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- were privatized."

Farhan Nuruzzaman '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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