The first—and perhaps the most important—political rivalry in U.S. history was between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The two Founding Fathers clashed over political differences, each trying to sway President George Washington to his side. But there’s more to the Hamilton and Jefferson feud than you thought.
Why did Thomas Jefferson hate Alexander Hamilton? He called Hamilton a corrupt monarchist, a traitor to the country—and their beef went far beyond political differences. In the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, both men would destroy their own reputations in order to attack each other.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson started out as a political disagreement, but it soon became deeply personal. And their fight would turn two shocking affairs into the biggest scandals of early American history.
The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson began as a battle for the approval of George Washington. When Washington became America’s first president in 1789, he appointed both men to serve in his cabinet, Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson as Secretary of State.
Both Hamilton and Jefferson had a close relationship with George Washington. Hamilton was only 22 years old when he served as Washington’s secretary during the Revolutionary War, and the two remained close for years after the war. In fact, Hamilton encouraged a reluctant Washington to run for president, calling Washington “indispensable” to the new nation.
On his end, Jefferson shared a similar background to Washington: Both were Virginia planters, both married widows named Martha, and both distinguished themselves during the Revolution—Jefferson by penning the Declaration of Independence; Washington by winning the war.
Unsurprisingly, both men saw themselves as Washington’s closest advisor, which only fueled the rivalry.
Hamilton was from the Caribbean, born the illegitimate son of a Scottish peddler. His adopted home, New York City, shaped Hamilton into a proponent of urban commerce. To Hamilton, America’s cities and its merchant economy would drive progress. He believed a strong central government was necessary for the country’s survival.
In Jefferson’s eyes, Hamilton was advocating a return to European-style monarchy, undoing the progress made during their War for Independence. His own agrarian perspective favored a decentralized government, which he believed would allow for the greatest degree of personal liberty and virtue.
Both men believed they could sway Washington toward their vision for America.
Early in Washington's presidency, the General seemed to side with Hamilton more than with Jefferson. This enraged the Secretary of State, who began to see Hamilton in darker terms.
Jefferson was convinced that Hamilton was a corrupt, self-interested monarchist. Jefferson complained to Washington in 1792 that Hamilton had “a squadron devoted to the nod of the treasury.” These men wanted to “form the most corrupt government on earth.”
Washington tried to cool the friction between the two men. In a letter to Jefferson in August 1792, Washington wrote “How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.”
Jefferson didn’t get the hint. Instead, he wrote back to throw Hamilton under the bus––or carriage, since it was 1792. Hamilton’s ideas, Jefferson declared, “flowed from principles adverse to liberty, and [were] calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.”
In short, Jefferson accused Hamilton of being a traitor.
Jefferson refused to let go of the idea that Hamilton was not just a political rival, but a traitor to their newly-formed United States.
In October 1792, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton was heading a monarchist plot to seize the government. Jefferson claimed that Hamilton had told him that the “Constitution was a shilly-shally thing of mere milk and water, which could not last and was only good as a step to something better.”
In response, Washington dismissed Jefferson’s claims as ridiculous. The President added that he sided with Hamilton because the New Yorker's plans actually worked, already bringing financial stability to the new country.
In his own response, Jefferson concluded that Washington’s brain was enfeebled by age.