The Political Propaganda of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The Democratic-Republican party was formed because of an ideological split between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. James Madison, a life-long friend of Jefferson’s, played a pivotal role in the formation of this party. By October 1791, Jefferson and Madison had managed to expand their party to include propaganda organs, which played a large part in politics for the years to come. 

Picture of the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Madison and Jefferson sponsored anti-Hamilton newspapers such as National Gazette and the Philadelphia Aurora. (Image: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock)

In October of 1791, Madison and Jefferson were sponsoring anti-Hamilton newspapers, such as National Gazette and the Philadelphia Aurora, and hiring anti-Hamilton editors, such as Philip Freneau and Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

While Madison was accomplishing his propaganda as a Republican organizer in the Capitol, John Beckley, the clerk of the House of Representatives, worked to accomplish that on the local level. 

John Beckley and Anti-Hamiltonian Societies 

Beckley was a natural-born political manipulator; he pretty much did tasks similar to what voter registration drives do today—managed local campaigns for office in Pennsylvania, distributed handbills and broadsides, and employed express riders to distribute ballots. He used his family and kinship networks to get out the vote. 

Jefferson left the cabinet at the end of 1793, and by that time, anti-Hamilton societies had sprung up on the local level all across the republic. Eleven clubs, known as Democratic Societies, or Republican Societies, had come into existence by the end of 1793. In the next year, another two dozen had been organized in all but one of the states.

Most of this grassroots organizing was based on an appeal to agricultural interests. This was suspicious to old anti-Federalists in the state governments and legislatures, who were still, even at this point, largely unreconciled to the Constitution. 

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Political Theories of John Taylor

Another aide to the Republicans was John Taylor of Caroline, an amateur political theorist who was capable of giving the Republicans a comprehensive political ideology, and who was able to handle agricultural grievances in a more diplomatic manner than Thomas Jefferson.

Picture shows the portrait of John Taylor of Caroline.
Taylor was vehemently against the capitalist faction of society, the “aristocracy of paper and patronage”. (Image: Unknown author/ ublic domain)

Taylor was especially averse to Hamilton’s economics and policies, which he warned would only result in “a peasantry wretchedly poor and an aristocracy luxuriously rich and arrogantly proud”.

By aristocracy, Taylor was referring to the legal faction of capitalists that Hamilton had been promoting, an aristocracy of paper and patronage. Taylor also opposed Hamilton for creating a party in his political tract, A Definition of Parties: Or the Political Effects of the Paper System Considered. In that, Taylor blamed Hamilton for necessitating the existence of parties, leaving people with no recourse against his corruption except organizing their own party. “The existence of two parties in Congress is apparent,” Taylor wrote, “The fact is disclosed almost upon every important question.”

Learn more about the French alliance with the United States.

Hamilton’s Retaliation

Hamilton was clearly disgruntled because of the creation of an organized party opposition, which he complained was “the first symptom of a spirit which must either be killed or it will kill the Constitution”.  He also accused Madison and Jefferson of conspiring against the administration in 1792—Madison for the expectation of popularity, and Jefferson because “Mr. Jefferson aims with ardent desire at the presidential chair”. 

The existence of Freneau’s National Gazette as a party newspaper was also a thorn in Hamilton’s side. He felt that the paper was an exact copy of its patrons, and that Freneau was only devoted to the party which hired him.

Another thing driving Hamilton wild was the fact that Jefferson was driving a campaign to undermine Hamilton’s political base in New York, by recruiting two of the most important upstate New York politicians—George Clinton and Aaron Burr—to the Republican cause. Thus, Hamilton’s rage at Jefferson’s party organization turned him toward party organizing of his own. 

Hamilton, the Federalist

Drawing upon the name Federalist from the papers, Hamilton had written to defend the Constitution, in the process recruiting his own congressional supporters, led in New York by Rufus King in the Senate, and Fisher Ames of Massachusetts in the House. Further, he used the backing of Washington to manage legislative timetables, conferences, and committee appointments, while also establishing Federalist newspapers, such as John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States, in order to raise funds. 

Picture of the page from John Fenno's "Gazette of the United States".
John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States was one of the Federalist organs through which Hamilton raised funds. (Image: John Fenno/Public domain)

To a great extent, Hamilton was able to bend Congress to his will. In fact, between 1789 and 1791, twice as many representatives in the House voted in support of Hamilton’s initiative as those against it. 

But unlike what the Republicans had done with their clubs and societies, Hamilton did very little grassroots organizing. He continued to have difficulty in freeing himself from the notion that politics should be non-partisan, virtuous, and disinterested in a republic. As a result, the only successful organization created by the Federalists was the one they created inside the Congress itself.

Most of the popular support the Federalists enjoyed was either based in the great seaports of New England, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, or else it was wrapped up in the national veneration for the figure of President Washington. 

Learn more about politics in the creation of the Constitution.

Jefferson’s Mistake and the French Revolution

Looking at it all together did not give the image of a well-organized political support base, and it was not, really. But George Washington’s prestige and image held immense importance in and around the year 1795. Moreover, the Jeffersonian Republicans nearly destroyed themselves at the beginning by a catastrophic failure of political judgment.

A few months after Washington’s inauguration as the first president in New York City, starving mobs destroyed the Bastille—a one time prison and part-time arsenal in a working-class district of Paris. This became the symbol of the French Revolution, and the French monarchy was replaced three days later by a constitutional monarchy and a new liberal constitution. 

Jefferson, who had been serving out the end of a spell as American ambassador to France when this revolt erupted, took up his duties as Washington’s secretary of state, glad that America’s oldest ally had joined it in revolution. He imagined the two nations coming together as sister republics, changing the world and bringing down monarchy and unfair privilege. 

However, Hamilton’s derision at the French idea of a ‘republic’ managed to sway public opinion, and with the beginning of the French war against European powers, Jefferson’s faith in the French began to put him in the crosshairs of the Republicans, and he had to admit that there were several flaws in French governance. 

Common Questions about the Political Propaganda of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

Q: What was the role of Anti-Hamilton Societies?

By the time Jefferson left the Senate, the followers of the two leaders had divided themselves into clear factions, and as a result, Anti-Hamilton societies had sprung up in many cities. This was orchestrated to a large extent by the brilliant manipulator, John Beckley, who was aiding Jefferson.

Q: What did Hamilton feel about the existence of an organized opposition?

Hamilton was extremely disgruntled about Jefferson creating an organized opposition, which he felt was “the first symptom of a spirit which must either be killed or it will kill the Constitution”.  He also accused Madison and Jefferson of conspiring against the administration in 1792.

Q: How did Hamilton retaliate against his organized party opposition?

Hamilton always stated that his party and its policies were a knee-jerk reaction to the organized opposition of Jefferson’s party. However, he never engaged in any grassroots propaganda against his opposition. He wrote to defend the republic view of the Constitution, and continued to propagate the non-partisan idea of politics.

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