Skip to Main Content

The Jefferson Rule

How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

About The Book

In The Jefferson Rule, historian David Sehat describes how everyone from liberals to conservatives, secessionists to unionists have sought out the Founding Fathers to defend their policies.

Beginning with the debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the future of the nation, and continuing throughout our history—the Civil War, the World Wars, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution, and Obama and the Tea Party—many politicos have asked, “What would the Founders do?” instead of “What is the common good today?” Both the Right and the Left have used the Founders to sort through such issues as voting rights, campaign finance, free speech, war and peace, gun control, and taxes, though those Fathers were a querulous and divided group who rarely agreed.

In this “sobering, informative study” (Publisher’s Weekly), Sehat shows why coming to terms with the past would be the start of a productive debate. The result is, simply put, “required reading for those desperate for sane, intelligent political arguments” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review). The Jefferson Rule “takes the reader through an engaging and insightful survey course in American history” (The Christian Science Monitor).


The Jefferson Rule


The Quest for Unanimity

George Washington probably should have known better. In 1789, just after taking office, he faced a choice that would turn out to shape his two terms as president. The Constitution had been drafted nearly a year and a half earlier. After a bruising battle over its ratification, in which many people objected to what they saw as the Constitution’s centralization of authority, Washington had been unanimously elected as the nation’s first president. The moment was delicate. Everyone trusted in Washington as a leader, but not everyone trusted one another. And not everyone trusted in the government created by the Constitution.1

As Washington assumed the seat that many thought had been made for him, he needed to reassure concerned citizens that all was well. So he used his first inaugural to smooth over anxiety about the new government. It would be a force for national prosperity and national good, he promised. He would not allow the government to become despotic or to aid one section of the country over another. “No local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests,” he pledged to the nation’s citizenry.2

But he also needed to use the new national powers of the government to confront the various and multiple problems that the nation faced. And he needed to appoint people to his cabinet who would use these new powers in a vigorous but politically circumspect manner. They would have to wield the new executive authority provided to the government without antagonizing those who had objected to the Constitution.

In that quest he did not hesitate, at least initially, to think big. His first appointment was Alexander Hamilton, for Treasury. The United States faced a number of economic problems that had been around since the end of the Revolutionary War. Under the Articles of Confederation—the wartime government that the Constitution replaced—the United States had been unable to coordinate the economic activity of the states. The nation, as a result, had no coherent program of economic development. And it struggled under debt from fighting the Revolution. If the United States was going to be successful as a nation, it would need to address its large debt, establish its credit in the eyes of other nations, and raise the capital to engage in still necessary national improvements.

Hamilton was perfect for that task. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the new nation, and he had a clear conception of the economic problems. But he also had a particularly clear vision of national power that was bound to antagonize those who feared a strong central government. More than anyone else among the founding generation, Hamilton believed that the new constitution provided, in his words, “streams of national power” that needed to be channeled to specific ends. Power was, for Hamilton, a good thing. Those who worried about strong governmental power, according to Hamilton, missed the more dangerous problems that arose out of a lack of governmental power. As he explained in the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper articles written with James Madison and John Jay to support constitutional ratification, under a weak government “we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe because nothing improper will be likely to be done.” But this view was, he believed, shortsighted. “We forget how much good may be prevented,” he pointed out, “and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.”3

Such a view was at total odds with Washington’s choice for secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. It was here that Washington made his first mistake. State was also a vital cabinet position. Following the Revolution, several aspects of foreign relations needed attention. And because many future treaties would deal with commercial relations, some overlap in Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s respective portfolios was inevitable. The overlap would not have been a problem had they been in general philosophical agreement. But because Jefferson and Hamilton could not disagree more vehemently on any number of issues, conflict was also inevitable.

Jefferson had, in fact, long been uncomfortable with the Constitution. Though he did not have a hand in drafting it—he was away in Paris during the entire debate—when he first heard the plan he complained to his friend James Madison, “Primâ facie I do not like it. It fails in an essential character, that the hole and the patch should be commensurate. But this proposes to mend a small hole by covering the whole garment.” Jefferson would have preferred to live under the Articles with perhaps a few amendments. “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” he acknowledged. And though he eventually made peace with the Constitution, he did not abandon his belief that energetic government was always a threat to liberty.4

Jefferson’s commitment to liberty, as he understood it, was bound to cause problems when he was paired with Alexander Hamilton, a man also not shy about his opinions. But Washington did not see the potential for conflict. In spite of the raucous debates that the nation had endured during the ratification process, Washington assumed—like many in his time—that any fair-minded gentleman politician would arrive at basically the same place as any other fair-minded gentleman politician, so long as they were both republican in outlook. He did not believe that two republican gentlemen could disagree on principle without one of them suffering from a fatal flaw in character. He thought that if he chose what he called “first characters”—those who made up the natural aristocracy of the United States and could be trusted to lead the nation—he would not need to scrutinize their views too closely.5

So he filled out his cabinet without regard to political inclination or orientation, and laid the seeds for bitter conflict in the future. Hamilton, a partisan of power, went to Treasury. Jefferson, a partisan of liberty, went to State. Edmund Randolph—one of three people who had stayed through the entire Constitutional Convention and then declined to sign the document—became attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the new government. And Henry Knox, Washington’s successor as commander of the army after the Revolution and a secretary of war under the Articles of Confederation, stayed on as the secretary of war under the new government. Given the quality of the people he selected, and ignoring their obvious political differences, Washington looked forward to the future. His administration, he predicted, would shine in “the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent” characteristic of a republican form of government.6

But in this, Washington would be sadly disappointed. And it is out of that conflict that we find the origins of our contemporary debate.


The problems began almost immediately. Hamilton led the way. In keeping with his views of power, he entered office determined to aggressively use his command of the Treasury to set the nation on what he considered a proper economic path. His goal was the creation of a new American political economy. Faced with the threat of insolvency and neocolonial dependency after the Revolutionary War, Hamilton thought the national government should foster markets, prompt investment and entrepreneurship, and create a coherent national financial policy that protected public credit.

To that end, he put forward a series of economic reports in which he recommended an expansion of government that would occur in three steps. First, he proposed, the federal government should assume the debts of the states to create a large and consolidated national debt. Then it should repay those debts at face value, rather than downgrading the debt and hurting the nation’s credit rating. Once those first two commitments were in place, he proposed that the government create a national bank that could collect new national taxes and use the subsequent capital flows to offer loans to the private sector in order to develop the economy. The net effect would be a powerful and centralized institutional control over American economic life.7

But Hamilton’s proposals were controversial. His promotion of a national bank, in particular, made it clear that he wanted to use the government to favor the merchants of the North, who could aid in the economic development of the nation while simultaneously enriching themselves. To agriculturalists, particularly in the South, it seemed as though Hamilton was using his office to pick winners and losers in the new economy. Or, to put it another way, he was using the power of the government to endanger the agriculturalists’ liberty.8

Jefferson and Madison, who both came from the agricultural state of Virginia, were upset. In the process of debate both emerged as Hamilton’s opponents. Madison in particular used his immense prestige as the architect of the Constitution to call into question the constitutionality both of the bank and of Hamilton’s entire economic system. He did so by arguing that the Constitution granted only limited powers to the Congress in section 8 of Article I. Because chartering a bank was not among those powers, Congress could not do it. This position became known as strict constructionism.9

As the split became clear, Washington grew disturbed. This was the first visible crack in the façade of agreement that existed in his administration. He had relied on both Madison and Hamilton in the initial part of his government, so a split between the two suggested a growing ideological divide that he did not understand and could not readily explain. But he grew even more disturbed after Madison directly appealed to him to veto the bank bill, once it had passed over Madison’s objection in Congress. Uncertain of what to do, Washington solicited three opinions on the constitutionality of a national bank: one from his attorney general, Edmund Randolph; one from Jefferson; and, after he had consulted the other two, one from Hamilton. Everyone brought considerable legal powers to the task. The resulting opinions confirmed for Washington that a constitutional and political gulf was opening beneath him.

Jefferson and Randolph followed Madison in his strict constructionist argument, with Jefferson using his full rhetorical arsenal to defend what he had earlier called “the holy cause of freedom.” By rooting his opinion in the Tenth Amendment—which reserved all powers not delegated to the national government for the states and the people—Jefferson argued with Madison that the Constitution was like the Magna Carta, primarily a restraint on power that served as a charter of liberty. “To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress,” Jefferson complained, “is to take possession of a boundless feild [sic] of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”10

But when Hamilton read the opposing opinions, he could barely contain his contempt. Jefferson was not even at the Constitutional Convention, and Randolph, who had been there, refused to sign it at the convention’s end. And they were lecturing him on the Constitution’s meaning! “Principles of construction like those espoused by the Secretary of State and the Attorney General,” Hamilton coolly responded in his own opinion, “would be fatal to the just & indispensable authority of the United States.”11

Their disagreement was really about the nature and purpose of governmental power. For Jefferson, power always had a tendency toward malevolence that needed to be contained, but for Hamilton, power was the ability to do things that contributed to the public good. Precisely because the Constitution was designed to invigorate national government after the weakness of the Articles, Hamilton suggested that it was a charter of power, not merely liberty. It gave some powers to Congress by explicit statement and gave other powers to Congress by implication.

In essence, Hamilton argued that if Congress had the express power to do one thing, such as collect taxes, it had the implied power to do other things, such as chartering a bank, that were a means of exercising that express power. To support his claim, Hamilton pointed to the so-called “necessary and proper” clause of Article I, section 8: “Congress shall have power . . . to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing powers.” “The whole turn of the clause . . . indicates, that it was the intent of the convention, by that clause[,] to give a liberal latitude to the exercise of the specified powers,” Hamilton wrote. This position became known as broad constructionism.12

Washington tarried for two days, uncertain what to do. Then he signed the bill. It appeared to be a clear victory for Hamilton. But, to Hamilton’s consternation, the debate was just beginning.


Hamilton had pinpointed the exact questions of their debate, which would only grow more bitter in the future. Did the Constitution invigorate national government or constrain it? Did the framers trust or distrust power? And how exactly did they imagine that liberty would be maintained in this new federal system?

Those questions would soon grow more urgent, but in the meantime the debate itself was disturbing to many in Washington’s administration. They expected consensus in politics. The Founders saw politics in terms of the deferential and rank-­ordered society that they sat atop. Politics was supposed to be an expression of the enlightened governance expected by society’s natural rulers. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1776, the goal of any political system is “to get the wisest men chosen [in government], and to make them perfectly independent when chosen.” The voting masses would elect their betters, who could then, in tranquil deliberation, decide matters of public policy. And the Constitution had continued this idea. As Madison explained in Federalist No. 10, the Constitution used the principle of representation “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.” The best in society could then oversee “the permanent and aggregate interests of the [national] community.”13

But it was not working. After the success of Hamilton’s legislative program, Jefferson and Madison became convinced that the system had been overtaken by proto-despots. Hamilton had used his powers to aid not the permanent and aggregate interests of the national community, but the narrow interests of merchant capitalists. And he had done so with the overwhelming support of Congress. To resist what looked to them like the beginning of national degeneracy, Jefferson and Madison began canvassing New England and New York to seek support from regions other than Virginia. Their opponents claimed with some justification that they were trying to form a political party, but Jefferson and Madison admitted only that they were looking for other like-minded people to resist Hamilton’s dangerous tendencies.14

The divide grew worse when Jefferson and Madison returned from their trip. The problem was not just their political organizing but also a gaffe Jefferson had made prior to leaving. As an ardent Francophile, he had long been excited by the French Revolution, which had been under way for three years. But he had been unable to read the best defense of the revolution, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, published originally in Great Britain. Just before the trip, after a Philadelphia publisher had decided to bring out an American edition, one of Jefferson’s friends managed to get hold of the printer’s copy. He gave it to Jefferson to look over with the simple request that Jefferson forward it to the publisher when he was finished. But rather than just sending the book along, Jefferson added a note—“to take off a little of the dryness,” he later explained—that the publisher reprinted without permission at the front of the book. “I am extremely pleased to find . . . that something is at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which have sprung up among us,” the note read. With Jefferson’s name and comment at the front of the American edition, he appeared to be sponsoring the book’s publication. And he seemed to be using The Rights of Man to air disagreements that he had with members of the Washington administration, especially Vice President John Adams, whose pamphlet criticizing the French Revolution, Discourses on Davila, had just been published.15

The response was fierce, as news of the fracture between the members of the administration leaked. Newspapers began alternately defending and attacking Jefferson, so much so that in early May he felt the need to justify himself to President Washington. He had, after all, betrayed proper decorum and the public commitment to consensual politics.

Jefferson wrote to Washington explaining his letter to the printer and assuring Washington that he did not consent to the publication of what was supposed to be a private comment. But he also admitted that he did in fact have John Adams in mind when he spoke of “political heresies.” They had been friends of old, Jefferson said, and he expected that they still were. “Even since his apostasy to hereditary monarchy & nobility,” Jefferson wrote of Adams, “tho’ we differ, we differ as friends should do.”16

Washington responded with an icy silence.

Jefferson’s explanation was actually quite remarkable. He only offered regret that his pronouncement had been published, not for its sentiment that Adams had betrayed the republicanism of the American Revolution and had become a supporter of monarchy. Jefferson, it was now clear, had become obsessed with his opponents in government. He believed with a kind of fervent zeal that the true principles of government were fixed and known to all (though especially to him). In his own mind, he stood as a redoubt against dangerous error, a lonely crusader in a government that seemed, as he lamented in a letter around the same time, to “have apostatised from the true faith.”17

With Jefferson’s movement into partisanship, the Washington administration began to come apart. The final provocation came in December 1791, when Hamilton released his next major financial report, the Report on the Subject of Manufactures, which completed his vision for remaking the American economy. In his final proposal, Hamilton sought to use federal aid to promote manufacturing in the United States. He advocated, in particular, protective tariffs, that is, taxes on imported goods that would raise their cost in order to allow domestic industry to mature. Those taxes also would raise money that could be funneled through the national bank and then channeled into American industry. The result, he believed, would be the creation of a diversified, capitalist economy in which industry, commerce, and agriculture were mutually reinforcing in a feedback loop that would unlock the nation’s tremendous resources and catapult it into international supremacy.18

But Jefferson again saw tyranny in Hamilton’s plan. It would only further the government’s favor for merchants while hurting the agriculturalists’ liberty. Fortunately, he had already mobilized forces for his attack. During the summer of 1791, while he was dealing with the fallout from his heresy note—and while he remained a member of the administration—Jefferson had recruited the New York editor Philip Freneau to Philadelphia to start what would become an opposition newspaper against Washington’s administration. The negative press coverage of his heresy note had convinced Jefferson that he needed a friendly organ that he could control.

Shortly after Hamilton’s third report was made public, articles began appearing in Freneau’s paper and elsewhere attacking Hamilton’s policies. They asserted that his plan was aristocratic, because it sought to aid the mercantile class over others, and that it was a departure from republicanism. It was the beginning of a systematic newspaper campaign that began in earnest in mid-March and continued for eighteen weeks. Although Jefferson never wrote himself, he solicited contributions from Madison and supported the paper in numerous ways, including paying Freneau as a government translator for the Department of State.19

Jefferson’s use of Freneau was a remarkable step in light of Jefferson’s professed disdain for partisan politics. He was now managing the publicity arm of an opposition movement while he remained in the administration. And he sought to reach beyond his official portfolio of responsibility to interfere with a cabinet member who seemed to have the president’s unquestioned support. The consensual norms of the period had begun to groan against the strain.

Finally, after maintaining several months of reticence, in August 1792 Hamilton pushed back and sought to expose Jefferson’s partisan maneuvering. Writing under various pen names, he began a series of essays that ran until the end of the year. In one way or another, they all called into question Jefferson’s private integrity and his public service. In the first, written as “An American,” Hamilton complained, correctly, that Jefferson had brought Freneau to Philadelphia to serve as a mouthpiece for an opposition party led by Jefferson himself. Jefferson had also, Hamilton asserted, used public money to secure Freneau’s services, thereby using his place within the administration to systematically and illegitimately obstruct its policies. “Is it possible,” Hamilton wondered, “that Mr. Jefferson, the head of a principal department of the Government can be the Patron of a Paper, the evident object of which is to decry the Government and its measures?” “If he disproves of the Government itself and thinks it deserving of opposition,” Hamilton continued, “could he reconcile to his own personal dignity and the principles of probity to hold an office under it and employ the means of official influence in that opposition?” To make sense of the puzzle, Hamilton made a series of damaging observations: that Jefferson had been something less than a full supporter of the Constitution during ratification; that he had systematically opposed nearly all the major initiatives of the Washington administration even though they had been approved by large majorities in both houses of Congress and by Washington himself; that Jefferson actually believed a national government promoted “pernicious principles and dangerous powers” that must be dismantled as much as possible to preserve liberty; and that ultimately his long-standing opposition to the Constitution made him wish that the government would fail.20

Although Jefferson was stung, as usual he did not need to lift a pen in response. Madison, James Monroe, and other allies swung into action, often at Jefferson’s request. The resulting exchange was a rare spectacle: two principal ministers of the Washington administration unabashedly tearing each other apart in full view of the public. It was an utter failure of consensual politics.

The Founders, it turned out, had deep and numerous disagreements in matters of policy, governance, and constitutional theory and interpretation. Seemingly their strongest point of agreement was that all parties and organized political conflict were evil. And yet they were each outraged by the other and edging toward organized political opposition. That cognitive dissonance, in which they found themselves doing something that they theoretically deplored, produced more acrimony. Each believed the other side responsible for the growing factionalism, which in turn fueled more savage disagreement, and the process repeated itself with great intensity.

Jefferson fumed in private even before Hamilton began his public attack. He was particularly upset at Hamilton’s “daring to call the republican party a faction.” His sense of self-righteous grievance even led him to write to Washington, complaining of Hamilton and his policies. Jefferson cited, in a remarkably bold display of concealed partisanship, the newspaper coverage that he himself had procured as evidence of the public’s concern over Hamilton’s dangerous tendencies. He was still stewing a few months later, when he reiterated some of the charges in person to Washington. But when Washington signaled support for his Treasury secretary, Jefferson let the matter drop, at least to Washington’s face.21

Things looked to be reaching an explosive climax. But, perhaps in recognition of the monster that they had unleashed, both sides drew back. Jefferson accompanied his complaint to Washington with a request. He wanted Washington to stand for reelection in the coming presidential contest. Washington received similar entreaties from Madison, Hamilton, and Edmund Randolph. Although Washington had endured the fracturing of his government and had watched in dismay as his first term ended in public acrimony and bitter partisanship, he remained the only figure not tainted by party who could be trusted by all sides. Urging him to remain in office was a way of holding back the party energies that Jefferson and Hamilton let loose and that threatened, they now feared, to run out of control.22

Though Washington eventually agreed to stand again for election, he wrote letters to Hamilton and Jefferson pleading for unity in the future. But he seemed unable to see just how vast the divide had become. Washington chastised Jefferson for seeking some “infalible [sic] criterion by which the truth of speculative opinions, before they have undergone the test of experience, are to be forejudged.” To Hamilton, Washington urged a discussion of differences “without having the motives which led to them, improperly implicated.” After all, he concluded, they all had “the same general objects in view.”23

But, unfortunately for Washington, it was not at all obvious that they did have the same general objects in view, still less that they could agree on the means of attaining any particular object.

Hamilton responded that he wished only to support the government and indirectly confessed that he had entered into the public fray. He promised comity in the future, provided that Washington put forward a plan to unite the cabinet “upon some principle of steady cooperation.” Two days later Hamilton was back in the National Gazette anonymously defending himself and obliquely reiterating his charges against Jefferson.24

Jefferson, too, professed a perfunctory regret at his role in the conflict before launching into yet another attack on Hamilton’s policies and political philosophy. Implicitly rejecting Washington’s advice, Jefferson complained that his disagreement with Hamilton was “not merely a speculative difference.” Hamilton’s plan “flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.” Jefferson did promise that he had not been publishing (which was technically true, but a lie when his activities are taken in total view) and that he would remain out of the papers if he could. But he reserved the right at some point in the future to defend himself from “the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped it’s [sic] honors on his head.”25

Given such self-righteousness, peace would prove elusive, indeed.


The problem on both sides was not merely a difference in policy. Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s dislike for one another emerged out of a deep contradiction that they both suffered under. They had vast and seemingly unbridgeable differences in political philosophy and in their conceptions of government. But they shared a mutual commitment to consensual politics and a mutual antipathy to parties as a rejection of consensus. Their deep political conflict in the face of their expectations of political consensus gave a vicious cast to their disputes. Each side blamed the other for the breakdown. Each believed the other lacked legitimacy in their disagreement. And each regarded himself as the true standard-bearer of republicanism that was threatened by the opposite side.

Such animosity led to a curious phenomenon: the acceptance of party as a temporary measure to destroy the phenomenon of parties in general and to restore consensus back to American politics. Parties at this point existed more as informal groups of like-minded politicians. There was no party machinery, no political organizing, and nothing like campaigning that we would recognize today. The political system had been designed so that none of this was supposed to be necessary. But in the 1792 elections, large numbers of Federalist politicians—those who followed Hamilton and Washington—­returned to office. Since Jefferson and Madison believed that theirs was the position favored by the electorate, the failure of their favored candidates suggested that Madison and Jefferson needed to take more proactive measures. They needed to mobilize the people into supporting their political positions through what we today would recognize as an organized political party.

In the spring and summer of 1793, they were aided in that goal by the sudden formation of what became known as Democratic-­Republican societies. These were essentially political clubs or activist organizations that sought to mobilize public opinion against Hamilton’s policies. Some societies were rooted in ethnic communities, some grew out of trade and workingmen’s organizations, some were specific to cities such as Philadelphia, and some claimed to speak for an entire state. All claimed a common commitment to democratic-republican politics, and all asserted their prerogative to petition the government to uphold these principles.26

Since the Democratic-Republican societies combined support for limited national government with a suspicion of the Washington administration, it was natural that Jefferson and Madison watched their formation with excitement. But they had certain disagreements with the societies as well. After all, Jefferson had not entirely abandoned his earlier belief that the role of the citizen was primarily to vote—and then keep quiet. Now faced with a popular reaction against elected officials, Jefferson and Madison sought to harness this movement while maintaining their essentially elitist views.27

In April 1793, for example, just as the Democratic-­Republican societies were forming, Madison wrote to Jefferson urging “an early & well digested effort for calling out the real sense of the people.” If left to themselves, he warned, “there is room to apprehend they may in many places be misled.” His letter betrayed an odd sense of the place of the people in this early turn to parties: the people needed to be simultaneously solicited and shaped.28

And even after a boisterous summer of Democratic-­Republican society protest and a visit with James Monroe in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the two began making earnest plans for party organizing, Madison felt the same. “The Country is too much uninformed, and too inert to speak for itself,” he wrote to Jefferson. Madison and Jefferson needed to mobilize the citizenry and then speak for them.29

Meanwhile, a crisis that had been forming for several years was about to come to a head. In 1791, after Congress passed a tax on spirits to fund Hamilton’s program, large sections of Appalachia and especially several counties in western Pennsylvania had objected, complaining that the plan unfairly burdened them to the benefit of others. By the middle of the next year, four counties in western Pennsylvania had created an organization to obstruct collection of the tax. They hoped to eventually have the tax repealed.

President Washington was initially delicate in his response. In mid-September he issued a pronouncement. “Certain violent and unwarrantable proceedings” threatened the good order, he announced. They were “of a nature dangerous to the very being of a government” because everyone must abide by the rule of law for government to stand. Though he vaguely warned of coercive measures if they did not desist, he did not actually do much. He instead contented himself with a warning: “Now, therefore, I, George Washington, President of the United States, do by these presents most earnestly admonish and exhort all persons whom it may concern to refrain and desist from all unlawful combinations and proceedings.”30

That hardly had the desired effect. The impasse had lasted through the formation of the Democratic-Republican societies in 1793 and into early spring 1794, as Jefferson and Madison began party organizing in earnest. Finally, in summer 1794, a federal marshal showed up with orders for tax-avoiding distillers to appear in federal court. In response, an armed mob burned an excise inspector’s home, beat back federal troops, and began preparations to seize a federal garrison that could arm the region (they eventually abandoned this plan).31

The Whiskey Rebellion, as historians now call this uprising, further inflamed the growing partisan animosity. During the whole period, Washington still peppered his statements with admonitions toward “the careful cultivation of harmony” and “unprejudiced coolness” in government. He and his advisers distrusted the Democratic-Republican societies as expressions of factional politics bent on undermining consensual government. But the Whiskey Rebellion added to the administration’s alarm by suggesting the revolutionary tendency of the Democratic-Republican movement. “I consider this insurrection as the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies,” Washington wrote to an ally. He believed that factious men had created the societies “primarily to sow the seeds of jealousy and distrust among the people, of the government, by destroying all confidence in the Administration of it.”32

So the first order of business was to crush the rebellion. In August he called up an army of thirteen thousand men from state militias and volunteers—a force roughly the size of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Once it was assembled, he and Hamilton went with the army to western Pennsylvania, where the rebels simply melted away. In the end, the authorities rounded up a few ringleaders but the point was mostly symbolic, a weak end to what many feared could have become a powerful challenge to the federal government.33

But that did not mean that the Whiskey Rebellion was unimportant. The efflorescence of popular agitation actually brought the parties into clear relief. It showed that they disagreed about more than simply economic policy: they disagreed about the nature of governance and the prerogative of the people. Washington returned to the insurrection during his annual message to Congress in November when he explained what he saw as the larger issue. His objection was not to the mob in western Pennsylvania, he said, but to “certain self-created societies”—the Democratic-­Republican societies—who had called themselves into existence in order to oppose a duly elected republican government. Washington believed that the societies violated “the true principles of republican government and liberty,” which depended fundamentally on representation, not populist agitation. That was the design of the Constitution, and, he seemed to suggest, the Democratic-­Republican societies were in constitutional violation.34

Madison was stunned at what seemed a clearly partisan message from Washington, but he continued to see Washington as above parties and instead blamed Hamilton for the partisan rebuke. “The game was,” Madison explained to James Monroe, “to connect the democratic Societies with the odium of insurrection—to connect the Republicans in Congs. with those Societies—to put the P[resident] ostensibly at the head of the other party, in opposition to both.” He lamented what he saw as Washington’s naïveté. By listening to Hamilton, Washington had committed “the greatest error of his political life.”35

Others were less kind as the partisan dynamic solidified. “The denunciation of the democratic societies,” Jefferson wrote to Madison, “is one of the extraordinary acts of boldness of which we have seen so many from the faction of Monocrats.” The opposing side, which seemed to include Washington, had fallen from republican values and abandoned the true faith. Resistance was now the only option.36

For his part, Washington felt that he had been pushed into a critical position by the party activities of others, Jefferson especially. And given Jefferson’s threat to a consensual political order, Washington did everything he could to sideline him. In March 1796, he decided to retire and informed his appointed successor, John Adams, of his plans. But he did not publicly announce his decision until September, which helped ensure Adams’s election. Because Jefferson, who had resigned from the cabinet at the beginning of 1794, would wait for a signal from Washington before marshaling his own forces for the election, Washington’s delay hampered the effectiveness of Jefferson’s campaign.37

Washington also labored to set the terms of debate. During the summer of 1796, he began working with Hamilton, who had left the administration a year earlier, to draft Washington’s announcement of retirement. The Farewell Address primarily urged the avoidance of two dangers: foreign entanglements and political parties. Again Washington reiterated a consensual notion of American government. “The unity of government,” he suggested, is that “which constitutes you one people.” Those who worked through a party were “destructive of this fundamental principle.”38

But given the wider political context, the Farewell Address was actually a party act that denied its own partisanship by denying partisanship in general. Its clear message was that a vote for Jefferson was un-American and a denial of proper political principle. In the place of “consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests,” Washington warned, party leaders sought “to organize a faction . . . to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.” Such thinking would tear the nation apart. It risked pitting “the animosity of one part against another” and so tended toward the “riot and insurrection” that had, though he did not say so explicitly, been seen in the Whiskey Rebellion.39

With that parting shot, Washington stepped aside. The thin veneer of comity among the remaining Founders peeled painfully away. Jefferson’s election team swung immediately into action but John Adams won the presidency. Jefferson had to settle for the vice presidency, which was awarded to the runner-up under the original constitutional rules. Now, in a system designed to suppress parties, the president and the vice president had diametrical political orientations. “The Lion & the Lamb are to lie down together,” Hamilton mused to one of his allies. “Sceptics like me quietly look forward to the event,” he continued, “willing to hope but not prepared to believe.”40


Hamilton had reason to be concerned. The nation was about to enter one of its most dangerous periods. In the first eight years after the ratification of the Constitution, a familiar pattern had emerged. The beginning of the first party system featured a dominant party and the opposition. Each side saw the other as misguided. Each used means, both fair and foul, to advance their cause. Each party believed that they alone represented true republicanism and the other represented an aberration or a betrayal. Neither believed that their differences were merely a normal aspect of modern politics but something to be overcome through the utter destruction of the other side. Washington had stood as a figure of national unity within this conflict, even when he engaged in his own partisanship. But with his retirement to Virginia, the views that each side had of the other found no check. Both had to confront what they were willing to do if the other side won.

At least initially, everyone hoped to avoid faction in the coming change of office, even if they believed that the other would obstruct a functioning and nonpartisan government. Upon learning that he was to be vice president, Jefferson wrote a letter to Adams that offered both an overture and a warning. While in government Hamilton had made Adams and his friends “tools” for Hamilton’s own purposes, Jefferson believed. He warned that Hamilton would likely continue his machinations even though he was not in office. Jefferson wished that he and Adams would work together for the good of the republic.41

He was at least mentally prepared to go even further. In a letter to Madison a couple weeks later, Jefferson considered an alliance with Adams against Hamilton. “If Mr. Adams can be induced to administer the government on it’s [sic] true principles,” Jefferson said, it might be better to unite behind him as “the only sure barrier against Hamilton’s getting in.” What he meant was that if they united with Adams, they might be able to keep Hamilton marginalized from the party machinery and unable to manipulate government.42

Adams responded by channeling Washington and seeking to rise above partisanship. “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties,” he had earlier said. In his inaugural address, Adams continued the theme. He worried about the place of parties in the late election and claimed that the rise of two parties might produce a government chosen by the party “for its own ends” rather than “the national good.” The Constitution, he continued, sought to remove “the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, [and] the spirit of intrigue” from government. It was this constitution that Adams promised to uphold.43

But, predictably, given his disdain of parties in a political world in which parties increasingly organized power, Adams was routed. In keeping with his nonpartisanship, he had decided to keep the cabinet that he had inherited from Washington, which was filled with people more loyal to Hamilton than to the president. And so, within the year, once Adams and Jefferson had sunk into a dysfunctional hostility, Hamilton was calling the shots.

The immediate context for the breakdown was a threat of war. Hostilities had begun to develop with the French as a result of the French Revolution. Jefferson continued his support for the French project, while Hamilton rejected it. Adams sought to maintain neutrality. But shortly into Adams’s term, the United States descended into quasi-war with France—it was essentially a sporadic naval war. Many from Adams’s party worried that France might land military forces in the United States. Prompted by Hamilton, they decided to raise an army of their own to repel the potential French invasion. To pay for it, Congress passed the first ever national tax on dwellings, land, and slaves—an expansion of federal authority that Hamilton championed and that Adams approved against his better judgment. But he still sought a way to marginalize Hamilton after the latter expressed interest in leading the army. Adams decided instead to ask Washington to be the commander, who agreed on one condition: Hamilton would have to be appointed second in command. That meant, given Washington’s age, Hamilton would lead the army into any actual battle. Adams was thwarted again.44

With Adams frustrated at nearly every turn, Hamilton sought to use the war to destroy factions once and for all. He meant, in other words, to destroy Jefferson and his party. Hamilton had long seen Jefferson as dangerous, even as an anarchist, and he associated Jefferson with the Jacobins of the French Revolution. The quasi-war with France made Jefferson’s proclivities more than just misguided, according to Hamilton. They tended toward treason.45

Now was the moment for Hamilton to press for victory. “You will have observed with pleasure a spirit of patriotism kindling every where,” he wrote to a frequent correspondent, Rufus King. “The leaders of Faction,” by which he meant Jefferson, would soon be destroyed. “And you will not be sorry to know . . . that there will shortly be national unanimity,” he emphatically concluded.46

Such attitudes led almost directly to the Alien and Sedition Acts of June and July 1798. The former modified several citizenship laws and allowed the president to deport any alien who he believed presented a danger to the United States. The Sedition Act made it illegal to engage in organized resistance to federal law or to defame the president or Congress. The law was written so broadly that it suggested merely criticizing the president or Congress was a criminal act.47

In response, Jefferson and Madison began secretly drafting what would become the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, arguing that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the Constitution when it was read in strict constructionist terms. It was clear, they suggested, that the Constitution was a compact among the states that gave limited powers to the federal government. The Alien and Sedition Acts had overstepped those limits, the resolutions complained, and as such they were unacceptable. Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions even assumed that the states could somehow dissolve federal law—the exact mechanism for this was vague—and both the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures called upon other states to join in similar protests. Although none did, the resolutions suggested just how deep the divide had become. Partisans could not even agree on the nature of the union.48

That division nearly led to constitutional crisis. Even before the Alien and Sedition Acts had passed, Jefferson was actively calming his most die-hard partisans, who were entertaining the idea of secession. In June 1798, Jefferson wrote to John Taylor of Caroline County, a member of the Virginia legislature who had been pushing secession, to warn against such talk. “Our present situation is not a natural one,” Jefferson assured him. Though the great body of the people was republican, a perfect storm had delivered the government over to Hamilton’s party, the Federalists. “It was the irresistible influence & popularity of Genl. Washington played off by the cunning of Hamilton,” he continued, “which turned the government over to antirepublican hands, or turned the republican members chosen by the people into anti-­republicans.” Secession was not the answer, Jefferson counseled, because the schism would not stop. The states that seceded would turn on one another, as Hamilton had long ago predicted, or fragment. “A little patience,” he concluded, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people[,] recovering their true sight, restore their government to it’s [sic] true principles.”49

But dire assessments of the situation continued in spite of Jefferson’s assurances. After the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions passed, Hamilton received a seemingly credible report that the legislature of Virginia had set aside money to purchase arms in order to resist the federal government. No such appropriation had been made, but it was widely believed by both parties at the time. Hamilton’s correspondent explained the plan as follows: Stock up on arms. Find people “panting to become Martyrs in the holy cause.” Let them violate the Alien and Sedition Acts in a way that would force prosecution. Resist with armed force after the federal government tried to enforce the acts. “And thus, the signal of Civil War will be given,” he concluded.50

In the face of such reports, Hamilton thought about forcing a showdown with an army of his own. Writing to an ally in Congress, Theodore Sedgwick, Hamilton asked, “What, My Dear Sir, are you going to do with Virginia?” Hamilton, of course, had some ideas. He recommended that the matter be referred to a special legislative committee, a way of pretending action while actually doing nothing. “In the meantime,” Hamilton continued, “the measures for raising the [national] Military force should proceed with activity. . . . When a clever force has been collected let them be drawn towards Virginia for which there is an obvious pretext—& then let measures be taken to act upon the laws & put Virginia to the Test of resistance.”51

Things looked, again, to be approaching an explosive climax. But, in perhaps the signal achievement of the early national period, everyone took a big breath. Rather than following the French Revolution into violence, they redirected that potential for armed conflict into the political arena. Federalists became uncomfortable in the face of the upcoming presidential election, which Jeffersonians, now calling themselves Republicans, were quietly confident of winning. Adams disassociated completely from his own party by promoting peace with France. That undercut the major rationale for the army, the taxes, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Without the rationale of impending war, Federalists realized, they were vulnerable to the Republican charge that they were despots and betrayers of republican principles.

Hamilton was particularly uncertain how to respond. “The leading friends of the Government are in a sad Dilemma,” he wrote to Rufus King. Adams had proven unstable, George Washington had recently died (“He was an Aegis very essential to me,” Hamilton lamented at the time), and now an election loomed. Federalists in Congress became so concerned that they voted to demobilize the army by June 15, 1800, just before the election but too late to change anything. That left Hamilton complaining of Adams’s “Perverseness and capriciousness.”52

Once the election arrived, Federalist disarray combined with a popular backlash against taxes, a standing army, and the Alien and Sedition Acts to swing the election to the Republicans. They swept into a majority of both houses of Congress, with Jefferson squeaking into the presidency.

Hamilton’s plan had failed miserably. Rather than achieving unanimity by destroying the opposing party, he had in fact badly divided the nation and destroyed his own party instead. The Federalists were soon to enter permanent decline, and Jefferson began to codify what he claimed were the true founding principles. The result would make it possible, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, to invoke the Founders as a unit defined by Republican consensus.


Jefferson’s election in 1800 marked the culmination of an interpretive stance toward the founding moment that has become so problematic today. His goal was the complete eradication of Federalism and the establishment of a new Republican political orthodoxy. But he submerged this goal under the guise of consensual respect that showed a lingering desire for unanimity. In his first inaugural, an address singularly pitched to ward off animosities and diffuse conflict, he called on everyone to “unite with one heart and one mind.” Jefferson observed the “contest of opinion” that had happily been decided in his favor, but he abjured any celebration or sense of triumph. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson proclaimed. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”53

It was possible to read Jefferson’s statement as a gracious response in victory. By disclaiming partisan triumph, Jefferson could suggest that all true patriots of the founding generation were conjoined in their vision of the United States. To that end, Jefferson used his first inaugural to elaborate what he saw as “the creed of our political faith.” It included a promise of equal rights to all individuals, support for state governments in their prerogatives, and vigorous promotion of a national government of limited authority. His statement of principles, though distinctly Republican, was not particularly narrow and might have suggested a more politically ecumenical attitude than Jefferson had earlier displayed.54

But his private sentiments of the time reveal a more merciless edge to his political faith. Immediately after his inaugural, Jefferson responded to many letters of congratulation from his political allies. He confirmed to them his belief that the Republican triumph had ended a giant con that the Federalists had been running. His fellow citizens had “been led hoodwinked from their principles.” And in letter after letter he turned to Protestant religious imagery to suggest just how dangerous his opponents had been. “The leaders of the late faction” had formed into a “federal sect” that had, for a time, engaged in a reign “of bigotry.” “The barbarians really flattered themselves that they should even be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power & priestcraft,” Jefferson marveled. His goal was “to obliterate” Federalism in order to attain “a perfect consolidation.” “I shall . . . sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection,” he explained to one correspondent. This “reformation,” with Jefferson as its Martin Luther, would install a renewed political faith that would guarantee the nation in the future.55

Yet Jefferson, once in office, acted with pragmatism. He decided to leave in place the lower-level government officials that he inherited from previous administrations. By replacing only cabinet-­level ministers, he hoped to peel off moderate Federalists who could then be absorbed by the Republicans. Federalist leaders, whom Jefferson considered reprobates, would then be left without followers. As he explained to James Monroe, “[The Federalists] are now aggregated with us, they look with a certain degree of affection & confidence to the administration, ready to become attached to it if it avoids, in the outset, acts which might revolt & throw them off.”56

That did not mean that he intended to support Federalist policies in general. In his first message to Congress, he urged ending domestic federal taxes, shrinking expenditures, demobilizing the military, and paying off the federal debt. Contrary to the Federalist vision of a strong central government that fostered private economic enterprise, Jefferson initially urged a more laissez-faire approach. “Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are . . . most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise,” Jefferson explained.57

But some were concerned that he did not go far enough. Although he laid out clear principles, he seemed too tentative in destroying his opponents. He even decided to leave Hamilton’s bank, which dismayed some of his Republican supporters. To them Jefferson pleaded political realism. “When this government was first established,” he responded to one critic, “it was possible to have set it going on true principles, but the contracted, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton destroyed that hope in the bud.” Jefferson hoped “to introduce sound principles and make them habitual,” but he warned, “what is practicable must often controul what is pure theory.”58

That realism led to a surprising development. Rather than the small-state republicanism that he had advocated throughout the 1790s, Jefferson began to drift toward what could fairly be described as neo-Federalism. But he did so with his abhorrence of Federalists and his own sense of reformational mission fully intact.

He first compromised on his constitutional views. In 1803 Jefferson was presented with the opportunity to buy Louisiana from France, which would double the size of the United States and make way for territorial expansion in keeping with Jefferson’s agrarian vision. Yet Jefferson saw no explicit grant of power in the Constitution for territorial expansion. According to his strict constructionist principles he should have declined the purchase. He instead resolved his dilemma by resorting to exactly the broad constructionist principles of Hamilton that he had earlier rejected: the president and the Senate had been given treaty power, he reasoned, and the purchase of land from France was, after all, a treaty.59

Jefferson’s reelection in 1804 signaled the further collapse of the Federalists as a party, but it paradoxically confirmed his movement toward Hamiltonianism. At the beginning of his second term, Jefferson embraced government-sponsored economic development of the kind that he had earlier rejected. Unfortunately, Hamilton had died in a duel with Jefferson’s vice president in the summer before the election, so he was not around to comment on the obvious similarity between their two plans. The only difference was that Jefferson thought federal taxes ought to be divided among the states to support economic development and, now returning to his strict constructionist principles, that a constitutional amendment was needed to put the plan into effect. But the upshot of Jefferson’s plan would inevitably involve the government in picking winners and losers in American economic life—the aspect of Hamilton’s plan that he had earlier found so objectionable.60

By the end of his presidency, Jefferson even embraced a sweeping notion of national power that rivaled Hamilton’s. It emerged out of his foreign policy. As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed Europe, Jefferson sought to keep the United States on the sidelines and out of harm’s way. What that meant in practice was that Jefferson sought to continue commercial relations with all sides. The British objected to the neutral American position and used their superior navy to harass American ports, to interfere with trade, and to impress, or seize for mandatory naval service, people they considered British subjects but that the United States recognized as American citizens.

In July 1807, Jefferson issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars and included a decree: all British ships had to leave American harbors and could not return. He established, in effect, a reverse blockade. But rather than merely focusing on the British, Jefferson also requested that Congress pass a bill outlawing commerce with all foreign nations, which it promptly did. He then used various measures of compulsion against the many New England merchants who flouted the law, even mobilizing U.S. ships off the Atlantic coast to patrol for smugglers.

Critics claimed that the embargo was unconstitutional and even began to threaten secession. But Jefferson was untroubled by his position. Congress had the power to regulate commerce, Jefferson reasoned, and that power included the cessation of all commerce. A principle of such broad construction and the consequent use of national power would have made Hamilton proud—even though he would have deeply objected to Jefferson’s actual policy on the grounds that it was self-destructive to inhibit commerce with the nation’s dominant trading partner.61

In the end, Jefferson even embraced the system of domestic manufacturing that had grown up because of his policies. The embargo crisis made him see the problem of an agrarian republic, which left the nation dependent on foreign production. But the embargo also had the effect of diverting capital into domestic industry. “The extent of this conversion is daily increasing,” Jefferson happily reported in his eighth annual message, “and little doubt remains that the establishments formed and forming will, under the auspices of cheaper material and subsistence, the freedom of labor from taxation with us, and of protecting duties and prohibitions, become permanent.” Though it was not an organized program and certainly not Hamiltonian in scale, the growth of manufacturing was still the direct result of Jefferson’s exercise of national power that he had earlier deplored.62

Jefferson had embraced or conceded many parts of Hamilton’s economic system. He even lapsed into Hamiltonian constitutionalism when it suited him. Yet in 1807 he was still warning other Republicans of the dangers of falling into Federalist “heresy.” The result was the progressive erasure of the Federalists from the realm of political legitimacy even as Jefferson appropriated their policies and principles.63

That trend continued when Madison was elected president in 1808. Jefferson left quite a few problems for Madison to clean up. The exigencies of governance had pushed him into adopting large portions of Hamilton’s economic system without understanding or accepting that it could only work if relations with Great Britain remained positive. He had pushed the United States toward war with Great Britain and estranged New England with his embargo, neither of which worked with Jefferson’s other policies. As a result, all of Madison’s first term and most of his second were consumed with the increasing hostilities with Great Britain and the subsequent War of 1812.

The result was, yet again, a puzzle. The experience of war strengthened the emerging neo-Federalism in Republican ranks, though the Federalist Party itself utterly collapsed. Federalists remained in disrepute while their theories ascended. And in 1815, during his seventh annual message, Madison simply embraced Hamilton’s economic system in its entirety. He urged a new national bank, tariffs to protect American manufacturing, and a system of national improvements undertaken by the federal government (not the states). Constitutionally speaking, there was little to nothing separating Madison’s proposal from Hamilton’s—except an interval of twenty-five years.64

By the time James Monroe came into office in 1817, the trend was complete. Federalism had triumphed in policy making while the Federalist Party had been utterly delegitimized and had long since faded from the national stage. Monroe continued to urge a Hamiltonian system of national economic development, which would “require the systematic and fostering care of the Government,” even as he rejoiced that the political system had been at last restored to first principles. “The increased harmony of opinion” that now characterized the Union, according to Monroe, represented the security of Republican triumph and the restoration of the Founders’ intentions.65

Jefferson himself could not have been more pleased. Monroe’s election convinced him that the nation had finally arrived at “the complete suppression of party.” The pretenders to American principle, who were “essentially bigoted in politics as well as religion,” had been routed. Now Monroe’s administration would “consecrate” republican principles so that they would be protected from change. At the end of the first party system and the beginning of a brief period of one-party rule, the new republican orthodoxy reigned supreme.66

But it was an orthodoxy filled with contradictions. Jefferson railed against Hamiltonianism in the 1790s, worked relentlessly to suppress Federalism from 1800 onward, and finally created a neo-Hamiltonian system through his successors.

In the end his orthodoxy consisted more of sloganeering and rhetorical posture than political platform. But that rhetorical posture turned out to be his most lasting contribution. In this nascent period of American politics, the Constitution was still indeterminate. The Founders had agreed on the wording but did not necessarily agree on what it meant or even its purpose. Hamilton had believed that it created an invigorated national government that enabled the promotion of a variety of public goods. Jefferson believed that it was a charter of liberty that sought to limit national power. Both had their followers. And both sides blamed the other for the breakdown in consensus.

If Hamilton had won, things would have turned out differently (though there would, no doubt, have been other problems). Given Hamilton’s view that the Constitution was a grant of power to a strengthened national government, any disagreement over policy in a Hamilton administration would have remained simply a policy disagreement, not a larger disagreement over first principles. But Jefferson’s victory redirected American politics into different channels by asserting a particular relationship to the Constitution and to the founding moment. His relentless search for political heresy and his promotion of his own political creed suggested that there was a meaning to the Constitution that all true Founders supported. The result of his constitutional stance turned differences over policy into life-and-death fights over first principles and made the early national period into one of the most partisan eras of American political history.

The Constitution had been saved, Jefferson proclaimed, by the destruction of the Federalists. His victory excommunicated all who disagreed with him and made possible the facile and somewhat perverse invocation of the Founders as a united authority who agreed on the Constitution. That triumph also obscured the deep disagreement that existed nearly from the moment that the Constitution was ratified and that continued to be present in the differences between Jefferson’s initial principles and the ones he used in office.

Jefferson was actually a supreme political innovator. He was a central figure in the emergence of popular politics and political democracy. He rejected, at least partially, the condescending elitism of the founding era and the reflexive distrust of partisanship, political organization, and systematic opposition. But he promoted all of this innovation while claiming a mantle of restoration and dedication to the true principles of the past.

Many politicians have done this, but Jefferson set the pattern.

In the end, Jefferson’s triumph consolidated the founding moment and handed to his successors an interpretive stance toward the founding era that would become the norm. He rhetorically turned the founding era into one of political purity that he himself had channeled. Henceforth, if Jefferson had his way, American politics would be fought by seeking a connection to Jefferson and, through him, to the Founders. Any innovation would, of necessity, require politicians to show that their policies were in line with the principles of the past. And it would go without saying that a departure from Jeffersonianism—now equated with the principles of the Founders—represented the beginning of national degeneracy.

About The Author

David Sehat is Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University. His first book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. Visit

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 31, 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476779782

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

"[A] crisply written and incisive account of the uses and abuses of the Founders."

– The Wall Street Journal

"Sehat writes masterfully of American political history."

– The Daily Beast

“A careful, and fascinating, historical analysis of one aspect of American exceptionalism . . . well worth reading.”

– Sanford Levinson, History Book Club

"Sehat convincingly argues that the founders were fallible and not succinct in the ways they wanted the nation to be governed. . . . Highly recommended for political junkies, historians, and rhetoricians."

– Library Journal (starred review)

“The author makes a strong case that forefather worship has had a pernicious effect on our politics throughout American history. . . . [the book]could not be timelier. . . . Sehat takes the reader through an engaging and insightful survey course in American history, pointing out where he believes ‘founding fanaticism’ crops up as the last refuge of politicians who can’t make a more rational or contemporary case for their beliefs.”

– Christian Science Monitor

"Sehat ably shows how the exploitation of the founders debases political debate and neglects policy evaluation—required reading for those desperate for sane, intelligent political arguments."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A sobering, informative study of concepts from America’s political origins too often viewed with rose-tinted glasses.”

– Publishers Weekly

"Please, dear politicians, read David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule and stop pretending that everything you say, believe and propose is exactly what the Founders of our nation would say, believe and propose. The Founders themselves would be amazed and appalled by this. Sehat has written a splendid book—important, well-argued, and offered at the right moment. ‘Politicians create the Founders in their own image’, Sehat writes. They do, and they should stop."

– E. J. Dionne Jr., author of "Our Divided Political Heart" and "Why Americans Hate Politics"

"In this beautifully written and provocative book, David Sehat gives the rhetoric about the Founders a history, spanning from Jefferson to Calhoun to FDR to Reagan to the Tea Party. Sehat convincingly argues that the world of the Founders has long been dead, and that Founders rhetoric dumbs down our political discourse."

– Andrew Hartman, author of "A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars"

"The Founders’ framework is distorted and devalued, David Sehat shows, when we mistakenly treat Jefferson and his cohort as mirrors for whatever political outlooks we advance today. This book clarifies the difference between the use and the abuse of history."

– David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley; Past President, Organization of American Historians

"David Sehat has found a fresh, meaningful way to write a concise history of American politics. The Jefferson Rule instructs, enlightens, and entertains."

– Evan Thomas, author of "Ike’s Bluff" and "The War Lovers"

"A highly amusing and anecdotal narrative about the legacy—both real and invented—of our divided and factious Founding Fathers. David Sehat goes from the tea party to the Tea Party, and offers a coherent recounting of a largely incoherent yet bold and boisterous history. In limpid prose, he examines the ways in which, in every era of US history, the lofty ideals that the Founding Fathers promoted, and the tortuous conflicts they addressed, have been twisted and manipulated by politicians—from both sides of the political divide—for their own purposes. A fun yet profound ride from the colony to today."

– Amy Wilentz, author of "Farewell, Fred Voodoo"

The Jefferson Rule is a fun, challenging, and thoughtful book . . . a page-turner . . . Sehat provides readers an easy to understand, pleasure-to-read discussion of how misinterpreting the intentions, words, ideas and beliefs of the ‘founding fathers’ has created countless problems for the United States as it progressed over the past 239 years.”

– New York Journal of Books

“In recent times, the Tea Party and other groups have continued to invoke the Founders in debates over gun control, income inequality, religious liberty, and a myriad of other topics. David Sehat has shown why such attempts to channel the Founders are dangerous….This book is a needed corrective that should be read widely and taken to heart.”

– Journal of Southern History

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images