It all began when I was re-reading Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution (trying to escape from obsessively tracking the DC rollercoaster.) As Wood observes, the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians divided over basically the same issue that plagues us now: How much of a role should government play in people's lives? (Though the clash back then was so fierce, and split American society so sharply, that it makes today's politics look rather mild by comparison.
But Wood takes us deeper into the substance of the issue. Jeffersonians were willing to limit government only because they assumed that there was "a principle of benevolence ... a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being." They were founding an American nation upon the European Enlightenment's belief that "there was 'a natural principle of attraction in man towards man' [as Hume put it], and that these natural affinities were by themselves capable of holding the society together."
This was exactly the point that frightened Alexander Hamilton most. He summed up his opponents' view quite accurately: "As human nature shall refine and ameliorate by the operation of a more enlightened plan," based on common moral sense and the spread of affection and benevolence, government eventually "will become useless, and Society will subsist and flourish free from its shackles." Then Hamilton, the greatest conservative of his day, dismissed this vision of shrinking government as "a wild and fatal scheme."
The Republicans who now control the House obviously have a very different view of what it means to be a true conservative. But that doesn't mean they have become Jeffersonians. Not by any means. In many ways they would be closer to Hamilton, who scorned Jefferson's trust in human nature.AlterNet
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