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Thomas Jefferson engraving after painting by Rembrandt Peale.

“Hamilton had argued for a national financial system in which the central government would fund the national debt, assume responsibility for all state debts, and establish a national bank. Money for the federal government would be raised by tariffs on imports and excise taxes on distilled spirits… The assumption proposal, however, instantly divided the nation.

Jefferson knew matters were dire. The Congress seemed paralyzed…

The beginning of wisdom, Jefferson thought, might lie in a meeting of the principals out of the public eye. So he convened a dinner. Jefferson believed things could be worked out, he said, for ‘men of sound heads and honest views needed nothing more than explanation and mutual understanding to enable them to unite in some measures which might enable us to get along.’

No deal meant disaster. It was clear, Jefferson wrote, ‘that if everyone retains inflexibly his present opinion, there will be no bill passed at all for funding the public debts, and… without funding there is an end of the government.’…

The final result, Jefferson believed, was ‘the least bad of all the turns the thing can take.’ It was true that he hated the financial speculation that would result from the Hamiltonian vision of commerce. ‘It is much to be wished that every discouragement should be thrown in the way of men who undertake to trade without capital,’ Jefferson said. ‘The consumers pay for it in the end, and the debts contracted, and bankruptcies occasioned by such commercial adventurers, bring burden and disgrace on our country.’

Yet Jefferson also believed in compromise. He advised his daughter Patsy to approach all people and all things with forbearance. ‘Every human being, my dear, must thus be viewed according to what it is good for, for none of us, no not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections this world would be a desert for our love,’ Jefferson wrote in July 1790. ‘All we can do is to make the best of our friends: love and cherish what is good in them, and keep out of the way of what is bad: but no more think of rejecting them for it than of throwing away a piece of music for a flat passage or two.’ It was sound counsel for life at Monticello—and at New York.

In December 1790, a Virginian wrote Jefferson about the state General Assembly’s official protest over the debt assumption. ‘One party charges the Congress with an unconstitutional act; and both parties charge it with an act of injustice.’

So be it. Jefferson had struck the deal he could strike, and, for the moment, America was the stronger for it.”


From the end of chapter 23 in part VI (“The First Secretary of State: 1789-1792”) of Jon Meacham’s new biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.

Gordon Wood called The Art of Power, “probably the best single-volume biography of Jefferson ever written.” Pick it up if you’re interested in the man, or take a look at additional posts about Thomas Jefferson.

Check out another text from American history which is especially relevant to the recent debt-ceiling/government shut-down machinations in Washington, DC. In this one, Abraham Lincoln considers political compromise on the eve of the Civil War:


A Shallow Pretext for Extorting Compromise