Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington's first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.
My opinion of Jefferson has changed dramatically since I started this reading project.
I have read a lot of Jefferson's work, and read a lot about him. But one of the big questions about his character goes something like this: "How is it that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence had slaves?" I've often encountered that question, but the Alexander Hamilton biography made me go much deeper than that.
In order to create the US, the evil of slavery had to be overlooked. It was swept under the rug and as far as politics went, it could not be discussed.
So when Hamilton became his economic programs (interest, lending, a deficit, and a centralized bank to name a few policies he advanced) and Jefferson tarred Hamilton as the champion of an evil system, Hamilton couldn't turn around and say, "You, the slave-owning plantation owner, is calling my system evil? Look in the mirror."
The comparison couldn't be made, because no one could call out Jefferson for the hypocrisy of that kind of statement without essentially risking the union.
I learned in the Adam biography what a spendthrift Jefferson was. He lived way over his means.
Not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things–we all have our faults. Except that he was a slave-owning plantation owner. What ended up happening is that even though Jefferson professed that he wanted to sell or free his slaves, he couldn't afford to, because he was trapped in a debt cycle caused by his extravagant living.
While Washington had a sound business mind, and was able to release his slaves in his will, Jefferson could never do such a thing because of his own horrible spending habits. What seems like a character foible takes on a much greater dimension to his character when you think of the slaves back home whose freedom that spending is prevent.
For all of his faults, Jefferson was a pretty great President. But it is interesting to note that without the constitutional 3/5 compromise that apportioned electoral votes to slaves without actually giving them the vote, Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to John Adams.
Alexander Hamilton author Ron Chernow frames it like this:
I think that pretty much nails the problem on the head.
The stain of slavery is a phrase I've heard before, but these three examples put that into pretty stark light on what it actually means.