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Thomas Jefferson on the Compromise of 1790

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In the fall of 1789, Congress directed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to deliver a report on the new nation’s public finances and to propose a way of paying the debt to establish a solid footing for American credit. Hamilton’s report proposed for the federal government to assume all states’ debts and use federal tariffs (i.e., taxes on imports) and excise taxes to pay the debt gradually. Opposition to the plan was centered in the South, with members of Congress fearing Hamilton’s centralizing policies including taxes. Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia had already paid off most of their debts. They had little interest in now being on the hook for debts other states had failed to pay off. Meanwhile, representatives argued over placement of the permanent capital in different cities, including New York, Philadelphia, or Virginia. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson recounts that he helped engineer a compromise by bringing together Hamilton and Representative James Madison to hammer out a compromise over dinner. The result was that Hamilton’s financial plan passed Congress and a permanent capital was established at Washington, DC, in 1800 after a temporary residence in Philadelphia. Jefferson’s account of “The Compromise of 1790” is found in the introduction to the “Anas” from February 4, 1818. The “Anas” was a compilation of Jefferson’s writings. The origins of this publication are still unclear.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Summarize the context for the Compromise of 1790.
  2. Why is it significant to note that this account of the Compromise of 1790 was written by Jefferson? Why is it significant to note it was written in 1818?

Vocabulary Text
exhortatory (adj): giving strong encouragement

concord (n): harmony or peace among groups

rescind (v): to revoke or take back

concomitant (adj): in this case, a synonym for accompanying or related

anodyne (n): a painkilling drug
I proposed to him (Hamilton) however to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two, bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union. The discussion took place. I could take no part in it, but an exhortatory one, because I was a stranger to the circumstances which should govern it. But it was finally agreed that, whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of this proposition, the preservation of the union, & of concord among the states was more important, and that therefore it would be better that the vote of rejection should be rescinded, to effect which some members should change their votes. But it was observed that this pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States, and that some concomitant measure should be adopted to sweeten it a little to them. There had before been propositions to fix the seat of government either at Philadelphia, or at Georgetown on the Potomac; and it was thought that by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years, and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might, as an anodyne, calm in some degree the ferment which might be excited by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members (White & Lee, but White with a revulsion of stomach almost convulsive) agreed to change their votes, & Hamilton undertook to carry the other point.

Comprehension Questions

  1. According to Jefferson, who initiated the invitation for this dinner and what was its purpose? How might this reflect bias?
  2. What two goals were most important in creating this compromise?
  3. What suggestion would “sweeten” the adoption of Hamilton’s plan for the southern states?
  4. What was decided by the end of the dinner?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Some historians doubt Jefferson’s dinner occurred and that other conversations were already taking place in Congress that were significant in the Compromise of 1790. Do you think Jefferson’s account of the Compromise of 1790 was biased? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain how the southern states’ resistance to Hamilton’s financial plan indicates differing beliefs about the federal government’s role in economic life.
  3. Explain how the debate over Hamilton’s financial programs contributed to the growth of political parties in the new nation.

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