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American Governance’s Fundamental Tension

Jefferson's and Hamilton's conflicting ideas are baked into our civic DNA. We need to embrace both of them.

I make a frequent point when I am teaching executive seminars for local-government officials. It is a bit idealized, but it is useful. This is it: I am the child of two different fathers: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, each representing two poles of the American experiment in self-government, with differing perspectives on the factors and form for effective government and a thriving country. The poles are thus: rural vs. urban; decentralized vs. centralized; legislative vs. executive; trust in the masses vs. the judgment of elites and experts; democracy or representative government, Athens vs. Rome.

Our heritage, conflicted in nature and polarizing, can tilt us in one direction or another at different moments or in different places. Sometimes our tendency is more Jeffersonian, at other times more Hamiltonian. So baked into our civic DNA is this that today, more than two centuries after our founding, our language and behavior still are shaped and influenced by the alternatives represented by the two men.

Our constitution was forged out of this tension, without a victory for one perspective over the other but as a merger, a compromise. The makeup of the House of Representatives, with proportional representation, and the Senate, with equal representation for each state, is one reflection of such compromise.

But while we like to celebrate the Constitution, these days we seem to use it more to beat our opponents about the head with why our view is right and theirs is wrong. We increasingly seem to insist on total victory, ignoring the fact that the dynamic tension inherent in our government is intended and meant to be held in balance -- honoring both fathers, so to speak. The genius of the Constitution was the compromise, the reconciliation of opposing views and the willingness to move from campaigning, after impassioned advocacy, to governing, for the good of the new nation.

I say that because on this September Saturday afternoon as I write this we are in the midst of election season in America, and the chatter of campaigning is everywhere, whether in presidential debates or lawn signs for nonpartisan city council elections. If we are lucky, effective campaigning yields good governing. Unfortunately, our recent drift has been in the other direction, more regularly at the national level, with the maturity of governing falling victim to the adolescent simplicity of bitter campaigns and, more regrettably, with that focus carrying forward into public office where the actual practice of governing is mandatory and essential.

It's not as if this is all brand new, as if everything was better back in the good old days of our beginning. A mere 15 years after the Constitution was ratified, in 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president to Thomas Jefferson, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury, in a duel on the bank of the Hudson. Is there any more memorable symbol in our history of the folly of one-sidedness of opinion and the consequence of bitter attachment to one's view? And yet, less lethally, we repeat it in our cities and states and at the national level these days. We forget how critical governing is to government and to the health of our nation. We forget that the founders never intended for there to be a resolution between the two poles, with only one perspective triumphant.

Our duty then, as public officials and as citizens, is not to push for ultimate victory for Jefferson or Hamilton but to be more like James Madison, the architect of our Constitution. We are called to embrace both fathers fully and equally. So far, our country has succeeded because we have done just that, holding the polarity at our root in balance as we advocate, vote and then govern. That polarity of perspective extends to race, income, geography, gender and birthplace. And as we mix it all together, the founding fathers and our contemporary condition, it is only through governing that we can expect to actualize our motto, E pluribus unum: From the many, one.

City manager of Palo Alto, Calif.
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