Thursday, August 30, 2012

Republicans and Federalists At 'War': The Ongoing Process of American Politics

I have been doing a lot of reading in the American founding, from the 1770s through around 1800.  This was simply an amazing time in our history, when we threw off the yoke of British colonialism,  declared our Independence at the Continental Congress in 1776, and waged an 8 year-long war, at the cost of 25,000 American dead.  A few years later, we constructed a new nation called the United States by the adoption of our Constitution, and then we elected George Washington as the first President, the unanimous choice of all electors in the Electoral College, in 1989.
Presenting the Declaration of Independence, 1776

Yet seven years later, upon the retirement of George Washington, two new political parties were contesting for the Presidency in a way that sounds very modern.  The Federalists, representing the social and financial elite of the country, were campaigning for John Adams; the Republicans (also called Democrats), representing the middle and lower classes of people (primarily) were campaigning for Thomas Jefferson.

Historian Susan Dunn, in a fabulous book Jefferson's Second Revolution, describes the ferocity of the political battle being waged in 1796 (see if this sounds at all familiar) between political surrogates for Founders and friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
The Federalist press blasted Jefferson for possessing a feeble commitment to public service.  They accused him of twice abandoning his trust, first when he resigned as governor of Virginia during the British invasion and then when he resigned as secretary of state in 1793.  But mostly Federalists denounced him as an atheist, a utopian dreamer...a radical French Jacobin, a lover of revolution intent on subverting American government....

Republicans accused Adams of being an "avowed friend of monarchy."  His sons were waiting in the wings to succeed him, they noted, while Jefferson only had daughters....One candidate was mesmerized by England, the other was the tool of France.  The Republican Committee of Pennsylvania declared that voters had a choice between a man who was "the uniform advocate of equal rights among citizens" and another who was "the champion of rank, titles and hereditary distinctions."

It was not all political ideology.  There were some clear sectional differences too, between the parties.  The "moral and political habits of the citizens of the southern states," one writer announced in the Connecticut Courant, seemed to make an enduring union unlikely.  Perhaps the nation should split along geographical lines, some people in New England felt.  For his part, Jefferson did not go that far, though he saw himself as committed to protecting the "Southern interest."  Despite their different sectional biases, both parties claimed that only they expressed the public good and could represent all Americans who were committed to constitutional government.

Adams and Jefferson, dignified, aloof, kept above the fray.  Although Washington had created a powerful executive branch of government--surely more powerful than the Framers had envisaged--and made the presidency the one big political prize in the United States, and although bitter disputes over foreign policy were polarizing Americans and politicizing their society, Adams and Jefferson were non-participants in the race, neither active candidates nor party leaders nor party builders.  They made no speeches, they shook no hands.  Jefferson remained hidden away the entire time in Monticello....It was local party leaders who organized rallies and distributed pamphlets.  Republicans were more active than Federalists, cultivating grass-roots support, aiming their message at ordinary citizens.  Adams compained that the people were being "abused and deceived" and that "little care or pain" was taken by Federalists to "undeceive and disabuse them."
John Adams and the Federalists won this contest in 1796 by only three electoral votes, and he became the second U.S. President.  However, four years later, in 1800, the results were reversed, and Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans were victorious. 

The moral of this story?  In the midst of a Presidential campaign, from (nearly) the very beginning, things have been said and done on both sides that disturb and anger, exaggerate, misrepresent, and demonize the other side, and even former friends (eg Adams and Jefferson)  sometimes become political enemies.  But once the election is over, everyone calms down and life goes on, and the Republic survives to live another day....

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