Opportunists and Patriots

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the concepts of loyalty and legitimacy emerged fitfully and confusingly. Under the monarchy, these concepts had been straightforward: All subjects were united by their loyalty to the sovereign, whose will was their command. But in founding a republic on principles at once lofty and vague, the Founders created a problem that vexes us still. If a nation is defined by its commitment to shared ideals, who draws the line between a difference of opinion and a difference of principle? Where does loyal opposition end and treason begin? What distinguishes the transgressions of a demagogue from the enraged voice of the people?

Today we rely on nearly 250 years of shared history and tradition to navigate the vague boundaries suggested by these unanswerable questions—and yet we can hardly keep from leaping at one another’s throats. The Founders built an arena of partisan politics without grasping the full fury of the beast they had unleashed within it.

Founding Partisans” by H.W. Brands and “A Republic of Scoundrels,” a collection of essays edited by David Head and Timothy Hemmis, are as different as two books on the founding can be. But each captures the moral confusion of the era, when the rules of democratic politics were still unwritten and everything seemed up for grabs.

Mr. Brands, a prolific historian and a professor at the University of Texas, provides a brisk account of the controversies that first divided the heroes of the Revolution. He begins with the Federalists’ effort to replace the Articles of Confederation with a stronger national government and concludes with the Jeffersonian Republicans’ repudiation of the Federalists in the election of 1800, the first transfer of power in U.S. history.

Though the Federalists organized themselves into a national political party, they didn’t understand themselves as one. Political parties, or “factions,” to use the Founders’ term, were understood as regrettable evils. They existed to serve narrow or sinister interests. An organized political party was thus, by definition, “opposed to the general welfare,” Mr. Brands writes.

The Founders hoped that the Constitution would suppress the influence of factions, but they assumed that virtuous leaders (namely, themselves) would naturally agree with one another. The discovery that so many leading figures disagreed on important matters came as a shock. Each side in this deepening divide began to see their opponents as a menace to the republic.

The failure to anticipate the pull of partisanship was nowhere more evident than in the Constitution’s provisions for electing the president: Each appointed elector, chosen by the states in a manner determined by their legislatures, would vote for two people, at least one of whom could not inhabit the elector’s own state. The thinking was that electors would name a local favorite on the first ballot and, on the second, the worthiest citizen throughout the land. The runner-up would be vice president.

This process, reflecting a hope that Americans would ultimately choose a leader independent of faction, was incompatible with an election in which a candidate would be supported by a party against his rivals. Sure enough, in 1800 the Democratic-Republicans voted in lockstep for Thomas Jefferson as their president and Aaron Burr as vice president. But no one thought to ensure that Burr received at least one less electoral vote. The result was a tie, allowing the defeated Federalists in the House to decide who would be president. Burr slyly advertised that he was willing to make a deal with his adversaries.

The crisis passed, thanks to Alexander Hamilton’s intervention. In this sense, the outcome seemed to vindicate the Founders’ hope that virtuous leaders would combine against conniving partisans. But it was a close-run thing.

Mr. Brands follows countless other historians in providing a blow-by-blow account of the nation’s first experience with partisan combat, though not a single historian is cited in the text or notes. He relies instead on the Founders’ own words to capture the controversies in which they participated. This choice gives his narrative an immediacy that heavy-handed analysis often diminishes. Indeed, “Founding Partisans” reads less like a work of history than a journalist’s insider account of high politics, except here the intemperate, backbiting quotations come from sources who are safely dead rather than anonymous.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


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