Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics
“For anyone who thinks that gridlock and partisan machinations are a recent development, this book will quickly lay those misconceptions to rest.”
One of the most overused and historically incorrect phrases used today is “unprecedented partisanship” when discussing American politics. While American politics may seem to be seriously divided, this is not a new phenomenon. As the author shows in this highly compelling and page turning new history, political partisanship and differences over the role and scope of government have been a part of America since its founding.
The different viewpoints on the role, size, and relationship of governments, both state and federal were a significant part of the Constitutional Convention before there was even a real working American government. Conceived as merely an opportunity to update the Articles of Confederation, the convention quickly undertook a much more ambitious goal: to write a new compact between the states and people to create a national government that would replace the clearly failing Continental Congress. But there were a wide range of views on how this new government should be constructed and what the separation of powers should be between this new government and the 13 states that still jealously guarded their own authority. When the final document was completed, a significant number of delegates refused to sign it and eventually opposed it during the ratification process.
Even after the Constitution was signed, it still had to be ratified by 9 of the 13 states, and the author describes the heated debate between the first major divisions of American politics, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Two states, New York and Virginia were crucial to the ratification effort, and the debate between founding luminaries like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Robert Yates showed that the path to success for the new Constitution was very thin until both of these states finally voted in favor.
Of course, once the Constitution was ratified and the new government began to form, these divisions did not end. While most of the Founders agreed on the general principles of liberty, federalism, and opportunity, there were number of practical problems that required resolution and the debate on how to solve these would begin to show the crack in American politics. The fact the George Washington was elected president by acclimation and his commanding presence in the government suppressed many of the disagreements between the factions led by Hamilton and his opponents Madison and Jefferson for a time.
However, the debate over the creation of a national bank to settle the country’s crushing debt from the Revolutionary War revealed fundamental and ultimately irreconcilable differences between what would become the Federalist and Republican parties. These quarrels become more acute as Washington’s first term came to an end, and even his unanimous reelection did not stop the widening breach between the Founders on politics.
The outbreak of war in Europe during Washington’s second term brought many of these disagreements into sharper focus, particularly as the country became divided over supporting the new revolutionary regime in France. Washington bucked the public tide and declared the country’s strict neutrality, but the debate in not only the halls of Congress and statehouse legislatures but town taverns brought out another feature that continues into today, the partisan press. The author highlights the literate yet inflammatory editorials, many penned anonymously, that for the first time attacked President Washington, showing that even someone of his stature and service was not immune from partisan sniping.
Once Washington announced his retirement, the election of John Adams as his successor brought into sharp focus the now open partisanship in the nation’s capital, leading to one of the most infamous laws passed by Congress, the Alien and Sedition Act. This infamous law, which was never repealed, was an early version of an attempt to outlaw “misinformation,” or anything that President Adams considered slanderous against the government. Highly controversial, it was finally allowed to lapse under his successor, President Jefferson, but was the peak moment of partisanship during the 18th century.
The election of 1800 was almost the undoing of the young republic, with the highly contested election thrown into the House of Representatives. It took some heavy behind the scenes machination before Thomas Jefferson was finally chosen over Aaron Burr, ultimately leading to one of the early amendments to the Constitution to change the selection process for the presidency.
As the Founders started to fade from the scene and hand the reins of power over to the post-Revolutionary generation, the partisan nature of American politics had irreversibly taken hold, and although the party machines of the early 19th century would take several decades to fully develop, the future direction of the country had been set.
The author writes with a sharp and absorbing style, turning what could be a fairly dry topic into a highly readable tale worthy of a cable miniseries with backstabbing characters, high drama, shady deals, and huge egos all clashing to determine the course of the new country. For anyone who thinks that gridlock and partisan machinations are a recent development, this book will quickly lay those misconceptions to rest.