Party Politics is a Blessing and a Curse

America has held its reputation as a leader in democratic thought and voter participation, despite the fact that just 58 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 Presidential Election. Mainly because much of the rest of the world hasn’t been able to boast a longer democratic tradition. Now the world seems to be sorely in need of a booster shot of democracy, the nation faces new challenges around the world that press on us with instant electronic stories from far-flung spots like China, North Korea, India, Russia, and Israel.

Much earlier, Americans born between 1776 and 1800, who knew of the Revolutionary struggle for freedom, though they had not participated first hand, worked optimistically to shape a new nation, but clung with sharp claws to their own vision of the future.

Lest we forget in 1790 party politics were viewed with suspicion by the Framers of the Constitution, including George Washington (who would live until 1799). After Alexander Hamilton announced his plan for a National Bank, those in support or opposition immediately chose sides. Political legends, like Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican  Party) and John Adams (Federalist) led their parties in different directions. In 1796 Federalist John Adams, who preferred a loose interpretation of the Constitution and a strong federal government, gained the Presidency. Jefferson, who developed the Democratic-Republican party of strict Constitutionalists and states rights, came in second—providing Adams with a VP representing the opposite political views.

Thomas Jefferson – Scanned 1855 Engraving

Four years later, by 1800, the tables turned and Jefferson gained the Presidency in a brutal campaign. In the runoff between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who voted even with him even though he was the intended vice president, the House of Representatives voted 36 times.

Voting started on February 11 while a snowstorm raged outside, but only one Congressman missed the vote despite the lack of snowplows. Burr sent a note bowing out of the race to Jefferson and “your administration,” but then worked behind the scenes to garner votes for himself.

Disabuse yourself of any ideas that campaigns were less divisive in 1800. Jefferson wanted to lay claim to the “spirit of 1776” in part because he supported France in the ongoing European battles vs. the British. During this period Jefferson uttered the phrase that now rims the interior of his memorial’s dome in DC: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” These noble words are tarnished a bit by the vehement sentiments of the political brawl then being conducted.

According to Jefferson’s followers, Adams, Hamilton and the Federalists were conducting a “reign of witches” and acted “adverse to liberty,” which was a potent scourge 17 years after the Revolution’s end. There were reasons for voters to question the Federalists, particularly the Ultra branch that swept the 1798 election and proceeded to establish a provisional army, approved Hamilton’s bank, imposed higher taxes to pay for the army, and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts against “any false, malicious or scandalous” statements against the government, stomping on the Bill of Rights.

John Adams struck back with a bit of humor when challenged that he would bring in the French to support him: “There’s no more prospect of seeing the French Army here than there is in Heaven.” His proponents saw Jefferson as a coward who fled rather than fight the British as Virginia’s governor and falling back on the question of religion, referred to Jefferson as a “howling atheist.” Once the smoke cleared, it became apparent that the line in the Constitution counting each slave as three-fifths of a man tilted the vote to the Democrat-Republicans just enough for the Federalists to lose.

An exhausted Federalist Speaker of the House said “enough” after the delegate from Delaware agreed to abstain from voting to move forward, “The gig is up.” This pleased House members who’d heard rumors that a mob had stormed the arsenal in Philadelphia and were planning to come south to Washington once they were well armed.

Background negotiations with Jefferson continued to the last vote, but Jefferson denied he’d made any concessions to the Federalists. His record might resolve that question. Once in office, Jefferson acquiesced to the Bank of the United States and did not limit continued borrowing by the government, and he did not remove most Federalist office holders. His Vice President Aaron Burr may not have been able to bargain with ancient adversaries, perhaps part of his animosity carried into his final showdown with Alexander Hamilton three years later, which destroyed Burr’s political future as it took Hamilton’s life.

America has held its reputation  2016 and 2012 reported the same percent..

People born in America (Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans,  June 18, 2000, C-SPAN Boston: Belknap/Harvard)

Four years later

I have sworn (Ibid)

Federalists  (Ibid)

The gig is up.

There were reasons  (Ibid)