A House Divided: The Fragile Birth of the American Republic

Written by: Liam King

This essay is largely inspired by the writings of Joseph J. Ellis in his book titled Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. It is without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in early American history.

In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, there has been a generally-accepted idea in circulation that America has become divided along strict party lines, namely, Democrats versus Republicans. Whilst this division has certainly been amplified, it is by no means a recent phenomenon. With the exception of its first two presidents, one can argue that America has always been divided along party lines. To understand this claim, one must obtain an understanding of the birth of the American republic and the ideological clashes which surrounded that birth.

By the mid-to-late 1780s it was becoming apparent to many of the Founding Fathers that the Articles of Confederation (the first constitution of the United States) was unsuitable as a document through which the government could exercise its powers. Whilst the system of gridlock has always been central to the American political system (and was intended to be), the Articles of Confederation made this gridlock almost unbreakable.

For example, bills drafted by the Confederation Congress (the government established under the Articles) required the consent of nine out of the thirteen state legislatures in order to become law. With the interests and political leanings of the states being so different (especially between the northern and southern states), this made consensus and, therefore, any form of government action almost impossible.

A decision was consequently taken to create the Constitution of the United States, a document that would replace the Articles of Confederation and establish a new form of republican government. The creation of this document caused the first major division in the political class of the newly established republic. On the one side of the debate were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison (although Madison is of particular interest, which will be addressed later). These three figures joined forces to pen the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays arguing for the ratification of the Constitution and increasing the powers of the central government.

On the other side of the debate were the anti-Federalists led by the likes of Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson. The anti-Federalists were strongly opposed to the creation of a stronger central government and therefore the ratification of the Constitution. They viewed increased central power as having the ability to destroy the republican form of government and give rise to a monarchy. Certainly, if one examines the writings of John Adams, it becomes evident why such fears existed amongst the anti-Federalists. Adams even proposed that the President should be addressed as “His Majesty” or “His Highness” by members of Congress.

Not only did these divergent groups disagree about the question of the Constitution, they had fundamentally different ideas about the meaning of the American Revolution itself (the spirit of ’76, so to speak) and the future of the infant American nation.

The Federalists viewed the revolution as an opportunity to unify the 13 states (former colonies) under a strong federal government, which would direct the economic growth of the nation into one of the world’s superpowers. Furthermore, the Federalists genuinely believed that without a strong central government, the fledgling American republic would not survive through its early fragility.

Conversely, the anti-Federalists viewed the revolution as one step in the longer journey towards ultimate self-government, with the eventual goal being the supreme autonomy of the individual over his own affairs. Any form of government (especially that which exercised centralised control) was a threat to this ideal. For them, the revolution was not merely a fight against taxation without representation, nor was it a fight against a king, it was a fight against the imposition of foreign government upon the American people. Following their logic, if it was inappropriate for rulers in London to make decisions affecting the citizens of the colonies, it was equally inappropriate for politicians in Philadelphia (Washington, D.C. only became the centre of government in 1790) to make decisions affecting the average Virginian.

This divergence first became notably evident with the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The Federalists, backed by President George Washington, believed that it was not in the American national interest to become involved in any European conflict an ocean away. They urged for foreign neutrality and a policy of non-interventionism.

The anti-Federalists, as wrapped up in the cause of liberty as they were, viewed this neutrality as a quasi-endorsement of the monarchy as it existed in France. They believed that America was honour-bound to aid the French in their struggle to establish a republican form of government (no matter how pear-shaped that republic became). Denis Diderot is credited with the following phrase: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” This can be categorised as a summary of the anti-Federalist view on France. Monarchy, theocracy, and indeed every other form of government other than self-government was a violation of the spirit of ’76, no matter where it was found in the world.

The second area in which this divergence is evident was in the debate over assumption.

Assumption was an economic policy proposed by Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury during the Washington administration) that would see all of the state debts assumed by the federal government and then funded through taxation. This was particularly unappealing to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which had already repaid all of its revolutionary war debts. In effect, assumption meant that the people of Virginia would have to pay for debts incurred by the other states.

One of the most ardent critics of assumption was none other than James Madison, the same Founder who had penned the Federalist Papers together with Hamilton and Jay. This may either be considered the ultimate political irony or the evolution of Madison’s character. Less than 3 years prior to the assumption debate, Madison was one of those Founders in favour of a stronger central government. Now, able to see the consequences of such a policy on his fellow Virginians, he became the leading opposition to the Federalists’ chief economic policy.

The only two presidents to really avoid the party wars were the first two: George Washington and John Adams. Washington’s status was simply God-like, and he had earned it. When the colonies searched for someone to lead the Continental Army, Washington answered, despite his personal dislike of the Yankees (northerners). He served in the Continental Congress (albeit for a brief period). He was unanimously elected as President of the Constitutional Convention. However, the pinnacle of his political life was without a doubt his two terms as President. When he announced his retirement, many people thought that the American republic itself was coming to an end, for Washington was America.

The only two significant stains on his presidency are Jay’s Treaty (although some would argue whether this even qualifies as a stain) and his suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion (which can be easily likened to the Boston Massacre committed by the British). Yet these two stains alone could hardly spoil the canvas that was (and is) Washington. His titan character made it easy for him to rise (and for the American people to elevate him) above politics.

Whilst Adams possessed noble intentions to do the same, to rise above political issues, his frankly-disastrous presidency made this a difficult task.

The lowest point of his presidency was most certainly the signing of the Sedition and Alien Acts, both of which had been passed by a Federalist-dominated Congress. The Sedition Act criminalised false statements criticising the federal government, metaphorically spitting in the face of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution (whose ratification the same Federalists had fought so hard for only a decade ago). In reality, this allowed the government to clamp down on anti-Federalist press with particular severity. The Alien Act allowed the federal government to imprison and deport non-citizens who the government deemed to be dangerous and was primarily aimed at foreign-born anti-Federalists.

These two acts caused such a political rift throughout the republic that Jefferson threatened rebellion against and secession from a nation of which he was the Vice President.

Adams’ presidency, despite his own good intentions, was so bad that it mobilised the anti-Federalists and thrust them into power in 1801. Since then, political division has been no stranger to the United States.

Whilst this division seems to have widened in the last few years, it is by no means a recent phenomenon. Indeed, one can argue that the political history of America is a history of political division, stretching as far back as the birth of the republic.

Liam King is a student of history and law at the University of Cape Town and Vice Chairperson of African Students for Liberty UCT.

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