Thursday, January 21, 2010

Did Our Founders Play Party Politics?

Today's Tea Party, and many of the Third Party advocates site that the Founding Fathers were against political parties as one of their battle cries to abandon both the Republicans as well as the Democrats today. They seem to believe that these magical third parties are in some way closer to the way the founders did their own politics. Partly this is true, and much is simply fantasy from their overwhelming misunderstanding of history.

It is hard to believe that you would find anyone who more admires our founding fathers more than I. For decades I have gone into deep dives into their world through their words and writings, along with some wonderful and not so great biographies of them and their times. Some authors holding them up like marble statues of the gods of Olympus, others painting them as near demons, while some brought them to life in such a way that you got the feeling that you knew them as people not dusty historic figures. If you want to read some who did this brilliantly check out McCullough's, Ron Chernow's, and Joseph Ellis's writing to name but a few.

One of the comments that I often hear is "The Founders would never play politics like they do today." Or another, "The Founders would never compromise like that." Often I hear that the Founders were against party politics or made up many different parties instead of just two major ones. How true is any of this?

Let's begin from the ratification of the Constitution and the first presidency of George Washington. In his first administration's cabinet, the most impressive cabinet yet assembled by the way, he and his Vice President, John Adams, were both Federalists, at least were classified as such. They were the only two presidents in history who were not fond of the ideas of parties. They were classified Federalist because they advocated ratifying the Constitution and transferring more power to the Federal Government from the States, they were part of a small group of leaders who knew that the weak central government that existed under the Articles of Confederation was not strong enough to survive long. Each of those who were to be called Federalists, except James Madison, were involved directly in the Revolutionary War effort and knew first hand that too many States refused to send their quota of men, arms, food, and supplies, and knew that the central government needed to have the strength to compel them to.

Just because Washington and Adams were unhappy with the "factions" or parties emerging, the heads of each opposition party formed within that very cabinet. The Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was the founder and leader of the Democratic Republican Party in opposition to Washington. Jefferson was smart enough to not fight openly against Washington, anyone foolish enough to was ruined politically. So he targeted the leader of the Federalist Party, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson believed in a small central government, much stronger states rights, he was against the Constitution of The United States, he believed it opened the door to tyranny. Jefferson believed in the purity of rural America and hated the cities and banks. Hamilton wanted a stronger central government, thought the Constitution didn't go far enough, believe strongly in national debt and a national bank. Beyond their political differences Jefferson and Hamilton hated each other.
This nonstop infighting was driving Washington to distraction when he couldn't even get them to be in the same room together for cabinet meetings without full blown wars. Jefferson resigned and went back to Monticello saying that he wanted out of politics, but as Adams predicted he would be working from the shade to advance his own political clout.

There was a time that these two men did in fact find a way to reach a compromise. Madison had moved from the Federalists as the architect of the Constitution to the number one most close follower of Thomas Jefferson. Madison was standing in the way of Hamilton's plan to have the Federal Government absorb the debt of all 13 states from the Revolutionary War, a sum of about twenty five million dollars. Madison, Jefferson, and his followers were against this believing that you become enslaved to the banks you owe money. That the states would lose all their independence and power to the central government once they owed it money. Hamilton's entire economic system he was putting in place rested on this action, he was nearly ready to resign his position as Secretary of the Treasury over it. Jefferson, as much as he hated Hamilton, and this idea, believed that Hamilton was the only one who could do that job at the time and set a meeting over dinner at his home. Over dinner Hamilton was able to give Jefferson and Madison something that they wanted dearly, they feared that the Capital of the Unites States would stay in New York and would cost the South too much power due to distance and difference in thinking. As Virginians first and Americans second, the agreement to put the capital city in part of what was Virginia made the compromise. That is how we got our banking system and Washington, D.C.'s location.

We now know that our founders were willing to compromise, there are many more examples just through the summer of 1787 in writing the Constitution. One that 13 states, large and small, slave holding and not could all agree upon. That is a story for another time, but it explains how and why we have a bicameral government, what each branch is for and why. How and why we valued slaves as 3/5 of a person, and much more. This was a summer of unending compromise and very hot tempers as well as temperatures. Now let's look at how they conducted their politics and let's just stay with Jefferson and Hamilton.

These were both brilliant men, without question the two most along with Franklin, of the founders. Jefferson was more esoteric than Hamilton who was almost a savant in his understanding of economics and monetary systems. It is said that he would sit down and pour out dozens of pages of text without ever having to correct a stroke, the same as Mozart did with music, that it was already done in their heads and just poured out of them. They debated in the press, Hamilton was a forceful and prolific writer and was always selling his case in print. Jefferson liked to lurk in the shadows, he had Madison do his writing for him against Hamilton. This was all above board, much like the blogs we see written today by both sides.

There was a darker side to their politics as well. Jefferson hired a scandalmonger named James Callander to write despairing things about Hamilton. Callander dug up a real scandal on Hamilton, and wrote of Hamilton making pay offs to a shady character named James Reynolds. The allegations that Callander brought forth in his writings were that Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury was bribing Reynolds not to tell about Hamilton using his office to embezzle or profiteer. The Democratic Republicans under Jefferson came to Hamilton to try let him know that they had "caught" him and to ask him to resign. What Hamilton did completely caught them unaware. He confessed that he was paying extortion money to James Reynolds, but not for anything to do with the Treasury, but to buy his silence on Hamilton's affair with Reynolds wife Maria. Then Hamilton, being Hamilton, instead of resigning wrote a book about the entire affair and published it putting it out for all to read diffusing any accusations of missteps at Treasury. Hamilton's wife Eliza learned of the affair through the book.

Thomas Jefferson turned his ire on his long time dear friend John Adams when Jefferson wanted to win the presidency from Adams in 1800. He went back to James Callander and hired him to vilify Adams in a book called "The Prospect Before Us." It was a slander piece attacking John Adams and the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson never acknowledged that he had anything to do with it, and though people told Adams that the did, Adams defended his dear friend to them saying no matter what political differences Jefferson would not do such things. However later on Callander became angry at Jefferson for not giving him the Postmaster's job after Jefferson became president. He then proved that Jefferson had paid to have "Prospect" written with papers, letters to and from Jefferson. That ended the friendship with John Adams for years, with Abigale forever. Jefferson also learned an important lesson when you play with a snake like Callander, you often get bit yourself. It was Callander who started the Sally Hemmings rumor, even though no evidence appears to this day, it persists.

Alexander Hamilton was no innocent in dirty politics either. In the 1796 presidential elections Hamilton came out deriding Jefferson and his love affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, and the false accusations from the Jefferson camp about John Adams. He heartily and glowingly endorsed Adams as a man, a patriot, and a leader. It at first glance appeared to be sincere. However, his intent was to drive some of Jefferson's support in the South away from Jefferson fearing that he would be sympathetic to emancipation and knowing that it wouldn't go to the strong abolitionist Adams. He hoped it might fall to his own candidate who he knew he could control and almost be president behind the curtain with Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina. This little trick didn't work, Adams won. During this next four years Adams and Hamilton became enemies since Adams wouldn't bend to Hamilton's will.

Adams would attack Hamilton at his most emotionally vulnerable with his illegitimate birth obsessively and heartlessly. He also railed on Hamilton's womanizing continuing to cast him as a rake and a reprobate, even so far as accusing Hamilton's brilliant mind to drug addiction. Hamilton angry at being shoved from the center of power where he held sway over Washington lashed out at Adams. He wrote a document that helped to destroy Adams politically making the case of Adams as insane. Their feud effectively ended the Federalist Party.

The point I want to make is this. These were brilliant men, my favorites to ever live other than one born in Bethlehem. However, they were men, not marble statues, and as such had the strengths and frailties of men. If you think politics is dirty and partisan today. It is very polite compared to our Founding where it could and did lead to death by duels. I read a historian once that explained the ferocity of the political fights in that time. Until the 1800 election when Jefferson took over as our third president, no time in human history had power changed hands from one political faction to another without bloodshed. No one knew that if they lost they could regain it at the next election until it had actually happened a few times.

Our founders built a system of government that functions as a two party system. No time from theirs until now has a third party been an effective alternative. We need to study our history, learn from it, make improvements where we can, but not get caught up in fantasies that never happened.

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