Bohemian Tangents

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Jefferson and Hamilton, Part 2: The 2 Party System

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My sole source for this blog post is Joseph J. Ellis, a noted historian specializing in the Founding Fathers. His biography, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, won the National Book award. His book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, won the Pulitzer Prize. I have used his book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic for this blog post. I particularly like Ellis’s psychological explorations into the complex men who founded this nation.

 The Federalist party was led by Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican party was led by Thomas Jefferson. Now this system did not arise because of some harmonious arrangement of the founding fathers saying these political parties should be established. In fact, the creation of a 2-party system succeeded despite entrenched resistance by virtually all the founders to its very existence. Jefferson said: “The Fathers hoped to create not a system of party government under the Constitution but rather a Constitutional government that would check and control parties.” As the man primarily responsible for creating the first organized opposition party in the United States, Jefferson condemned his very creation: “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all”.

 In a 1770 treatise Edmund Burke wrote that political parties were not only unavoidable products of representative government, but also performed valuable functions in orchestrating debate, much in the way that the adversarial system worked in legal trials. Adam Smith described the unhindered collision of selfish and ambitious interest groups as the dynamic, if dirty, secret of the capitalistic marketplace. Madison argued in Federalist 10 that the collision of poltical factions in an extended republic would produce greater stability, making size an asset rather than a liability. One could also argue that the contrived compromises reached at the Constitutional Convention, especially on the extent of executive power and the blurry line separating state and federal jurisdiction, created an inherently argumentative context that made the emergence of political parties virtually inevitable. Inevitable indeed.

Author Joseph J. Ellis noted that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson  were called respectively, “The General” and “The Generalissimo” of the emerging Republican party (Ellis does not use the term “democratic-republican” that most other historians use). Hamilton, the Federalist, serves primarily as the impetus for the party that opposed him and his party arises by reacting to his opponents. Ellis refers to Hamilton as “the fixed object against which Madison and Jefferson do their political version of isometric exercises”. Minor roles belong to Washington and Adams who did not apparently fathom the bickering of the major players and considered this bickering dissonant noise drowning out classical harmonies.

 Washington and Adams considered “parties” or “factions” as epithets conveying a disreputable commitment to a narrow and usually private agenda at he expense of the public interest. Their role model was Viscount Bolingbroke, a British opposition thinker much admired by America’s revolutionary generation for his endorsement of disinterested virtue as the hallmark of statesman ship, floating above factional squabbles and misguided popular surges, to act in the long-term interest of the nation regardless of the political cost at the moment.

This disdain for polls, popularity, and partisanship is the legacy left behind by such patriots as Washington and Adams, “the gold standard for our diluted political currency”. Washington and Adams were the last of a classical breed, and Jefferson was the first president to point the way to modernity as he avowed–though he was reluctant to admit it–leader of a political party. Ellis notes that in this historical period there was not political vocabulary to discuss political parties, just as there was only terminology about kings, courts, monarchies with which to assail those with whom one disagrees. Being regarded as a party leader in those days was a major stigma. Apparently, Jefferson possessed “a distinctive form of intelligence that could navigate between the two imperatives”, that is, expressing one’s party-affiliated ideas while disowning the fact one has instigated “factionizing”. To Jefferson Ellis attributes “a deep affinity for multiplicity” and the “possession of a many-chambered personality, playing hide-and-seek with himself” and therefore prepared psychologically to function within this “modern” world of party politics. Famed Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, said: “the boldness of his mind was sheathed in a scabbard of politeness… It would have been surprising if such a man did not occasionally cross the thin line between courtesy and deception”. Ellis credits Jefferson with “inventing the two-party system” which he meant he had the mental agility to leap over huge obstacles on the path of that very invention and thereby make possible “the politics of the future”

Founders like Washington and Adams did not understand different versions of truth could co-exist alongside one another and both claim, with considerable plausibility, to be true. Unlike math, politics did not encompass problem-solving by sheer logic and truth, but rather an ongoing and never-ending struggle between contested versions of the truth. The model for politics would be the Darwinian jungle rather than the Newtonian universe.

 We are already familiar with the milestone of Hamilton’s creation of the first Bank of the United States and this was among the topics of conversation for Jefferson and Madison as they cruised up the Hudson River in May 1791. These two men shared their mutual chagrin for “stock-jobbers”, “Tories”, “monocrats” who had triumphed with the passage of the bill creating the Bank of the United States. “All such despicable creatures”, observed Madison, “dabbled in federal filth”, presumably suggesting that all private investors in the bank were determined to make a private fortune at public expense. This anti-federalist tandem of Virginians held that the true impulses of the American Revolution were being highjacked by a conspiracy of northern bankers and “paper men” moving forward under the satanic leadership of Alexander Hamilton. The ultimate goal of this Federalist faction was to undermine the republican government and replace it with a monarchical state in which the presidency became a hereditary rather than elective office and “money men” became the new American aristocracy.

 To expose the “Federalist plot” Jefferson and Madison chose Philip Freneau to launch the National Gazette as the official voice of what became the Republican Party. Jefferson said Freneau’s real job would be to promote “the ancient Whig doctrine”, referring to the British Whigs opposed to the tyrannical Catholic king, James II and ultimately resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the beginning of the Constitutional Monarchy officially ending absolutist monarchy in Britain. Freneau would be given exclusive access to all foreign intelligence passing through Jefferson’s office (as Secretary of State) and “the publication of all proclamations and public notices within my department”.

Ellis finds Jefferson and Madison to be sincere in their belief a Federalist plot was afoot. These anti-federalists were simply operating in the same ideological lens that hey had used when opposing King George III who had wanted to “enslave” American colonists. The villains of the Federalist plot were intimate acquaintances of Jefferson and Madison as Hamilton co-authored the Federalist papers with Madison. To Jefferson, Hamilton “was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption” and his old friend Adams had lost the revolutionary faith and “been taken up by the monarchical federalists”. It would seem the monarchists, like the Communists of a later time, were everywhere. All the “Federalist plotters” were duly elected or appointed officials chosen by the citizenry in accord with the very Constitution Madison had done so much to shape. The actual legitimacy held by the so-called monarchists mattered little to the southern constituency of Virginians supporting Jefferson and Madison who used their regional vernacular denigrations like “stock-jobbers”, “money men”, and “monocrats” to great effect.

Madison’s turnabout was very much a symptom and consequence of the realignment of political power in Virginia after the narrow victory of the Federalists in the ratifying convention of 1788. The shift occurred in response to the debate over Hamilton’s financial plan in 1790-91, chiefly the federal assumption of state debts and the establishment of a national bank. These developments forced the planter class of Virginia to realize for the first time that their days as America’s premier political elite were numbered, soon to be replaced by the commercial and financial elite of New York and New England. Ellis notes the personal motivations behind most conspiracy theories where impersonal forces of unwelcomed change impact upon those persons ill-served by this change. British and Scottish creditors had been bleeding the Virginia planter class to death. Bankruptcy often arrived as a complete surprise on many Virginia plantations, a product of accounting legerdemain that many planters took considerable pride in not comprehending. Both Jefferson and Madison would die bankrupt. Hamilton’s financial plan for fiscal solvency galvanized all their pent-up frustrations, which were rendered even more passionate because the planters had not the dimmest understanding of what Hamilton was talking about.

The proverbial elephant in the living room could not be discussed as forbidden by the etiquette of Virginian political banter. Jefferson and Madison never mentioned slavery as a factor in their indictment of the Federalist agenda as it would have decimated their entire case. Their orchestrated silence on the slavery issue provides one of those rare occasions where the very absence of evidence is the most important piece of evidence of all. At one time, Madison had supported robust federal sovereignty as strongly as Hamilton, but he changed his mind in 1791 as did other staunch Virginia Federalists. One of the reasons for the shift floating silently above the demonized “money men” was the realization that, once the federal government assumed control over domestic policy, slavery was doomed.

In the spring of 1790, two Quaker petitions circulated, urged Congress to take up the question of the slave trade as well as the persistence of slavery itself in any self-respecting American republic. Ben Franklin signed one, making either impossible to ignore, thus producing the first open and fully recorded debate over slavery in the history of the U.S. Madison led the floor fight in the House of Representatives to black any extension of federal authority over slavery, arguing the Constitution specifically forbade any congressional limitation on the slave trade for 20 years and implicitly relegated any and all legislation regarding slavery itself to the state governments.

 In the debate over the U.S. national bank that raged throughout February 1791, the anti-federalist opponents led by Jefferson and Madison, based their opposition on its unconstitutionality, arguing that Congress possessed only enumerated powers, that the power to create a corporation (a bank) was not one of them, so the bank violated the 10th amendment, which reserved all powers to the states not specifically delegated to the federal government. But the winning argument proved to be Hamilton’s, which cited the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) to sanction congressional authority as one of the implied powers of the Constitution. Hamilton quoted words from the Federalist 44: “No axiom is more established in law, or in reason, than that wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power for doing it, is included. Madison was the author of Federalist 44. His earlier incarnation as an unbridled federalist was being thrown in his face.

There is a great deal more to this story and it will be continued in the next installment.


Written by joethebohemian

May 4, 2015 at 1:45 am

Posted in politics

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