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Reading Political History: Same Old Same Old


Public Domain via WikiCommons

Russell E. Saltzman - published on 05/11/16

Everything we hate about politics has been around since our country's founding

One way or another we Americans are always fighting the Revolution. That contest grows from our experience. Fear of big government fueled the Revolution. The big government at issue then was Great Britain, its parliament and its king with their intrusive taxes.

The colonial governments were accustomed to relative independence. But Britain imposed direct taxes on the colonies. She needed the money pay her war debt acquired while defending America during the French and Indian War, 1755-63. That spurred the Revolution, a small government revolt from big government authority.

This early formative period of our nation still shapes our political habits, but you need history to know it. Then as now the American debate is always “Federalist” vs. “anti-Federalist.” Roughly, the former supports strong national government and the latter decentralized government dependent on the states. It was the Founders’ domestic version of Britain’s Whigs vs. Tories.

Here are three books to explain everything: The Return of George Washington, The First Congress, and The Election of 1800.

The Constitution of 1789 replaced the 1783 Articles of Confederation and George Washington became president. But he had retired from public life six years previously. Well, there’s “retired” and then there’s retired. That’s the story in The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson, a history and law professor at Pepperdine.

During those six years Washington became a politician, decidedly in favor of replacing the Articles. He didn’t plan on attending the constitutional convention, fearing that a failure would reflect poorly on his reputation. Somewhat at the last minute, he did show up with a collection of delegates as diverse as the states could then assemble. Their debates followed the usual direction: big government vs. small government.

Washington said little, never made his views public, but to friends and intimates he was privately blunt. He wanted a national government that had “energy” at home and could pay its debts, and one held in respect by Europe.

There was hardly any doubt among the delegates at the convention that Washington would be the first president (whatever a president was supposed to be; nobody was very clear about it at the time). That made debate on the powers of the presidency enormously awkward. Washington himself was shy about saying anything at all.

Washington’s public reticence successfully portrayed him as above-the-fray, a disinterested national conciliator. He was that in public perception, but his private correspondence, Larson reveals, shows a partisan Washington pursuing a Federalist course while highly intent on preserving his image of being above politics; and without his private influence in the ratification debates the Constitution might not have been ratified.

The Constitution, though, provided only a skeleton of governmental structure. That’s why it is a good idea to read Fergus M. Bordewich’s The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the GovernmentBordewich might just as well have said “extraordinary politicians.”

The First Congress — mixed between Federalist and anti-Federalist — is the most important ever held. That does not mean it was a collective of virtuous paragons. It was a composed of politicians, all with conflicting interests. The ideological temperaments were such that some members of the First Congress bristled at taking an oath of office to support the very Constitution they had fought to defeat only months before in the ratification debates.

Acting like politicians, they argued this, fussed at that, got bogged down in debate. Even back then, some newspapers complained Congress did not act fast enough or do enough.

Yet the First Congress created a revenue stream, erected tariffs, constructed a judiciary, created department posts, established a permanent seat of government, chartered a national bank, organized a post office, and passed the first immigration law (same disputes heard today, who to keep out and who to let in), and the debates were always Federalist vs. anti-Federalist.

Finally, everything we say we hate about today’s electioneering we owe to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and their supporters and detractors. We’re talking here of hyper-partisanship, personal rancor, attack ads, slanted news coverage, over-the-top accusations by one candidate against another, and threats to leave the country if the one lost and the other won. The only thing we do not do today is imprison opposition newspaper editors; the Adams Federalist administration did that, trying to squash press leaks.

That is all found in A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, also by Larsen.

The 1800 election was portrayed as a battle for the American soul. The ferocity and malice of the campaign was nothing but shocking, so shocking that not a few thought it would end the Republic. It didn’t, and we liked it all so much we do it every four years.

History explains why debate over the nature of American government has not ended. Debating “small” government vs. “big” government is our political DNA. History is also a reminder, whatever the politics, ours is a very resilient nation.

Russell E. Saltzmanis a web columnist at First Things magazine and lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman

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