The Evolution of Political Parties: Studying the Founders, Part IV

This is the fourth in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

Click here for Part I, Part II and Part III.

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Part IV: Jefferson Takes Power

The election of Thomas Jefferson introduced two questions for the new republic:  How would the Republicans handle their newfound majority?  How would the Federalists react as the new minority party?

For Federalists, the election of 1800 had deeply complicated their relationship to Jefferson.  Because Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Republicans, had tied in the Electoral College, the fate of the presidency would be determined by the House of Representatives.  Hamilton made a famous push for his Federalist colleagues to vote for Jefferson, “an atheist French radical“, rather than Burr, “an embryo Caesar…the most unfit man in the United States for the office of president “.   This was a bitter pill for Federalists to swallow, after a brutal election season of demonizing Jefferson.  But in the end they heeded Hamilton, and Jefferson was sworn in as the third president.

Jefferson’s famous inauguration line, “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans”, rings similarly to Washington’s “non-partisan” farewell address.   His goal was to create a super-party, a large tent that would bring all the people under his banner, save the most fringe Federalists, in order to exterminate the opposition party.   In furtherance of this plan, Jefferson adopted some of the Federalist domestic agenda, such as keeping the national bank to continue operating, and allowing most Federalist civil service appointees to keep their posts until they retired or resigned.  He spoke openly of courting the banking interests to the Republican Party to sap Federalists of their campaign funding.  Hamilton had correctly assessed Jefferson’s personality, noting that while he may have been an enemy to executive power while in the minority,  upon winning the presidency Jefferson would be “solicitous to the possession of a good estate” (p.137).

One topic that was never discussed among serious statesmen within the Federalist Party was secession or revolution- just as such fringe ideas had been squashed by Jefferson when the Republicans were in the minority.  There are a myriad of reasons for this, but one interesting reflection from James Madison in 1830 was that the United States had a weak, disorganized military, with no major figurehead after the death of Washington.  Thus, neither side could really discuss using the military to bring about a non-democratic change of power.

Hofstadter addresses the noticeable departure from Jefferson’s “radical” rhetoric upon taking office:

The modern liberal mind has been bemused by his remarks about the value of a little rebellion now and then, or watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, or having a complete constitutional revision every twenty or thirty years.   But Jefferson’s more provocative utterances, it has been too little noticed, were in his private correspondences.  His public statements and actions were colored by a relative caution and timidity that reveal a circumspect and calculating mind- or, as so many of his contemporaries believed, a guileful one.

Like Barack Obama, both Jefferson’s supporters and detractors were surprised at his political caution. We can only speculate about our current president, but Jefferson knew that the republic was young and fragile, and he needed to continue preaching the same patience as when the Republicans were steadily making Congressional gains in the 1790s.   Jefferson believed the Federalists were on a course for extinction, and there was no need to inflame their passions.

Where Jefferson and Obama miscalculated is that no amount of accommodation or caution can quiet the vitriol of a recently deposed opposition party.   In fairness to Jefferson, Obama had 200 years of precedent to see it coming.   Jefferson fumed over the rancorous opposition to his every move, writing,

“A respectable minority is useful as censors, but the present minority is not respectable, being the bitterest cup of the remains of Federalism, rendered desperate and furious with despair”(p.165).

I can scarcely imagine a better depiction of the Tea Party.  The Rick Perry wing of the Federalist Party finally got their botched secession attempt after the election of 1804.  The more rationale Federalists, seeing their power dwindling, retreated into the judiciary, launching the first major battle over that third branch of government.

Federalists on the bench has shown their partisan colors during trials over the Sedition Act, and the Republicans were eager to enact revenge, impeaching two Justices and reducing the size of the Circuit Courts, for “cost-saving” reasons (Hofstadter argues that this argument for frugality does have some legitimacy).   However, Jefferson once again neglected to go for the kill, even though he had the votes to either pack the court or amend the constitution to make the Supreme Court a fixed tenure position.  With the Federalists on the run, he saw no need to overplay his hand.

In 1804, Jefferson was re-elected in a landslide, building a 4-1 advantage in the Senate and 5-1 advantage in the House.  Even in New England, the Federalist Party could count few victories. At his inauguration speech, Jefferson congratulated the United States on “a union of sentiments now manifested so generally”(p.166).  As we’ve seen over the years, however, there’s never a good time to declare a mandate.   Hostilities on the high seas were approaching, and the subsequent showdown with England would test the unity of the Republican Party, briefly revive the Federalists, and cripple Jefferson’s impressive approval ratings.  After all, no one wins in war.

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Thanks for reading! Coming soon:  Part V: The Young Republic At War

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