America has always been a ‘house divided’

“There is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Do any of the following: sound familiar?

  • Two political parties are very distrustful of each other and thought the other party was a danger to the country.
  • One of the most influential politicians of the time, also a future president, becomes very “conspiratorial” and believes that his letters and movements are being tracked by those in power.
  • John Adams, in an attempt to limit the incoming Democratic-Republican party about to seize power, limits the Supreme Court from 6 to 5 judgeships and adds circuit and district court judgeships.
  • The Federalists accuse the Democratic-Republicans of spreading “fake news” in their newspapers. (OK, they didn’t refer to it as “fake news” back then.) Through the Alien and Sedition Act, Adams and the Federalists try to stifle anyone who speaks out in opposition to them.
  • Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their party are concerned about too much government control and over-centralization by the Federalists.
  • Both parties overly caricature each other. Democratic-Republicans accuse Alexander Hamilton of being a monarchists, while Federalists accuse Jefferson of being an atheist or anarchist.
  • After Jefferson became president, Virginian politician John Randolph complained that Jefferson had moved too far “in a Federalist direction” and that he wasn’t a pure enough Democratic-Republican. In other words, Jefferson was too moderate for Randolph.

It may have seemed as though the Federalists had the upper hand in the last 1700s. John Adams was president, the Alien and Sedition Acts may have seemed to target Democratic-Republicans more, and Adams’ attempt to pack the court may have significantly limited the power of Jefferson and his party.

But Adams would be the last — and only — Federalist Party president. Meanwhile, the beginning of Jefferson’s presidency would mark the start of the longest continuous period of party control in America, as the Democratic-Republicans would hold the presidency for about 25 years.

“Partisanship has been an intrinsic part of the American experiment.” Jon Meacham, the author of “Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power,” said in a speech.

Even George Washington, who was our last and only ever “independent” president, was not completely non-partisan. He requested that Hamilton implement several key policies and promoted them. Washington tried hard to stay independent, but it was hard for even him not to be frustrated with the Democratic-Republicans.

While the Federalists were in power during the presidency of John Adams, Jefferson feared for his country. He thought that the Federalists were too friendly with the British, and he feared that the American experiment might not last forever.

Adams, Hamilton, and Washington, seemed to initially have better foresight than Jefferson in realizing that the French Revolution would not yield as positive results as the American Revolution.

Meacham explains that it’s easy for us to criticize Jefferson today, because we know that the United States of America grew and thrived for the next couple hundred years, making it the biggest superpower of today. But at the time, neither Jefferson nor any of the other founding fathers knew that it would be successful.

“Jefferson’s sense of Britain as a perennial foe is unsurprising and essential to understand.” Meacham writes. “He thought he was in a perennial war. And if we are to understand what he was like and what life was like for him, then we must see the world as he saw it, not as we know it turned out.”

The Federalists, meanwhile, were afraid that the Democratic-Republicans were too friendly with the French and would start an anarchist uprising in America.

In hindsight, both parties overly stereotyped the other side. Hamilton was not a monarchist, and Jefferson was did actually want a strong, stable central government.

But hindsight is 2020. Perhaps we can learn some from the past about today.

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