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Sep 20, 2005 9:24 pm


Jeffersonian Evolution of the 1790s



The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800 was preceded by a decade of effort by the leaders of the nascent Republican Party which John Zvesper, author of Ballots to Bullets: The Election of 1800 and the First Peaceful Transfer of Political Power (2003), discusses in the previously-mentioned book and in a recent review, The Revolution of 1792!, of two books, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling and Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn.
Zvesper says in his review:

Ferling's ... imagination sometimes brings forth predictable turns of phrase, such as that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were"smoldering" for an absent woman (Adams for his wife, Jefferson for Mrs. Cosway), and occasionally leads him to reconstruct plausible but undocumented scenes to make his narrative more vivid. But his imagination, combined with his intelligence and learning, also helps him offer clear and credible explanations for complicated motives and moves, such as Hamilton's public attack on Adams's character in the middle of the campaign of 1800, or the House of Representatives balloting that eventually selected Jefferson over Burr for president.
Dunn's book, like Ferling's, includes some thoughtful passages on several important topics: for example, the development of the first party system into the second; the need for effective presidents to be partisan; and Jefferson's appointments strategy... Dunn ...recognizes the significance of the unprecedented practice of one party peacefully handing over power to another after a deep and bitter electoral clash—though she ruins this insight (which she seems to have picked up from Seymour Martin Lipset) by adding that a good two-party system"would take away any moral right to revolution."
Neither Ferling nor Dunn considers whether the more traditional nonpartisan views of George Washington and John Adams had any merit. Dunn makes some perceptive remarks about Washington's Farewell Address, but inaccurately interprets it as"an attack on parties in general." In fact Washington's premise (similar to Madison's in The Federalist) is that in republics, where all offices are elective, there will never be too little partisanship...
Zvesper continues with what he regards as two problems with both works:
First is the tendency to forget that the sometimes disunited, desperate, repressive, paranoid, anti-philosophical and offensively elitist Federalist Party of the late 1790s (and later) was not like the Federalist Party of the early 1790s. The Federalist Party changed much more during the 1790s than the Republican Party did, and it did not improve. In the beginning, when they had just won the battle to ratify the Constitution, and before they were challenged by the Republican Party, Federalists were confident and united. Many scholars tend to paint the Federalists unfairly as very dark from the outset, because they painted themselves pretty dark during their later struggles and death throes. Thus Ferling praises Jefferson for having been"among the first to divine the reactionary threat posed by the extreme conservatives in the early days of the new Republic."
This first affliction is often identical with the apparently strong compulsion, which both Ferling and Dunn have, to push the 1790s—if not all of American history—into a crude Progressive mold, and to interpret the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans as part of the great democratic struggle of the masses against deference to wealth and pomp. Of course, some Republicans did sometimes talk as if that were the central issue, and some Federalists did sometimes give them reason to talk that way, but in fact the partisan divisions were not nearly as simple-minded as that. Even if the parties had displayed such a neat class correlation, their policy differences were far more interesting and captivating, and even with no socio-economic conflict at all these differences would still have pushed politics towards electoral competition and realignment.
Both Ferling and Dunn undermine their argument that the party conflict of the 1790s should be understood as part of the battle against deference, when they draw our attention to the Republicans' very effective tactic of nominating party slates of"illustrious Revolutionary heroes" or other"dazzling" public figures as candidates for the electoral college or for state legislators who would then be choosing those electors. The success of this tactic, which brought Jefferson and Burr nearly all of Pennsylvania's electoral votes in 1796, as well as every electoral vote in the crucial state of New York in 1800, suggests that a kind of deference was not entirely absent from the new politics. (Of course, this tactic was complemented by an energetic ground war to get out likely Republican voters, and that was new.)
Dunn ...suggests (a little contradictorily?) that although class conflict drove the discord between Republicans and Federalists, class solidarity between these winning and losing parties explains why that discord did not become very violent... She can't help it if Jefferson and Madison and the others don't quite see it that way. That just shows their limits. They were"fathers," after all, which is pretty well equivalent to"elitists." Anyway, Dunn reminds us, since then we Americans have cleverly managed to combine Hamiltonian means (an interventionist federal government) with Jeffersonian ends (empowerment of individuals to pursue happiness), so all's better in today's party system. And we can be proud that we got where we are in spite our founding fathers.
The second widespread affliction affecting scholarship on the 1790s is the tendency to pass over too quickly the seriousness of the decision made by the leaders of what became the Republican Party to create that party in the first place. In the 1790s the Founders advanced towards the realization that in liberal democracies, a certain kind of principled partisanship deserves a degree of public respectability. However, most historians and political scientists do not see that this realization was largely achieved already in 1792 (insofar as the Founders did achieve it: some of this work was left to the"second party system"). They do not see that foreign wars and their domestic repercussions from 1793 to 1800 temporarily distorted that achievement and delayed its electoral results for eight years. If only Jefferson had spoken of the"Revolution of 1792"! Ferling accepts the conventional claim that it took American reaction to the French Revolution and other foreign policy events to make most Americans focus on the partisan contest, and although he discusses some of the interesting manoeuvres and publications preceding the election of 1792, he does not accept the Republican leaders' own acknowledgement that they were building a (temporary) political party. Dunn does not discuss the election of 1792, and she moves even more swiftly than Ferling to the foreign policy-related issues and elections of the later 1790s.
In December 1792, after most of the congressional election results were in, Jefferson—anticipating the language of his First Inaugural Address—predicted that the government"will, from the commencement of the next session of Congress, retire and subside into the true principles of the Constitution," supported by those who felt themselves to be"republicans and federalists too." After 1792, Jefferson came to realize that the Republicans had to win control of the presidency as well as Congress in a partisan campaign (they had already had a go at taking the vice-presidency away from Adams in 1792). However, he and other Republicans made it clear in all of the elections of that decade that their fundamental disagreement with Federalists was over Alexander Hamilton's economic project, which the two parties had fought over—Republicans had thought once and for all—in the election of 1792.
Republicans were already confidently and energetically appealing to American public opinion—through a peaceful electoral campaign—to establish the majority's voice in the government, in order to oppose imprudent measures that had been undertaken by that government only because it had not sufficiently consulted the public. Instead of basing its novel policies on any kind of public consultation, the federal government had been running in an unrepublican manner: as in Britain, executive ministers initiated policies, which it seemed they got enacted by improperly influencing the proceedings of the legislative branch.
Thus, much of the outlook and strategy of the Revolution of 1800 appeared in the Revolution of 1792, which set the precedent for principled public partisanship. But what took Republicans so long to establish their electoral and policy revolution? From later American history, we can now see that this delay was not abnormal; in the realigning elections of the 1790s, just as in the 1820s, 1850s, 1890s, and 1930s (and 1990s?), the House reflected the emerging partisan realignment before the White House did. Nevertheless, two special factors explain the delay of realignment in the 1790s. In addition to the fact that George Washington (whom Jefferson diligently tried but failed to get on their side) remained president until 1797, the Republicans' main impediment was the distraction of foreign policy issues. As soon as good prospects of peace with both Britain and France appeared, the Republican Party received a peace dividend. Some Federalists saw this coming, and feared that the Republicans' policy and patronage revolutions would be even more sharply to their disadvantage than they turned out to be. This fear incited their frantic efforts to come to an"understanding" with Jefferson (that he would not fire them and reverse their key policies) before finally letting him emerge ahead of Aaron Burr in the tie-breaking balloting by the House of Representatives in 1801.
What's missing from these two books, and from scholarship on the 1790s more generally, is a good understanding of the actions and intentions of America's first partisans when they were first being partisan, in 1792. We need that understanding in order to judge to what extent those actions deserve praise or blame, and in what manner they deserve imitation or avoidance.
While I don't quite agree with Zvesper's final paragraph, in that there are a number of fine works which cover the 1790's, I do contend that these books are not treated in courses on American history--and they should be.
Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism

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