The Founders Flounder

by Michael Liss

John Adams,  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

There was a time when we had no political parties.

It was brief, like the glow of a firefly on a warm late summer evening, but it occurred. There were no political parties at the time of the American Revolution, or when the newly freed colonies joined in the Articles of Confederation. None at the time they went to Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution, and none when it was ratified (although the supporters of it were called Federalists and Alexander Hamilton eventually organized them as a party). For the first three years of the new government, until May of 1792, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party, the Federalists were the only political party in the land.

When we 21st Century Americans, out of desperation, look to the Constitution for a way out of intractable and pernicious partisanship, we often look in vain for the answers because they really aren’t there. The Constitution was not intentionally designed to compensate for party-based partisanship. Rather, it was a balancing act between regional forces, between economic interests, between small and big states, between slave and free, and between political philosophies. The Framers needed to find enough compromises to get the states to agree to the new framework. No interest got everything, but all got something, because they had to. Why join otherwise?

Obviously, the Framers were aware of political parties (England’s Parliament had its Whigs and Tories). They were also aware of the dangers of partisanship (most notably, Madison in Federalist No. 10). But they hadn’t yet made the leap to only negotiating governance through the synthetic framework of a multiparty system, nor to the idea of candidates for Chief Executive differentiating themselves by party identification. The model for a President was in front of everyone—George Washington.

They also, as would soon seem obvious, didn’t really have an agreement on what we think of as a core question: just how much reach the national government should have. Madison’s exquisitely designed mechanism assigned (tolerably well) responsibility and created a modality for action, but it didn’t, and couldn’t, resolve the fact that any system of government creates winners and losers. He assumed compromise would be necessary and hoped that the dynamic equilibrium he created would foster it. Federalist No. 10 tells us he wasn’t naïve, but he still had hopes.

Finally, the Founders assumed that men (and they were all men) would, in the aggregate, find it within themselves to act simultaneously in their self-interests, their state and regions’ interests, and in the national interest.

They could be a bit optimistic because they had just done this: put aside enough of their parochial interests to act in a Burkean manner and make a Grand Bargain. In retrospect, this confidence might seem to have been misplaced, but it was not inherently irrational. Whatever their political differences, they understood one another. The best type of leadership would come from people like them: men of education, of property, of experience in leading other men. The fears they had about representative democracy came less from concern about their fellow aristocrats, and more from the rabble. Sensitive to those concerns, Madison and his fellow drafters created plenty of distance between actual authority and the rank-and-file voters.

Still, it was all just a theory that men could govern themselves. These men hadn’t even lived in a Constitutional monarchy. They were just a bunch of colonies under the thumb of the most powerful nation on Earth, one that did not faint at the use of coercion to get its way. Meaningful representation had been denied them; they had been taxed, imprisoned, even forced to quarter their own captors. The colonial assemblies they did have had little real influence. Now they were “free,” but what did that really mean? It’s hard to govern, and to accept governance, when no prior guidebook has been internalized.

At the very beginning, the nation had the enormous advantage of having George Washington as its first President. It is not possible for us to grasp the hold Washington had on the population when he began his Presidency in 1789. His prestige was enormous. His blessing was necessary for the Constitution; he gave eminence and legitimacy to the Office of the Presidency that it created; he was, in many respects, the benevolent King that George III had never been. Yet those assets came at a price: Washington would be a strong Chief Executive heading a strong central government, when so many in the country thought the Constitution said otherwise. And, because he was technically unaffiliated (although presumed to have views similar to Hamilton), he couldn’t be attacked as a factional leader. In fact, he couldn’t really be openly criticized at all because of the reverence with which the people treated him. This meant you could only oppose the government’s actions in the abstract, or by going through proxies.

It didn’t take all that long for those proxies to become well-defined. By the middle of Washington’s first term, Hamilton (as Secretary of the Treasury) was continuously facing off against Jefferson (as Secretary of State). These two men found virtually nothing that they could agree upon, especially in the key areas of foreign policy (with Hamilton’s wanting closer relations with England, and Jefferson’s tilting towards his beloved France) and the authority of the Federal government (Hamilton was for a great deal, while Jefferson barely recognized it).

In the beginning, Jefferson was at a considerable disadvantage because Hamilton had a huge head start in both organization and patronage. By creating the Federalist Party, Hamilton accomplished three major goals: giving it the imprimatur of leading the country, creating an infrastructure at the state level for expressing influence and attracting votes, and distributing patronage. Jefferson, in contrast, effectively had on golden handcuffs—while he could argue his case inside the Cabinet, he couldn’t publicly oppose the government of which he was a part.

Enter, James Madison. Madison had undergone something of a political conversion. Where he was once concerned about the central government’s (and the President’s) not having enough power to be effective, now he pivoted and professed to understand the Constitution he had largely written as having much more of a states-rights emphasis. Madison was an unexpected example of what happened to many American leaders when faced with the reality of the new government. A theoretical framework was just that, and, if the end product took them in an undesirable direction, they had no problem reading their own preferences into its vast ambiguities. Madison then partnered with Jefferson (quietly at first, more openly when the Democratic-Republican Party became public) in opposition to the Federalists. As inspirational and charismatic as Jefferson could be, it was Madison who did much of the spadework of putting together the party apparatus.

Where was John Adams in all of this? Absent for much of the period from 1777 to 1788, working on behalf of his country. First, in Paris with Benjamin Franklin to negotiate an alliance with France and later the end of hostilities (a more mismatched pair it was hard to imagine), then with Jefferson trying to establish legal recognition and diplomatic relations with foreign nations, and finally in London, in the critical job of first Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

It is one of those ironies of history that neither Adams nor Jefferson attended the Constitutional Convention, and so played at best an indirect role in drafting the Constitution. If they had been there, then perhaps they would have suggested a viable work-around for something that would bedevil them both in the future.

John Adams felt the pain first, as the nation would honor his service by giving him the worst job in government, “the most insignificant office that even the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.” Adams became George Washington’s Vice President. Then, as now, the job contained its expectant undertaker’s aspect—the Vice-President should be ready to serve when duty called. And then, as now, the Vice-President played a role in breaking ties in the Senate. Finally, then, as now, that’s all there was.

Adams being Adams, he thought his Senate role should include speaking (actually, a lot of speaking). And, Adams being Adams, obnoxious and disliked, he quite quickly wore out his listeners, who then voted to silence him. Apparently, the decisive moment occurred when he allowed himself to argue, endlessly, that a President should be called “His Majesty” or “His Highness.”

It’s hard to imagine this prickly, opinionated, deeply flawed, but utterly loyal and truly great man being muzzled at a time when even his eruptions might have added something of value, but Adams was. His position in the Administration became even more marginalized because his silent presence in the (substantially smaller) Senate was often actually needed—he cast a tie-breaking vote over 30 times. This meant he was unable to attend Cabinet meetings regularly, and he found himself outside of Washington’s inner circle (the President feeling that the job was largely legislative and that too-close consultation between him and Adams might therefore violate separation of powers).

As to Washington himself, he found himself frustrated and angered by the emerging partisanship and, perhaps, to the emerging resistance to his decisions. The country was still weak; its political institutions were new and fragile; it was still somewhat diplomatically isolated; and England and France were still potentially hostile behemoths. He had always intended on serving only one term, but the old General could see that the enemy was not only at the gates, but might also be within.

The great lesson that Washington had learned in fighting the British was that time mattered more than even geography. As long as he could field an army, the American Experiment would go on. He was confident in his own abilities, less so in those of the men who surrounded him. They didn’t look ready to him.

At this critical juncture, he decided to stand for re-election, knowing the challenges ahead might be even greater than those already faced. He was largely right—the Jay Treaty, his Proclamation of Neutrality, and his forceful ending of the Whiskey Rebellion were in the future, as was Jefferson’s resignation from the Cabinet to pursue his own ambitions. But he was still George Washington, still first in the hearts of his countrymen (if not all of the politicians who aspired to higher office). It was a quirk of the pre-political party Constitution that the two highest Electoral College vote-getters would be President and Vice-President—there was no consideration given to a ticket. This was to lead to some serious mischief in the two elections to follow, but, here, there was only a harbinger. Washington was essentially unopposed and re-elected unanimously. Adams, however, found himself in a tighter-than-expected race for the Vice-Presidency. The newly minted Democratic-Republican Party fielded a candidate against him, New York’s Governor George Clinton. Clinton won his own state and a few southern ones, including North Carolina and, of course, Jefferson and Madison’s Virginia. In Congress, there was a very tight split between supporters of the Administration and those opposed.

That split, and others, would manifest themselves constantly over the next few years, and Washington’s frustrations would grow. Even his own Teflon began to fray a bit, as more of the Administration’s opponents would start to whisper that he wasn’t really in control any more, and was perhaps growing a bit feeble. He was still a giant, though, as Madison was to find out when he opposed the Jay Treaty and was routed.

As for Adams, he remained locked in circumstantially required silence, tagged with the blame for policies he had little influence over. Because of his thin skin, he was an easy target, perhaps even easier than the hated Hamilton. Jefferson, on the other hand, grew more and more voluble in opposition, less and less disciplined in language. The two sides began to think of each other not merely as disagreeing on policy, but fundamentally mortal enemies who must be defeated.

Washington the Hedgehog had grasped that, and more. In 1792, despite an abundance of talent, we weren’t really ready for the implications of the choice of government we made in adopting the Constitution. The next four years were to prove more of the same. We wouldn’t be ready in 1796, as the war between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—and between former collaborators and friends, Adams and Jefferson—got even hotter.

All this Washington knew as he prepared to leave office. The unhappiness he expressed in his Farewell Address said it well, but only hinted at something that was obvious: the chalice he would be handing over to his successor, whomever that might be, was not exactly filled with the smoothest of wines.

More on that—on the battle between the two parties and between former collaborators and friends Adams and Jefferson, the role of the French, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Judiciary Act of 1801 and Adams’ appointment of “Midnight Judges,” Jefferson’s extraordinary road to the Presidency (on the 36th ballot), and the “Second Revolution”—next time.