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. Read more »

The Country Mouse and the City Mouse: A Brief History of American Identity, 1790-Present

by Akim Reinhardt

In 1790, shortly after the 13 states ratified the U.S. Constitution, the new federal government conducted its first population census. Its tabulations revealed an astonishingly rural nation. No less than 95% of all Americans lived in rural areas, either on a fairly isolated homestead (typically a farm) or in a very small town. How small? Fewer than 2,500 people. Meanwhile, just 1/20 of Americans lived in a town with more than 2,500 people. All told there were only 26 such towns, only half of which had so many as 5,000 people

In a nation of nearly 4,000,000 people, the ten largest cities had a combined population of only 152,000. And half of those top ten cities did not even have 10,000 people.

Yet, even then, tensions between rural and urban interests were already evident. Urbanites, particularly elite merchants, had drawn on their power, wealth, and influence to promoting constitutional ratification. At the forefront of opposition had been small farmers.

A general theme among opponents to ratification were concerns that the new constitution aimed to create a much stronger central government. Some worried it would erode the sovereignty of the individual states. Some thought it created something too much like the despotic British government they’d just rebelled against. And some fretted about the possible loss of personal liberties; the much vaunted Bill of Rights was not part of the original document.

Debate was fierce. Historians believe it’s possible that a majority of Americans actually opposed the new Constitution. Yet it passed it eventually. During an era when voting rights were tied to personal wealth, small farmers held little political sway in most states despite their numbers. Their concerns did lead to the first 10 Amendments being added, but in the end the Federalists, particularly active in larger cities such as New York and Boston, won the day. Yet the vengeance of anti-urbanites was close at hand. Read more »