An Intemperate Man: The Impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase

by Michael Liss

On their part they have retired into the Judiciary as a stronghold. There the remains of Federalism are to be preserved and fed from the treasury, and from that battery all the works of Republicanism are to be beaten down and erased. —Thomas Jefferson to John Dickenson, December 19, 1801

Portrait of Samuel Chase, by John Wesley Jarvis, 1811. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

So frustrating, so very frustrating. In 1800, Jefferson had captured the Presidency, his young Democratic-Republican Party the House and Senate,  and a new age was beginning. Out went the crabby, cranky John Adams and his bilious Federalists.  In came lightness and hope and liberty, a true “Second Revolution.”

All except for those gatekeepers, the ones manning the “battery,” those accursed Federalist judges. Twelve years of Federalist rule had left 12 years of Federalist judges. On top of those, a lame duck Federalist Congress had passed, and a lame duck President Adams had signed, the Judiciary Act of 1801, creating even more of them. The image of Adams feverishly signing commissions as the candle of his Presidency burned down rankled every good Republican, starting at the very top. 

Less than two weeks before he had written to Dickenson, Jefferson, in his first Annual Message, had called for Congress to repeal the Midnight Judges Act, and, within two months, they complied. All 16 of the new federal judges were shown the door. While there was some question about terminating the service of presumably lifetime appointments, there was little argument that Congress had the power to create or alter the composition of the federal bench, to add or subtract positions. 

Republicans had found the means to eliminate the Midnight Judges, but without new slots, Jefferson had to wait for vacancies to fill, and vacancies were slow in coming. His relatively conciliatory early approach was insufficient for some in his party seeking positions, and likely emotionally dissatisfying to him personally. Jefferson had the job; he had the votes in Congress; why shouldn’t he be permitted to govern, unencumbered by his political opponents on the Federal bench? His conviction grew after his Republican majorities in the House and Senate expanded with the Midterms. The public had spoken; the Federalists were in a political death spiral; it was time for the obstruction to end. Read more »

Midnight Judges And Jefferson’s Battle Over The Federal Courts

by Michael Liss

“Declaration of Independence,” John Trumbull. Capitol Rotunda.

November 1800. In the Presidential rematch between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson we have a clear loser, but not yet a winner. John Adams will be returning home. Thomas Jefferson, thanks to a bizarre tie in the Electoral College with his erstwhile running mate, Aaron Burr, will have to wait for the House of Representatives. Whatever that result might be, it is clear that a new team is coming to Washington. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans have flipped the House and have narrowed the gap in the Senate. Over the course of the next few months, thanks to by-elections, three more Federalist Senators will go down, and Jefferson’s party will control both the Executive and Legislative branches.

It’s fair to say that many Federalists are in a panic. Through Washington’s two terms and Adams’ first, being in power is the only thing they have known. It was so easy in the beginning, given Washington’s enormous personal prestige. Then, because people will talk, and there were more ambitious and talented men than there were positions to fill, the grumbling set in. It took just three years from Washington’s 1789 inauguration for Madison’s (and, sotto voce Jefferson’s) new political party to emerge, and, although the Democratic-Republican team did not contest the Presidency against Washington in 1792, it was part of a loose Anti-Administration coalition that won the House.

The grumbling increased in Washington’s Second Term, first directed at his Cabinet, particularly Alexander Hamilton, then, respectfully, of course, at Washington himself. A great man, yes, it was whispered, but in decline and controlled by his advisors. Among the whisperers was Washington’s own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who left the Administration at the end of 1793 to return to Virginia and do what Jefferson did exceptionally well—ponder, and quietly, oh so quietly, move political chess pieces around on the board.

The Federalists’ reign was not over: in 1796, enough people thought John Adams had earned a stint in the hot seat, and, by the narrowest of margins and with the help of the House of Representatives, Adams held the office for the party.  Still, the balance of power was inevitably shifting away from the Federalists. The Party was basically “aging early,” becoming stiff, cranky, lacking in new ideas. Read more »

Sunrise at Monticello

by Michael Liss

We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists. —Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. White House Collection/White House Historical Association.

Inauguration Day, 1801. John Adams may have beat it out of town on the 4:00 a.m. stage to Baltimore, but the podium filled with dignitaries, none more impressive than the man taking the Oath of Office. Thomas Jefferson, Poet Laureate of the American Revolution, former Secretary of State, outgoing Vice President, was standing there in all his charismatic glory.

As politicians have done, presumably from time immemorial, he pronounced himself awed by the challenge (“I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking”), imperfect (“I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment”), and an obedient servant (“[r]elying, then, on the patronage of your good will…”). He made the obligatory bow to George Washington (Adams being absent both corporally and in Jefferson’s spoken thoughts), and called upon the love of country that stemmed from shared experience: “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”

How very Jeffersonian. Inspiring, embracing, collaborative, worthy of his fellow citizens’ admiration and even love. Looking back over 200 years, allowing for the archaic language, and even the sense that this was not his best work, you can still hear in it the echoes of what drew people to him.

Jefferson was more than a symbolic change in direction from the Adams (and Washington) years. He was the physical embodiment of what he later came to describe as the Second American Revolution. The public had cast aside the old Federalism, stultifying and crabbed, with a narrow vision of what democracy meant, and had chosen to move towards the bright light of freedom.

You have to love the story. It fits with an image of Jefferson that many have clung to over the decades. Jefferson was more than a stick figure of stiffly posed portraits, policies, and speeches. He was a full-blooded, passionate person: Jefferson the gourmand; Jefferson the suave raconteur; Jefferson having a grand old time in Paris and at Monticello. He was the courtier abroad, and the master of house and estate at home—his days filled with fine wine, good conversation, books, music, and enchanting women. Read more »

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 »

Is it Time for a Libertarian-Green Alliance?

by Akim Reinhardt

Third_PartiesIn the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis received over 6% the vote. If he had not run, much of his support would likely have gone to Republican Ken Cuccinelli rather than Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who won by a narrow 2.5% margin. Last year's U.S. Senate race in Montana also saw a Libertarian candidate siphon off 6.5% of the vote, which was well above Democrat Jon Tester's margin of victory. And of course many Democrats are still apoplectic about Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader raking in nearly 5% of the national vote in 2000, most of which would probably have otherwise gone to Democrat Al Gore. As is, Nader's candidacy created an opening for Republican George W. Bush to win . . . the controversial Supreme Court case that in turn awarded him Florida, and with it the White House.

For many Democrats and Republicans, Green and Libertarian candidates respectively are far more than a thorn in the side. They are both a source and target of intense rage.

How dare these minor party candidates, who have no actual chance of winning the election, muck things up by “stealing” votes that would have otherwise gone to us!

Indeed, there is no hatred quite so fierce like that which is reserved for apostates or kissin’ cousins.

But for committed Greens and Libertarians, the response is simple. Our votes are our own. You don’t own them. If you want them, you have to earn them instead of taking them for granted. And if you want to get self-righteously angry at someone because the other major party won the election, then go talk to the people who actually voted for the other major party. After all, they’re the ones who put that person in office, not us. Instead of looking for an easy scapegoat, go tell the people who voted for the candidate you hate why they’re so wrong. That is, if you’ve got the courage to actually engage someone from “the other” party. It’s really not that hard. As Greens and Libertarians, we have civil conversations with people from other parties pretty much everyday of our lives. You should try it some time.

But aside from the presumptuousness, arrogance, and cowardice framing the attacks typically launched at us by supporters of the major parties, what really galls Libertarians and Greens about the above statement is not the false claim we “stole” your election. It's that we “have no actual chance of winning the election.”

And just why is that?

Read more »

Conventional Wisdom

by Akim Reinhardt

As the Republican Party begins its national convention today in Florida, I offer this brief history of political conventions and examine their relevance to modern American politics.

George Washington's cherry treeThe generation of political leaders who initiated and executed the American Revolution and founded a new nation, believed in the concept of republican virtue. That is, they felt it the obligation of every citizen to give of themselves to the welfare of their new, shared political endeavor. That their definition of citizenship was quite narrow is very imoprtant, but another matter altogether.

The founders believed that in order for the republic to survive and be healthy, citizens must sublimate their selfish interests for the sake of the general welfare. In line with this, they imagined that the nation’s politicians would be citizen servants: men, who for a temporary period of time, sacrificed the profits and joys of their personal pursuits so that they might shoulder the responsibility of governing the nation, the states, and localities, offering their wisdom and insight for everyone’s benefit.

There was nothing of political parties in this vision. Neither the Articles of Confederation nor the U.S. Constitution made any mention of them. They are, in the strict sense of the term, extra-constitutional political organizations, and they are most decidedly not what the new nation’s architects had in mind when they fashioned this republic. Indeed, they did not even use the term “party” for the most part, instead referring to the political alliances that soon formed as “factions.” George Washington especially despised the new factionalism, even in its nascent form, and he refused to ally with any group. To this day, he is the only president listed on the roll of chief executives as Independent.

Perhaps it was näive of Washington and other purists to scoff at the emerging political gangs. Perhaps the constitution’s framers should have better anticipated this development and done something to temper it, to keep it from warping their beloved system of checks and balances. Regardless, the move towards modern parties was underway as the nation’s politicians began to lineup behind the philosophies and reputations of top leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams.

Read more »