How Today Is Like the 1790s
Many of the supposedly unprecedented features of contemporary politics have familiar echoes in earlier American history, and so the best mirror in which to see our present moment clearly could be our own past. This is the first in a series of posts putting current American politics in historical perspective, beginning with the 1790s.
March 1, 2023 5:04 am (EST)
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The last several years in American politics have been bad. So bad, in fact, that most of us have never seen anything like it. Some consider the moment unique; others compare it to experiences of democratic regression in other countries. But many of the supposedly unprecedented features of contemporary politics have familiar echoes in earlier American history, and so the best mirror in which to see our present moment clearly could be our own past. This is the first in a series of posts putting current American politics in historical perspective, beginning with the 1790s.
In Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, Gordon Wood notes that, “except for the era of the Civil War,”
the last several years of the eighteenth century were the most politically contentious in United States history…. As the Federalist and Republican parties furiously attacked each other as enemies of the Constitution, party loyalties became more intense and began to override personal ties, as every aspect of American life became politicized. People who had known one another their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid confrontations. Personal differences easily spilled into violence, and fighting erupted in state legislatures and even in the federal Congress. By 1798 public passions and partisanship and indeed public hysteria had increased to the point where armed conflict among the states and the American people seemed likely.
Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy
The fights were so vicious in part because the stakes were so high. Americans were doing something nobody had done before, ever—simultaneously creating a single country out of thirteen disparate colonies, establishing a continent-sized republic, and giving a large swath of the population the vote. An entirely new polity was being designed on the fly, and everything was up for grabs: the players, the teams, even the rules of the game itself.
When the molten political lava of the American Revolution cooled, it hardened into two opposing blocks with differing views on policy, ideology, and geopolitics. Federalists tended to be conservative nationalists; they favored a strong central government, a commercial society, and good relations with former colonial ruler England. Republicans tended to be libertarian localists; they were devoted to states’ rights, an agricultural society, and the cause of revolutionary France. The country quickly sorted itself into warring camps, fighting battles across the pages of scurrilous partisan tabloids filled with diatribes and disinformation. The entanglement of American domestic politics with European power politics gave rise to endless conspiracy theories about foreign meddling and collusion, some of which were true.
In 1796, Thomas Jefferson, the country’s foremost Republican, wrote to a friend that “the aspect of our politics has wonderfully changed…. In place of that noble love of liberty which carried us triumphantly thro’ the war, an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance as they have already done the forms of the British government.” Alexander Hamilton, the leading Federalist, wanted to raise an army to fight France and Virginia—which seemed two versions of Jeffersonianism in action. Federalist President John Adams thought the country riddled with “narrow Bigotry, the most envious Malignity, the most base, vulgar, Sordid fishwoman Scurrility and the most palpable Lyes, a plenary indulgence, and an unbridled licentiousness.” Republican James Monroe mused to his friend James Madison about challenging Adams to a duel, but refrained because “he is an old man & the Presidt.”
This was the context in which the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, criminalizing criticism of the government and trying to suppress the Republican vote by withdrawing the franchise from recent immigrants. The Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which came close to advocating the right of states to nullify federal law. After two decades of independence, the American experiment was foundering.
But the ship of state didn’t capsize. Instead, the country’s leading politicians decided to deescalate and compromise. Adams took the first step by abandoning a growing confrontation with France, something that pleased the opposition while confounding hardliners in his own party. (So much for Hamilton’s army.) An increasingly democratic electorate voted Republican in the election of 1800, at which point Adams accepted the outcome and Hamilton helped Jefferson gain the presidency over Aaron Burr. Jefferson took a conciliatory tone in his inaugural address, declaring that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” And once in power, he and then Madison, his successor as president, accepted a strong national government and looked forward rather than backward.
Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy
There are some clear similarities between the crises then and now. In both, new popular media spurred increasing partisan polarization and turned politics into an all-encompassing culture war. Both periods saw parties try to shape the electorate to their own advantage, with voting rights for immigrants and the disadvantaged emerging as flashpoints. And in both cases, close presidential votes with underspecified election rules created political havoc, leading to eventual institutional reform (the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 and the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act in 2022).
But the two eras obviously differ widely, from the scale and speed of politics to their social and institutional context. The total U.S. population in 1800 was still only 5.3 million, including enslaved people. The country’s economy was overwhelmingly agricultural. Information traveled no faster than horse or boat. The government was tiny and the constitutional structure was new, ambiguous, and malleable, with basic features of the political system, such as the Supreme Court, still underdeveloped.
The Lessons We Can Learn
So what insights does this comparison offer us about today? First, it serves as a useful reminder that our own rabid partisanship is not unique, just the latest instance of a recurring political bug. Nobody predicted the divisions that emerged during the 1790s; then as now, contemporaries were shocked at the ease with which a large, diverse country could separate itself into hostile factions baying for blood, each convinced that the other represented an existential threat to the republic. When it happens yet again down the road, our descendants will probably be shocked too. They shouldn’t be. The tendency to adopt competitive antagonistic identities is built deep into human psychology and is easily triggered during times of rapid change and new forms of political communication.
The second lesson, though, is that even major crises can be resolved. At the turn of the nineteeth century, political leaders decided to climb down from their most extreme positions and accept the need for compromise, ultimately privileging their national identity as Americans over their partisan identities and personal feelings and remaining committed to the revolutionary project that they had begun and were determined to see succeed. Unfortunately, not all of their counterparts today have shown the same commitment, and so our crisis continues. But the good news is that we have a safety net they didn’t—a strong, well-established institutional context that can help prevent a complete political breakdown.
James Madison knew just how fragile the new republic was. In fact, he refused to allow his record of the Constitutional Convention to be published during his long lifetime, because he felt that would undermine political stability by revealing just how human and contingent the genesis of the nation’s fundamental law had been. “Publication should be delayed,” he wrote to a friend, “till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, & till a knowledge of the controversial part of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no improper account.”
Reasoned appreciation of the new regime’s merits was great, he thought, but ideally that would eventually be supplemented by emotional veneration, making systemic breakdown practically unthinkable. Two centuries on, Madison’s system, now fully elaborated at multiple levels across a continent, is worshipped beyond his wildest dreams, and that gives it stability. Collapse is not in the cards; sclerosis is a bigger concern.
The third lesson this case teaches, finally, is that the resolution of one crisis can sow the seeds of another. U.S. political participation during the 1790s was broad compared to the rest of the world, but narrow in absolute terms, with the vote restricted largely to white male property owners. Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800” used to be portrayed as the rise of democracy, full stop, because the triumph of Republican populism over Federalist elitism ushered in a raucous, striving society filled with opportunities for new men on the make. Now it seems better characterized as the rise of white male democracy, because only certain people received its benefits.
“Despite the animosity between them,” writes Rosemarie Zagarri in Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic, “Federalists and Republicans shared more in common than either side realized. Members of both parties wished to preserve the existing gender hierarchy in which men were dominant and women subordinate.” And occasional abolitionist exceptions aside, much the same could be said of existing racial hierarchies as well. Even as the franchise expanded for white men, it contracted for women and free Black people. Slavery was legally eliminated in the north, but became ever more entrenched in the south, even as it extended itself into new areas gained through the country’s relentless westward expansion. The Era of Good Feelings didn’t extend to everybody; political calm at the top of society was purchased in part at the expense of those at the bottom and on the margins, whose servitude and displacement only increased. A few decades later, these repressed contradictions would burst forth with a vengeance, propelling the nation into an even greater crisis and ultimately civil war.
There are reasons to believe that the United States is slowly emerging from its current crisis, but partisan divisions remain high and it is not yet clear at whose expense their resolution will ultimately come. Even if the current rifts heal, there is reason to believe that, beneath the harmonious surface, the elements of future divisions will already be brewing.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.