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Jesus and the Two Party System

Adams v Jefferson

As a student of US history I learned that at least since the Washington administration there have been two competing visions of America. These visions can be understood by considering the formation of what is called the “First Party System” pitting the ideas and followers of Alexander Hamilton against those of Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s vision of the United States was a commercial and industrial empire that would rival Britain in wealth and power. Jefferson’s was of a vast landscape of liberty, occupied by prosperous yeoman farmers enjoying freedom from the political and economic difficulties accompanying Europe’s emergence into modernity.[1] Both of these men and their allies strove to harness the new national government to their purposes.

Washington himself had a very different idea about the purposes of the national government. He believed that the national government should not work for only a faction of the population, but for all Americans. That is why he appointed men to his cabinet with such divergent views as Hamilton and Jefferson. But Washington was exceptional in many ways, and his warning against the dangers of factionalism and party politics in his Farewell Address went unheeded by his countrymen.[2]

Washington’s warning that the “spirit of party” might bring about the destruction of the fledgling republic almost came true in the first presidential election held after he left office. Throughout the Washington administration and continuing even more intensely during the Adams administration the disagreements between Hamilton and Jefferson were hardened. The animosities were so great that Jefferson, who by a quirk of the Constitution in its original iteration had become Vice President to his rival the Federalist John Adams, resigned his post and returned to Monticello to consider how to bring about the end of his political foes’ influence. In his mind the revolution had been betrayed and the republic endangered by the excesses and monarchical leanings of the Federalists and needed to be rescued. When the election of 1800 approached Jefferson decided to run against Adams for the presidency.

Jefferson had been elevated to the Vice Presidency in the administration of his rivals because the constitution at that time gave the office to whoever obtained the second most electors in the Electoral College. To prevent a similar circumstance in 1800 Jefferson conspired with New Yorker Aaron Burr to run simultaneously, under the assumption that Burr would receive enough electoral votes to be named Vice President. Then the Executive would be controlled by a single faction: Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, and Federalist policies could be vanquished.

The election resulted in a deadlock in the Electoral College, which sent the election to the House of Representatives. The House was controlled by Federalists, who did not want to see either Jefferson or Burr become President. A deadlock in voting in the house resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, leaving none of the other candidates (including Adams) with a chance of winning. The stalemate in the House nearly led to the fall of the government, as Federalists steadfastly refused to elect either Jefferson or Burr, and the Democratic-Republican Governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia threatened to call up the militia to install Jefferson as President by force.

Hamilton was the power behind the scenes. He detested Jefferson but he hated Burr even more (he would eventually be killed by him in a duel), and he realized the importance of maintaining unity among the States, which were not yet fully committed to union. Hamilton realized that without union his dream of a great commercial empire to rival Britain was unlikely. So he cut a deal with Jefferson, that he would persuade the House to elect Jefferson President, and that Jefferson would not dismantle the fiscal policies Hamilton had championed, that had pulled the country from its crippling Revolutionary War debt. Jefferson would deny for the rest of his life that he had made a compromise, but he did leave intact the Federalist financial policies, and there is enough evidence to indicate that he did negotiate to leave little doubt of it.[3]

In my estimation this election and its outcome was one of the most momentous events in world history. It had two enormous consequences. The first was that it established trust in the political system contained in the Constitution. The peaceful transfer of administration from one faction to a rival faction was unheard of. Subsequent revolutions in France and Latin America would be unable to duplicate it and would suffer decades of civil unrest. But that stability that resulted allowed the United States to avoid become factionalized and succumbing to internal and external threats and to prosper and grow. Trust in the system would only be broken when a divided Republic found its politicians unable to compromise as had Hamilton and Jefferson, and that failure resulted in Civil War. But by 1860 there was a real established union to defend. There was not in 1800.

The other consequence was that the rivalry between the two visions of America became institutionalized in the two party system. Where in other countries similar rivalries resulted in bloodshed, in the United States the appeal of the two factions was confined to the electoral system and their weapons to the ballot box. This is not to deny that there has been plenty of scandal there, but the effect was to perpetually postpone the final decision about what the United States was to be. The subject of American domestic politics and foreign policy ever since has been the tension between these two visions.

In effect, the two irreconcilable positions became the basis for American politics. US history shows periods when one side or the other prevailed. When the ideas of one were in the minority, they were content to agitate and await their next turn at bat in the next election. What bound the two rival factions into one people was faith in the system. Both sides could experience setbacks and not have to concede defeat. This isn’t really compromise, but over the years it has tended to prevent the United States from straying too far toward one side or the other.

Now we are astonished by the state of our national politics. Americans have lost faith in the institutions of government. Many fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of duly elected officials. The reins of government are held by Wall Street oligarchs. One faction in the national government has sworn not to compromise with the other, leading to strains on the system of checks and balances. Whole populations feel alienated from their government and from each other. Numbers of people have begun to see defiance of the national government as patriotism. Some have suggested that true patriotism lies in the destruction of the Republic.

The problem here isn’t really that there is no spirit of compromise. Americans have never been very good at compromise. The problem is that more and more people have lost faith in the entire system of our government based on the Constitution, the system that has throughout America’s history fostered the sense that even if we vehemently disagree we are all still American. Rather than seeing each other as fellow countrymen we are dividing into rival tribes, even to the point of fraternal violence.

Today I read in my morning meditation about Jesus casting out demons, and some in the crowd accusing him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Jesus responded to those accusers “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house.” (Lk. 11:17 NABRE) As I read this I though how appropriate to describe the current state of our nation.

The demon we must exorcise is our alienation from each other. As Americans we are not called to agree with each other or even to like each other. But we are called to respect each other as fellow citizens, and to respect the laws and institutions that make us so.

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same … manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes….[4]

[1] By “emergence into modernity” I mean the rise of industrial capitalism and its accompanying effects such as the creation of an exploited working class and the race by European powers to colonize the resources of every corner of the globe.

[2] “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged.” George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” The Avalon Project, 2008, accessed March 3, 2016,http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[3] See Ferling, John E. Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Pivotal Moments in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] Washington Farewell Address.

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