I am reading historian Gordon Wood’s splendid “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.” It is an ideal companion for this July 4 weekend because it reminds us of the great continuities in our politics and national condition. Dynamic social and economic change, concern for the middle class, poisonous politics, bad policies, flawed leaders — they were all there two centuries ago, just as now. There’s a lesson here, though perhaps not the one you suspect.
Dynamic change? In 1800, the 5.3 million Americans (nearly a fifth were slaves) had increased by more than a third since 1790. They were moving west at a prodigious pace. Before the Revolution, the Kentucky territory had few settlers; by 1800, the state of Kentucky (1792) had 220,000. Americans uprooted often (sometimes six or seven times, reports Wood) and routinely occupied land they didn’t own. President George Washington concluded that nothing “short of a Chinese wall, or a line of troops” would stop the squatters.
It wasn’t just the law that Americans disregarded. The Revolution, Wood writes, “emboldened many . . . to challenge all hierarchy and all distinctions.” Many refused to address their employers as “master” or “mistress.” Hiring servants was hard, because the unequal status was so glaring. Calling servants “help” obscured this, because it suggested only temporary inferiority. It implied “a sense of independence and a hope of rising in the world,” said one minister.
Reinforcing this social leveling were early signs of a middle class. Commentators increasingly referred to “middling sorts” who “could not be classified either as gentlemen or out-and-out commoners,” writes Wood. They were successful small farmers, merchants, shopkeepers and artisans. They expected the same respect accorded their economic superiors.
It was not a calm time. The Constitution was untested; boundaries between national and state authority were blurred. “The United States are a young nation,” observed Alexander Hamilton. The use of the plural verb, Wood notes, remained widespread until after the Civil War. In 1794, Washington raised an army of 15,000 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, the refusal by Pennsylvania farmers to pay a federal excise tax on distilled alcohol. This was “the largest incident of armed resistance” to the federal government until the Civil War.
Political rivalries were often raw. Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — the secretaries of treasury and state in Washington’s first Cabinet — detested each other. In 1792, Washington urged them to show “more charity for the opinions and acts of one another.” They didn’t. Partisan newspapers often specialized in character assassination that would match anything today.
Although the Founders deplored political parties, a party system quickly took root. On the one side were the Federalists of Hamilton and John Adams; they favored a strong government and rule by educated elites. On the other were Jefferson’s Republicans, who championed small government, extolled freedom and were more trusting of ordinary voters. (“Empire of liberty” was Jefferson’s phrase.) The French Revolution compounded these differences. Republicans saw a triumph of liberty; Federalists feared anarchy and senseless violence.
“Except for the era of the Civil War, the last several years of the 18th century were the most politically contentious in United States history,” writes Wood. “As the Federalist and the Republican parties furiously attacked each other as enemies of the Constitution . . . every aspect of American life became politicized. People who had known one another their whole lives now crossed streets to avoid confrontations.” Polarization anyone?
The split caused the Federalist Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, giving the government broad powers to expel foreigners and try anyone for criticizing Congress or the president. This was an atrocious policy that became a permanent stain on Adams’s presidency.
Taken at face value, this history seems reassuring. Whatever our present problems and disputes, we’ve been here before. The American political system is resilient. Conflicts will be resolved. Time is a powerful cure. We have muddled through before; we will again. Though imperfect, the system works.
There is some truth to this — but only some. The larger truth is that the political system doesn’t always succeed. It doesn’t always resolve conflicts. The Civil War is its biggest failure. Post-World War I isolationism is another. Would a more international America have prevented World War II? In the 1960s, only the civil rights movement prompted politicians to move against discrimination.
We live in an empire of contention. We disagree about government spending, immigration and America’s place in the world, among other things. The democratic dilemma is finding common ground between what’s acceptable to the public and what’s necessary for the nation, even though what’s necessary may not be clear. History’s lesson is that the political system remains a permanent work in progress. It can never be taken for granted. Failure is always an option.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.