I suppose it’s time to talk about partisanship and acrimony here, no? We’re a week into the government shutdown, and tempers are flaring. And needless to say, people are starting to talk that history talk. Here at The Longest View, we approve of taking a historical perspective, but most discussions don’t go much further back than the 1995 Clinton/Gingrich shutdown, or at most back to the 1980s.
At the same time, I’ve noticed a desire, especially on the part of the right wing of the Republican Party to enlist the Founding Fathers as spiritual supporters of the Congressional stalemate (Newt Gingrich‘s take is especially bracing). In fact, in the years of the early Republic, the question wasn’t whether the government was going to shut down, but whether the country itself was going to hold together.
The political conflict that simmered during Washington’s presidency, but that the reverence in which Washington was held kept under wraps during his two terms, erupted in the 1790s: private and public discourse was, in the words of John R. Howe, characterized by a “spirit of intolerance and fearfulness that seems quite amazing,” and partisan distrust was rampant.
Once Washington was out of office and John Adams took over the presidency, the rancor grew exponentially. By the mid-1790s, disunion was discussed openly; and as soon as threats to secede became part of the national conversation, it seemed increasingly likely. Sectional antipathy between North and South grew and every crisis brought with it talk of impeachment, from the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1794 to the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Among all social classes, a furious debate raged over the legacy of the revolution. Those who had been radicalized by the struggle for independence challenged the social and political elites, claiming that they violated the spirit of republican democracy.
The anti-federalist, populist Democratic-Republican societies that formed between 1793 and 1794 (and became the foundation of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party) characterized the years after the revolution as a tragic betrayal, in which the the democratic promise of the “Spirit of ’76” had been corrupted by too much money and power concentrated in too few hands. The repeated theme of these clubs was that the “lower sort” – artisans, labourers, and small farmers – were not reaping the benefits of democracy that the new nation promised. And while there was certainly overlap between the grievances voiced by the Democratic-Republicans and the participants in both the Whiskey and John Fries’s Rebellions, and both groups emerged around the western frontier of Pennsylvania, Democratic-Republican societies were not primarily organized around economic issues. Rather, they challenged the political corruption that they believed had come to infect American life. Ironically, as US democratic process became more routine, it seemed increasingly under threat.
The antipathy of the 1790s dissipated after Jefferson’s election in 1800 (although there were significant fears that Jefferson’s inauguration would lead to secession for real, fears that resurfaced in the debates over the War of 1812). At no point, though, did either Federalists or Republicans argue that government itself was the problem. These men actively hated each other. They spread scurrilous rumours about each other, drank toasts to each other’s deaths, encouraged insulting newspaper reports, and even dueled to the death. They had very, very different ideas about how the new country should be run: who should be able to vote, how political power should be distributed. But they were deeply invested in the success of the government, a system that they had seen come into being.
Of course, one can take this analogy only so far. The Congress itself was constituted very differently at the beginning of the 19th century, not least because the Senate was elected by each state’s legislature (a practice that seems terrifying now, given the way many states have fallen into effective one-party rule). The electorate was much smaller, much more homogenous. And yet, there were still deep and hostile political divisions that fell along partisan lines that became more calcified as the nation settled into itself.
The splits we’re experiencing now have been a part of American political life from almost its very beginning. But the belief that politics should somehow devour the government that make them possible is a new development, and a striking one. Without government, there would have been no American politics: indeed, we might argue that US politics have been so acrimonious over the history of the nation because Americans have been so invested in government, local and national. To shut down the government, as the Republicans are finding, is to shut down political discourse, to shut down the ground on which partisanship itself is laid out. Without government, political conversation stops.