Blogs > Cliopatria > Thinking About the 1790s

Mar 8, 2005 1:34 pm

Thinking About the 1790s

The bestseller lists are filled with books about the Founding Fathers, as if we needed to be reminded in these days of polarized politics of the foundations of our government. Maybe we do, maybe don't.

But we can indeed benefit from studying the decade of the 1790s, the decade which figures in so many of these books about Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the others.

In many ways it is the decade which offers the most relevant lessons for us in our time, despite the obvious differences.

The most obvious difference is that political parties were inchoate in the 1790s. Opposition to political parties of all stripes was a commonly held prejudice. Even Thomas Jefferson, while leading the opposition, denounced the idea of an opposition that takes the form of a party.

So what then can we usefully learn from the 1790s? One thing. Humility.

Like the 1790s ours is a decade of political polarization. Partisanship is red-hot. Political debates end in fiery denunciations. The middle in Washington is nearly vacant as politicians on both sides cleave to the margins, catering to the interest groups that form the base of their own power.

In these debates I hear the echoes of the 1790s when Jeffersonians and federalists believed the worst of each other. For example. Like his Jeffersonian critics, George Washington held the worst fears about the opposition. They thought he was a would-be monarchist. He thought they were bent on destroying the union in imitation of the French model of revolutionary change. (Hamilton literally was fearful that he might find himself, like Louis 16th, on the scaffold.)

We think our politics polarized on moral issues driven (some say) by religious fervor. But they were men of reason and even they found it easy to be taken in by the belief in their own righteousness. It did not occur to them to claim that they were doing God's work or that God had taken sides. And yet their politics were every bit as divisive as if they had invoked God.

Some have drawn parallels between our time and the 1850s. But the parallel with the 1850s of course is misguided. We are not headed for civil war.

But we are hobbled as politics was in the 1790s by a conviction that only our own side is possessed of truth, honor, justice and courage.

In a democracy this is dangerous.

In the 1790s the federalists became committed to self-defeating policies that ended a few years later in their own death. (Think: Alien and Sedition Acts.)

Neither party today is likely to overreach in such a similarly overdramatic fashion as to lead to political suicide. So how will it all end?

I have no idea. But things can't remain as they are. We will either move decisively in one party's direction or the other over time. The question that should preoccupy us now it to make the transition in such a manner as to leave the defeated party a little dignity.

Surely that can't be too much to ask. And it ought to be a standard both parties can adopt.

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