Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I consider the party division of Whig and Tory the most wholesome which can exist in any government, and well worthy of being nourished, to keep out those of a more dangerous character. [Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, July 2, 1822]

It was Jefferson who did as much as any politician to bury the "Tory" side of the American political scene, represented by the Federalists, but he lamented them when they were gone. Because they weren't really gone, of course, merely absorbed into the one party that remained.

Which meant the American politics of the 1820s were not about historical ideological positions, but about personalities, greed, power-lust, gamesmanship, scandal-mongering, and journalistic manipulation.

Sound familiar? "Partisanship" may be in bad odor today. But if the parties are rooted in something real, and are not merely ad hoc coalitions of "whatever the other side is against," it can be the heartbeat of a democracy, as Jefferson, too late, came to appreciate.

Without it you get monstrous misuses of federal power, like the 1828 "Tariff of Abominations." Tariffs, in the days before the income tax, were how the federal government got its money. They were meant to be no higher than required to fund the relatively cheap business of running the country (federal expenditures in 1825 were something under $16 million). Legislators had begun to use them protectively, to shield local "manufactures" from foreign competition. But the 1828 tariff served no purpose but to increase the electoral chances of Andrew Jackson; it pleased Pennsylvania, New York and Kentucky, punished New England, and aimed at "manufactures of no sort," as Virginia's John Randolph tartly observed, "but the manufacture of a President of the United States."

The political players of the decade included the likes of John Rowan, Stephen Foster's cousin and a leading politician of Kentucky, who once killed a man in a duel that began in a dispute over which of them excelled the other in classical languages.

Or Henry Clay, also of Kentucky, who, though he got no Latin, fought plenty of duels anyway and among the global political men of his generation was, with the possible exception of Simon Bolivar, the best dancer.

Americans are so horrified today of letting the House of Representatives decide an election that they'd rather see the Supreme Court do it, it seems. But if you read the Federalist (e.g. #66) you get the idea that presidential choices by the House were expected to be commonplace. That's how John Quincy Adams, second-place finisher in the popular vote, was elevated to the White House anyhow in 1824 -- one of only two father-son teams, so far, to hold the office.

A passionate man who had been lasciviously fond of French actresses and the New England custom of "bundling," Quincy Adams was a hard man to like. His wife wrote a history of what she regarded as their failed marriage, and he pushed his three sons as hard as his own father had pushed him, and one turned out an alcoholic and another a suicide.

A health enthusiast who awoke before dawn, Quincy Adams walked two hours up and down Pennsylvania Avenue every morning in any weather and swam in the Potomac whenever he could, stark naked, attended only by his black servant, Antoine, in a canoe, and only almost drowned once, so far as we know.

The rest of his morning ritual consisted of reading two or three chapters of Scripture, along with the relevant commentaries. He often spoke of the presidency as a "sacred" duty. In spite of his lack of a mandate, he determined to mobilize the power of the federal government to do God's will and improve the nation. By which he meant build roads and canals, and establish a great national university and an observatory.

Perhaps no other American president came to the White House having spent so much of his adult life in European ruling circles. Seeing what the Europeans thought and said about us made Quincy Adams a die-hard American nationalist.

It was an era of intense Protestant evangelism. Not the rude and anti-intellectual thing mocked by Mencken a century later. This was Pre-Darwin Christianity, when Enlightenment rationalism and science and Christianity still lived comfortably cheek-by-jowl in America. It was a sophisticated and intellectual creed that tended toward millennialism, which suggested people could make the world better and perhaps even bring closer the Kingdom of God.

The belief flourished that the United States was chosen by God to fulfill a great mission, and this allowed reformers to drive public opinion in good causes by proclaiming that America's sins stank in God's nostrils worse than those of other countries. Religion and patriotism were inextricably confused, and pious Christianity and liberalism merged in the richest capitalist circles of New England to give birth to abolitionism.

There are eras in American history when the political alignments flow neatly in two channels, and sink their roots in philosophical soil. Then there are times when the political river seems to break up like a braided stream and spill all over the landscape. It would be an impossible task to assign any American today to the party of any of the candidates for president in 1824 -- Adams, Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, Crawford. Their positions were as strongly held as any modern politician. But like those of the modern office-seeker, they too often were based on expedience and the best chance.

To us, trying to perceive ideologies, their platforms look like an incoherent jumble. So would ours to them. But I think they'd understand us well.

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