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The Fierce Partisanship of the Founders

By Ron Chernow, Wall Street Journal - June 26, 2010

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In the American imagination, the founding era shimmers as the golden age of political discourse, a time when philosopher-kings strode the public stage, dispensing wisdom with gentle civility. We prefer to believe that these courtly figures, with their powdered hair and buckled shoes, showed impeccable manners in their political dealings. The appeal of this image seems obvious at a time when many Americans lament the partisan venom and character assassination that have permeated the political process.

Unfortunately, this anodyne image of the early republic can be quite misleading. However hard it may be to picture the founders resorting to rough-and-tumble tactics, there was nothing genteel about politics at the nation's outset. For sheer verbal savagery, the founding era may have surpassed anything seen today. Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the founders were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence. They inhabited a combative world in which the rabble-rousing Thomas Paine, an early admirer of George Washington, could denounce the first president in an open letter as "treacherous in private friendship…and a hypocrite in public life." Paine even wondered aloud whether Washington was "an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any."

Such highly charged language shouldn't surprise us. People who spearhead revolutions tend to be outspoken and courageous, spurred on by a keen taste for combat. After sharpening their verbal skills hurling polemics against the British Crown, the founding generation then directed those energies against each other during the tumultuous first decade of the federal government. The passions of a revolution cannot simply be turned off like a spigot.

By nature a decorous man, President Washington longed for respectful public discourse and was taken aback by the vitriolic rhetoric that accompanied his two terms in office. For various reasons, the political cleavages of the 1790s were particularly deep. Focused on winning the war for independence, Americans had postponed fundamental questions about the shape of their future society. When those questions were belatedly addressed, the resulting controversies threatened to spill out of control.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 had defined a sturdy framework for future debate, but it didn't try to dictate outcomes. The brevity and generality of the new charter guaranteed pitched battles when it was translated into action in 1789. If the constitution established an independent judiciary, for instance, it didn't specify the structure of the federal court system below the Supreme Court. It made no reference to a presidential cabinet aside from a glancing allusion that the president could solicit opinions from department heads. The huge blanks left on the political canvas provoked heated battles during Washington's time in office. When he first appeared in the Senate to receive its advice and consent about a treaty with the Creek Indians, he was so irked by the opposition expressed that he left in a huff. "This defeats every purpose of my coming here," he protested.

Like other founders, Washington prayed that the country would be spared the bane of political parties, which were then styled "factions." "If I could not go to heaven but with a party," Thomas Jefferson once stated, "I would not go there at all." Washington knew that republics, no less than monarchies, were susceptible to party strife. Indeed, he believed that in popularly elected governments, parties would display their "greatest rankness" and emerge as the "worst enemy" to the political system. By expressing narrow interests, parties often thwarted the popular will. In Washington's view, enlightened politicians tried to transcend those interests and uphold the commonweal. He was so opposed to anything that might savor of partisanship that he refused to endorse congressional candidates, lest he seem to be meddling.

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