To live is to experience; to experience is to form opinions; to form opinions is to be biased (Heraclitus - not really; I just made that up, but it sounds like something one of those old philosophers might have written). My bias tends to be that there is often some better middlish ground between dogmatic political positions in a society (always exceptions, of course), and whether there is or not, the best way to communicate a position is through reason and persuasion and not by sloganeering, name calling and demonization. I am somewhat in the minority with this position, and partisans on the right and left continue to believe that they will win unending victory for their side, despite over two centuries of back and forth without victory. While I would like the discussion to be more civil and less destructive, I don't kid myself that this is ever really going to happen, certainly not in my lifetime. Perhaps the best I will ever have is this revolving door of power grabs with intermittent power sharing in between. And over all, I do think we are doing a pretty good job despite our problems.
But, whatever happens, I admit the hypocrisy and ugliness of partisanship has a fascination for me, and I like to whine, scold and opine upon it. I decided to write a few posts on the topic, and this is the first, discussing some of the beginnings of it under our constitution. I have written elsewhere on what I mean by partisanship (again, as opposed to ideology) and will not repeat it here, but I am talking about demonization, character assassination, underhanded attacks and the like. One example might be - it is a matter of ideology whether you believe the health care reform act was a good idea or a bad one. Some conservatives calling end of life counseling the rise of "death panel" or liberals accusing the conservatives of wanting poor people to die faster are examples of partisanship.
Anyway, the best place to start is the beginning, as someone said (I forget who, but someone).
George Washington has a solitary place in American history. Such was his prestige, so forever unique his position as the first executive officer, so lionized by his success in the war, so respected was he for his demeanor and character, that to assail him publicly was just not effective for anyone opposed to him. He was the first and last non-partisan president, at least in the sense that he was the unanimous winner of the electoral college receiving 1 vote from each of the 69 electors his first term and nearly the same his second. Under the system at that time, the electors cast two votes each - John Adams, already a legend himself, became the vice president because he had the next highest amount - only 36 of 69 electors in 1788 - with the nine other candidates splitting the rest. Not that he was really opposed by Adams or any of the others, as they were really running for vice president.
Though federalists and anti-federalists (far fewer) now existed, they really weren't yet parties in the sense that they are today. Washington was a federalist - that is - he was one of those who supported the adoption of the constitution so that they could strengthen the federal government. Still, though he could be described as philosophically a federalist and a whig, it was his intention to be impartial, and to seek some kind of golden mean from what he believed was wise governance.
"To please all is impossible, and to attempt it would be vain. The only way, therefore, is . . . to form such a government as will bear the scrutiny of criticism, and trust to it the good sense and patriotism of the people to carry it into effect . . . ."
His farewell address (published, not spoken) contained the following, written for him most likely by Hamilton, who finished it for him in 1796 (partially using a Madison draft made in 1792):
"They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modified by mutual interests. However combinations and or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp to themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have listed them to unjust domination."
But, this was long after Jefferson and Hamilton had driven him to distraction with their internecine warfare. Both were in Washington's cabinet, the offices established by congress, Jefferson as secretary of state and Hamilton the secretary of treasury until both quit in Washington's second term, Jefferson first. It was to their time as officers that some scholars trace the beginning of American party politics. To do so ignores Madison's opposition to Hamilton's seminal plans in the house and the federalists and anti-federalist battles in the convention when the constitution was hammered out. The central dispute over state rights has never been resolved.
Hamilton and Jefferson were to lead their parties until Aaron Burr, politically enemy of both, but Jefferson's vice president, put Hamilton down in a duel. No doubt, Jefferson was outmatched in the cabinet, and he was perhaps wise to leave. Washington was highly susceptible to Hamilton's energetic persuasion and Henry Knox was almost as much under Hamilton's spell as Madison was Jefferson's ("Knox joined Hamilton in everything" - Jefferson; "Knox as [Hamilton's] shadow, follows the substance" - Madison). Whereas Jefferson was timid in debate, Hamilton was like an unquenchable fire. Hamilton's recent biographer, Ron Chernow, aptly describes him as a "human word machine".
And so the two sides battled over a National bank, the public debt, honoring securities, manufacturing and the deal breaker after Jefferson had left office, the Jay Treaty, which was perceived by Jefferson and his followers as foolishly knuckling under to Britain.
There was no need for Washington to use his cabinet as a council, but he decided to anyway, particularly during a crisis. Almost inevitably, Hamilton would get his way time and again.
Perhaps Hamilton, an unrepentant anglophile, struck first, although it is difficult to tell at this stage. The foreign affairs issue of the day almost always involved Britain, with whom relations were still strained, and France, ostensibly America's ally, who were virtually always at war or near war until the defeat of Napolean in 1815. Jefferson correctly understood that Britain meant to surround the United States by forming agreements with the forming territories on either side (Kentucky and Vermont not yet states) and wanted to negotiate with Spain to cede them Florida and Louisiana (which he accomplished almost by accident when president). Moreover, while Jefferson was a Francophile, he sought a commercial treaty with Britain on even terms and wanted to remain neutral were Britain and Spain to go to war.
But Hamilton, a schemer every bit Jefferson's equal, if not intially superior to him, had already had secret meetings with George Beckwith at the time he first reported a conversation with him in 1790 to Washington and Jefferson. Later, sent by Washington to sound out Beckwith, Hamilton played his own game. We know from Beckwith that Hamilton not only warned him about Jefferson (although not Washington), he also told him he would keep him advised of any developments. It does not appear from what we know that he was playing the double agent on behalf of Washington either.
The same year, at one of the most famous dinners in history, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton worked out some of their difficulties concerning the public debt and funding of the government in Hamilton's favor, in exchange for the nation's capital eventually moving from Philadelphia to a spot on the Potomac River. Not surprisingly, it was representatives from Maryland and Virginia who switched votes, giving Hamilton his way. And Jefferson was pleased for the time. But, by 1792, he declared himself a "dupe" for Hamilton's "schemes," and that he had not fully understood them.
By then, Jefferson and Hamilton were deep in a subtle war under Washington's nose for the direction of the country. Jefferson, the loser in almost every political battle with Hamilton, had also grown colder to Washington. He found his administration too far from his republican principals and did not appreciate his public levees and use of a horse drawn carriage, among other trappings. But, it was Hamilton who really drew his ire. They continued to have to completely different views of Great Britain, and where Jefferson correctly recognized that Britain had no intention of helping America or treating her fairly (although his idea of peaceful coercion would later not only fail, but nearly destroy America when he was president), Hamilton again interferred in foreign affairs, possibly leaking information to Britain's envoy.
It seemed the two could agree on nothing, neither foreign or domestic. By 1792, they had made it a proxy war in the press, Hamilton hiding behind a federalist publication, John Fenno's Gazette of the United States, and Jefferson behind Philip Freneau's National Gazette.
Jefferson here made a crucial mistake. He had borrowed a copy of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, which he was in sympathy with, from a printer and decided to drop a note with it stating his pleasure that it would be published against "the political heresies which have sprung up among us". He was referring to writings of the vice president, John Adams, who was still perhaps his best friend in the world. He told Madison (I believe nothing Jefferson says) that while he would call Adams a heretic to his face, he did not mean to publish, and he did his best to make up with Adams (they would later split for a long time when they competed the second time for the presidency in 1800, but became bosom pen pals again in 1812 until their death on the same day in 1826). But, he could not make up with Hamilton who was in reality the leader of the only party until then - the federalists. With Freneau's Gazette, the second party, led by Jefferson and seconded by Madison, came to life. Call it the Democrat-Republican party, the Republican-Democrat, the Democrat, or the Republican, as you like.
Meanwhile public attention, thanks to Jefferson's goof (if it was a goof) brought the matter to Washington's attention and the stern president, demanded an explanation. On September 9, 1792, Jefferson wrote a letter to him which is astonishing for its revelation of the bitterness between the two men - as descriptive of Hamilton's nefarious activities as it was of Jefferson's whining impotence in the face of a younger but more energetic enemy. It is too long to include in full here, but as it is one of the most fascinating letters in our history, and shows how even great men, no matter how dignified and worshipped, are subject to vanity and and pride, I will give much of it and highlight the really good stuff:
"When I embarked in the government, it was with a determination to intermeddle not at all with the legislature, & as little as possible with my co-departments. The first and only instance of variance from the former part of my resolution, I was duped into by the Secretary of the Treasury and made a tool for forwarding his schemes, not then sufficiently understood by me; and of all the errors of my political life, this has occasioned me the deepest regret. It has ever been my purpose to explain this to you, when, from being actors on the scene, we shall have become uninterested spectators only. The second part of my resolution has been religiously observed with the war department; & as to that of the Treasury, has never been farther swerved from than by the mere enunciation of my sentiments in conversation, and chiefly among those who, expressing the same sentiments, drew mine from me. . . . That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknolege & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference. His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature. I saw this influence actually produced, & it's first fruits to be the establishment of the great outlines of his project by the votes of the very persons who, having swallowed his bait were laying themselves out to profit by his plans: & that had these persons withdrawn, as those interested in a question ever should, the vote of the disinterested majority was clearly the reverse of what they made it. These were no longer the votes then of the representatives of the people, but of deserters from the rights & interests of the people: & it was impossible to consider their decisions, which had nothing in view but to enrich themselves, as the measures of the fair majority, which ought always to be respected. -- If what was actually doing begat uneasiness in those who wished for virtuous government, what was further proposed was not less threatening to the friends of the Constitution. For, in a Report on the subject of manufactures (still to be acted on) it was expressly assumed that the general government has a right to exercise all powers which may be for the _general welfare_, that is to say, all the legitimate powers of government: since no government has a legitimate right to do what is not for the welfare of the governed. . . . To say nothing of other interferences equally known, in the case of the two nations with which we have the most intimate connections, France & England, my system was to give some satisfactory distinctions to the former, of little cost to us, in return for the solid advantages yielded us by them; & to have met the English with some restrictions which might induce them to abate their severities against our commerce. I have always supposed this coincided with your sentiments. Yet the Secretary of the treasury, by his cabals with members of the legislature, & by high-toned declamation on other occasions, has forced down his own system, which was exactly the reverse. He undertook, of his own authority, the conferences with the ministers of those two nations, & was, on every consultation, provided with some report of a conversation with the one or the other of them, adapted to his views. These views, thus made to prevail, their execution fell of course to me; & I can safely appeal to you, who have seen all my letters & proceedings, whether I have not carried them into execution as sincerely as if they had been my own, tho' I ever considered them as inconsistent with the honor & interest of our country. . . So that if the question be By whose fault is it that Colo Hamilton & myself have not drawn together? the answer will depend on that to two other questions; whose principles of administration best justify, by their purity, conscientious adherence? and which of us has, notwithstanding, stepped farthest into the controul of the department of the other?
To this justification of opinions, expressed in the way of conversation, against the views of Colo Hamilton, I beg leave to add some notice of his late charges against me in Fenno's gazette; for neither the stile, matter, nor venom of the pieces alluded to can leave a doubt of their author. . . I have never enquired what number of sons, relations & friends of Senators, representatives, printers or other useful partisans Colo Hamilton has provided for among the hundred clerks of his department, the thousand excisemen, custom-house officers, loan officers &c. &c. &c. appointed by him, or at his nod, and spread over the Union; nor could ever have imagined that the man who has the shuffling of millions backwards & forwards from paper into money & money into paper, from Europe to America, & America to Europe, the dealing out of Treasury-secrets among his friends in what time & measure he pleases, and who never slips an occasion of making friends with his means, that such an one I say would have brought forward a charge against me for having appointed the poet Freneau translating clerk to my office, with a salary of 250. dollars a year. . . I hold it to be one of the distinguishing excellencies of elective over hereditary succesions, that the talents, which nature has provided in sufficient proportion, should be selected by the society for the government of their affairs, rather than that this should be transmitted through the loins of knaves & fools passing from the debauches of the table to those of the bed.
And so on. It's a great read and I recommend it (you can find it online). Hamilton responded the same day, and if not as long or poetically, with the same argument - it's not me; it's him:
". . . "I do not hesitate to say that, in my opinion, the period is not remote when the public good will require substitutes for the differing members of your administration . . . . I find myself placed in a situation not to be able to recede for the present. . . .
But when I no longer doubted that there was a formed party deliberately bent upon the subversion of measures, which in its consequences would subvert the government; when I saw that the undoing of the funding system in particular (which, whatever may be the original merits of that system, would prostrate the credit and the honor of the nation, and bring the government into contempt with that description of men who are in every society the only firm supporters of government) was an avowed object of the party, and that all possible pains were taken to produce that effect, by rendering it odious to the body of the people, I considered it as a duty to endeavor to resist the torrent, and, as an effectual means to this end, to draw aside the veil from the principal actors. . . .
Nevertheless, I pledge my honor to you, sir, that if you shall hereafter form a plan to reunite the members of your administration upon some steady principle of coöperation, I will faithfully concur in executing it during my continuance in office; and I will not directly or indirectly say or do a thing that shall endanger a feud. . . ."
In other words, he wasn't going to stop unless he believed Washington fixed the problem - which was Jefferson, although he offered himself as a mutual sacrifice, if necessary. And, he didn't stop. If anything, in typical Hamilton fashion, he got worse. While not the great lyricist that Jefferson was, he could write a compelling argument faster and longer than seemed humanly possible and continued to bash Jefferson in Fenno's Gazette. Jefferson left his counter-attacks to his supporters. He was at his best when pulling strings behind the screen and he did in fact do so. Madison and Monroe came to Jefferson's aid and congress split between the two, and the two parties were solidified.
Both Hamiton and Jefferson believed that the union itself was at stake and that the other side would be the reason for its downfall. Partisans almost always believe that. Listen to the rhetoric today. However, at the birth of the union, when there was more grounds to worry, Washington was concerned about that too. But it was the parties warring in the press - the partisanship, and the feelings which it aroused in the public - which he believed might end it, not the competing philosophies.
I leave off here for now and will return to pick up my assault on partisanship in the future. But, if you've read this blog before, you may wonder why I seem to press upon Jefferson's flaws so often and not give Hamilton his due as often, as, at least initially, he was the worse of the two and certainly Jefferson's equal. There are reasons. For one thing, Hamilton finally undid himself. His sexual affair in the midst of his warfare with Jefferson, and his being successfully blackmailed by his lover's husband, came back to haunt him when another Jeffersonian journalist, James Callendar, threatened to out him later in the 1790s, and suspicion came upon his acts as the former secretary of treasury. His defense was interesting to say the least. He deliberately outed his adultery himself in a pamphlet in order to defend himself professionally (and fairly, it appears - he was not corrupt). He obviously considered this so important - and I'm not judging - that it was worth humiliating himself, his wife and family in so publishing. I wrote about his affair and what it wrought on March 28, 2008 in An Early Sex Scandal - another fun with the forefathers post, and it's a fascinating story. In defending himself in this fashion, he destroyed his chances of ever further elective office, had he even wanted it, although he continued to remain politically active, dominated the federalists, and for two years even secretly controlled President Adams' cabinet. But, for the public, he was done.
And while his political philosophy still holds great sway in our country in opposition to that of Jefferson's, particularly through the opinions of the future Supreme Court chief judge, John Marshall, a Hamilton protege, he has not ever enjoyed the fame that Jefferson does. It is Jefferson who is on Mount Rushmore and is undoubtedly ranked higher in America's Olympian pantheon than Hamilton. Both, whatever their faults, were great men in their own way, and perhaps character flaws such as their must often be part of the package.
Both Jefferson were abolitionists in their words, the difference being that Jefferson was a slave owner, did not free most of his many slaves when he could have, even after his death, and acted to continue slavery for the south, despite his own protestations. I do not feel bad about despising this failure, particularly as he himself considered the institution barbaric and he held himself in such high regard.
And, of course, Jefferson did get to be vice president and then president, stabbed President Adams in the back when he was vice president, nearly destroyed the economy of our country while president himself and so mangled relations with Great Britain (policies continued under Madison) that we ended up in another war with them (you can find fault on Britain's side too, of course). I could go on with an impressive list of character flaws, but I've done this elsewhere. Jefferson outlived Hamilton by 22 years, becoming and old man who covered his mistakes and faults under the guise of sage, and left a long history of duplicity and partisanship behind him.
Monday, January 03, 2011
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .