Bitter and fruitless partisanship is not baked into the founding of the republic, yet it appears so quickly that one must wonder whether this – including the hyper-partisanship we have now – is a feature, not a bug.
It occurred to us because we were reading about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his second cousin, John Marshall, who was an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and, later, the influential fourth chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Marshall and Jefferson despised one another. It was an animus so great and enduring that it is mystifying, especially because, while Jefferson was famously reserved, Marshall could charm the birds from the trees. But not the Jefferson bird.
We were reading about their relationship in James Simon’s “What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States,” when we came across a passage in a letter from Marshall that seemed like a Rorschach test for our times – and possibly for many other times in our history.
The issue then was party, or faction; they used the terms interchangeably and, like “democracy,” which they equated with mob rule, often with disgust.
In the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, the colonists already had split into two factions, Loyalists and Patriots. The Loyalists were soon removed from their midst as they fled or were beaten, plundered and driven out. When one party in America today foresees the complete routing of the other – take, for example, the column published by The New York Times Tuesday, by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, “The Republican Party Is Doomed” – we wonder if they see what we see.
We seem to need this division.
The young Americans managed to hang together from the end of the war through the adoption of the Constitution and George Washington’s first term as president, despite profound differences in philosophy and feeling. By Washington’s second term, they were pulling apart, with Jefferson, the first secretary of state, heading a radical faction labeled Republican and Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary, representing the Federalists.
When John Adams succeeded Washington as president and was in the Federalist camp, the rupture became plainer.
Then the Adams administration passed, through a sympathetic Congress, the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it harder for immigrants to become citizens and easier to deport them, because it was feared they would not be good Federalists; and making it relatively easy for the government to fine and jail people – primarily newspaper editors with Republican views – accused of failing to support the Adams administration.
In 1799, Marshall, who approved of the acts, wrote to Washington, who approved of them even more heartily.
“It seems there are men who will hold power by any means rather than not hold it, and who would prefer a dissolution of the union to the continuance of an administration not of their own party,” Marshall told his mentor. “They will risk all the ills which may result from the most dangerous experiments, rather than permit that happiness to be enjoyed which is dispensed by other hands than their own.”
If he was describing the Republicans – and he was – he seemed to have missed half the point. Jefferson could not be certain he would not be jailed by the Adams administration for sedition, just a year before he bested Adams for the presidency in 1800.
Yet, this sentiment about partisanship, exchanged between early partisans, will seem to ring just as true today for Democrats regarding Republicans and the administration of President Trump as for Trump supporters looking at Democrats.
Each side seems to the other to be involved in dangerous experiments, whether it is the Green New Deal or undermining NATO. Each thinks the other seeks power by any means and puts party before country.
We are right back where we started – and it is cold comfort.