In which we see politics befall the Founding Fathers
—Hey, Mr. K.
Yesterday you asked whether the growing rift between (Federalist) Alexander Hamilton and (Democratic-Republican, or just Republican for short) James Madison marked the beginning of party politics.
The short answer is no. And Emily has a wry expression on her face.
—Because now you’re going to give us the long answer.
Gotta earn my paycheck, Em. So here we go: It’s hard to call the Federalists and Republicans parties, because the Founding Fathers hated the very idea of parties. They believed any American involved in politics should put the country first, and if intelligent patriots of good will got together to solve a problem, an objectively fair solution would emerge. The idea that intelligent patriots of good will might actually have honest differences, that there might be more than one legitimate way to solve a problem, was hard for them to accept. And when confronted with this prospect, they tended to say the other guy belonged to a “faction,” a group of selfish intriguers who were pursuing their own agenda. The notion of a modern political party came later.
That said, there are threads that connect these factions to our modern political parties. The Democratic-Republican, or Republican, faction that was led by Jefferson with Madison as his lieutenant, was the party of the little guy. For most of U.S. history, being the party of the little guy was a matter of favoring limits on the government, because the perception was that government power tended to side with business interests against the people. That would change, and in our time, the little guy—and gal—has often favored more government rather than less. But that’s a matter of means. The end has always been the same: favoring ordinary people.
—So what does that make the other party? The party of Darth Vader?
Not exactly, Em. Hamilton’s faction, the Federalists, are the party of the big dogs—and little dogs who believe they will become big dogs. As we’ll see, there are philosophical connections that link them to a party known as the Whigs, and then later the Republican Party. The Federalists and these heirs have been the money party. The business party. The Federalists and their successors were the party of the strivers, like Hamilton himself—an immigrant who became a paragon, even architect, of the American Dream. They saw themselves as champions of opportunity, of the promise of success, variously construed, for those who were willing to work for it. For most of American history, these people believed the government needed to lend a hand to their enterprises, whether by giving them lucrative contracts, or in imposing taxes on foreign goods so that their own seemed cheaper and better, or other means. Later, once American business became a global force, they came to conclude that government should stay out of their way. But here too, the issue was means, not ends.
Let’s be clear: there were elements of hypocrisy and delusion in both these visions. Jefferson, who considered himself the champion of ordinary working people, was a rich slaveholder (as was Madison). And a strong strain of elitism and exclusion ran through every version of American politics that followed in their wake. And Hamilton, who himself was very honest in his public life (less so in his private life) labored on behalf of those more interested in a quick buck than earned rewards. The Federalists also kept on insisting, and getting, government help even as they complained about the way government constrained them. But these two visions of American life, and the conflict between them, have proven amazingly durable. As has the basis of that fight, whose essence is the proper role of government. In the early life of the republic, the Federalists wanted more, and the Republicans less.
There were other fights along these lines. One concerned taxes. There was all kind of debts in the infant nation. Some of it was personal debt. And some of it was government debt, notably state debt. But there were thirteen states, with widely varying situations regarding the debt. Some states, like Virginia, had little or none. Others, particularly Northern states, had a lot. Hamilton pushed for the U.S. government to absorb those debts—to make them national, rather than state debts—and he was actually eager for the government to borrow more money.
—Why would he want that?
For a couple different reasons, Adam. One is that it would strengthen the indebted states financially and bind them to the nation. Another is that by borrowing money, and then paying it back, he would increase the financial community’s confidence in the nation. That money could be used, by the way, to strengthen the country in other ways, too, like supporting industry and building up its military.
—But how was the government going to pay back all that money?
At least three different ways. One was by selling land. The United States didn’t have much money, but it had a lot of territory that could be carved up and sold off for cash. Another—and this is something I want you to remember kids, because it’s going to come up again and again—was by slapping taxes, or tariffs, on foreign goods coming into the United States. This killed two birds with one stone: it raised money, but it also made imports more expensive, which gave consumers an incentive to buy home-grown products. And helping industry grow was a big part of Hamilton’s program. Last but not least were consumption taxes, taxes on stuff you buy. The most notable of these was on whiskey, something a lot of people drank. But again, Hamilton was as at least as interested in the idea of vigorous government was he was actually raising money.
—How did the Madison crowd feel about this?
You tell me.
—They hated it.
—Because it helped the rich. And it made the government more powerful.
Right. But this wasn’t just a philosophical argument. People in the states where there wasn’t a lot of debt resented having to pay for other states. And people really cared about that whiskey tax. Here’s the thing: whiskey was made from grain. Grain was really hard to move, and thus really hard to sell. (At this point, Americans depended upon water transportation—shipping stuff was literally ten times more expensive by land than by sea, which is why rivers and coastline were so important, and determined where most Americans lived.) But distilling that grain—corn into bourbon whiskey; wheat into scotch whiskey, rye into rye whiskey—made it much more compact, durable, and easy to sell. So taxing spirits, as they were called, really hit people where they lived, and they really objected to it. Out in western Pennsylvania, some farmers were so mad about this that they marched on the house of a particularly hated tax collector. Shots were fired, and following week thousands of insurrectionists gathered to attack Pittsburgh. In response to the Whiskey Rebellion, as it was known, President Washington raised an army that he personally led with Hamilton into Pennsylvania. By the time the government forces got there the rebels had dispersed; some were arrested, tried, and convicted, though Washington ultimately pardoned them. Federal authority had ultimately been affirmed. And Hamilton’s program, backed by Washington, prevailed. For the decade of the 1790s, the Federalist faction dominated the U.S. government.
So, Adam, let’s go back to you. Who are you with? Mr. Hamilton? Those angry farmers in western Pennsylvania? Someone else?
—Gosh, Mr. K. I don’t know. I understand Hamilton. But I also understand those farmers.
Are you being indecisive, Sadie?
—Do I have to decide?
No. You don’t. Understanding is enough, at least for now. That’s what you’re here for.
Next: Where the hell is Narbone?