As regular readers know, I am a little (OK, more than a little) obsessed with the Early Republic period of American history and spend a lot of my time reading about the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, the Philadelphia constitutional convention, and the Washington and Adams administrations. One of my takeaways from all of this reading is that for all of our modern-day worship of the founding fathers, we lack of a sense of how foreign their world was as compared to ours.
I was reminded of this by Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, who made a similar point on Twitter, apropos of a political advertisement in which the candidate, a conservative Republican, extols the founders for “getting it right the first time.”
People really don’t get how many (understandable) errors the Founders made, even on their own terms and, more importantly, how different the early Republic was from the antebellum mass republic most people (mis)associate with the Founding.
There are the obvious differences. The United States of 1790 — the year of the first census — was a predominantly rural country with an extensive system of slave labor. Its largest city, New York, was home to 33,131 people. To a visitor from Paris (population: 524,186), the busiest metropolis of the young Republic would have looked like a provincial capital. The borders of the new nation were in flux and under threat from foreign powers and domestic adversaries, from the British in Canada and the Spanish in Florida to those Native Americans in western territories who fought to keep settlers and speculators off their land.
The politics were vastly different too. It’s not just that there weren’t parties, but that there was no concept of the loyal opposition. When, in 1791, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson began to inch their way into conflict with Alexander Hamilton over the latter’s financial policies and broad influence within the Washington administration, they had to more or less develop a theory of partisan opposition. And even then, as the historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick note in “The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800”:
The key fact may well be that at this indistinct stage of party formation there were as yet no rules at all, and no sense of limits within which suspicion and even hate were to be graded and controlled. Parties could not yet be conceived as other than alliances for warfare in which the stakes were no less than survival or extinction — and certainly not as alternating associative structures through which to manage the affairs of government.
For the most part, in the present, Americans of different perspectives and beliefs see each other as legitimate political actors. Or at least, they know they are supposed to view each other that way. But this is not a natural idea. It had to be developed. And in the meantime, political conflict between Americans could take on existential stakes.