Imagine No Partisanship

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We are living in what feels like a time of bitter partisanship. However, partisanship has been with us since the country’s founding. During Washington’s first term, Hamilton’s Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party had fierce debates over the proper role of government. Both encouraged Washington to run for a second term to keep the country unified despite these partisan differences. Washington addressed the risks of political parties and partisanship in his famous 1796 farewell address:

“Let me…warn you … against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally… The domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, is itself a frightful despotism….… It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

Once Washington left office, partisanship took over. The election of 1800 brought heated rhetoric between Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson’s opponents said his election would result in a country where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Adams was criticized as a person who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character." The 1800 election was so close that it was decided in the House of Representatives.  The election of 1824 also ended up in the House, as discussed in more detail below. In 1856, Representative Brooks of South Carolina nearly beat Senator Sumner to death over political disagreements. Certainly, the Civil War is an example of partisanship taken to an extreme. The 1876 Presidential election between Republican Rutherford Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden took months to determine a winner. Shades of 2000, each side accused the other of election fraud. Eventually a special commission ruled Hayes the winner on a strict party line vote. For the next four years, Hayes was called “Rutherfraud” or “His Fraudulency”.

Era of Good Feelings

There has been one break in the history of partisanship. The ‘Era of Good Feelings’ lasted from 1816 – 1824, spanning the two terms of President Monroe.

Prior to the War of 1812, the country was geographically and politically split. The Northeast generally voted for the Federalist candidate with the rest of the country supporting the opposition Democratic-Republican party. New England and the Federalist Party opposed the War of 1812 as harming their economic interests through its restrictions on foreign trade. Members of the Federalist Party met in December 1814 to discuss their opposition to the continuing war at what became known as the Hartford Convention. Delegates to the convention discussed the possibility of seceding from the Union or making a separate piece between New England and England, although those ideas were not included in the Convention’s final report. By the time the Convention closed its proceedings, Andrew Jackson had already won his victory in New Orleans and a peace treaty signed by Britain and the United States. The Hartford Convention and its report was an embarrassment to the Federalists.

The Federalist Party become associated with secession, disunion, and treason because of the Hartford Convention. It was on its way to extinction. James Monroe ran for President on the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1816. He won in a landslide over the Federalist candidate, Rufus King. The Federalist Party never ran a candidate for President again after 1816.

With the collapse of the Federalists, Monroe entered office without any competing parties. Monroe wanted to unify the country, so he embarked on several nationwide good-will tours. He traveled about 2,000 miles over four months during his tour of Northern States in 1817. It was the first opportunity for many Americans to see their President and celebrations and parades occurred in many of the places he visited. A Boston newspaper coined the phrase ‘Era of Good Feelings’ to describe the mood of unity during this time.

As the last founding father to serve as President, Monroe was aware of the Founders’ opposition to parties. He governed as a national leader, not a party leader. The elation the country felt after the War of 1812 certainly contributed to the feelings of national accord.

Monroe ran for re-election in 1820. There was no one to oppose him. He was denied a unanimous victory in the Electoral College by one faithless elector. Unconfirmed legend has it that the elector wanted to ensure that Washington remained the only president to win unanimously.

During Monroe’s Presidency, the Missouri Compromise regarding slavery was passed. This diffused the divisive issue of slavery for over 30 years. The Monroe Doctrine opposing any further European colonization in North American stabilized foreign affairs leaving the country without any foreign threats.

End of an Era

The ‘Era of Good Feelings’ did not last. Following Monroe, the 1824 election was one of the most contested elections in our history. Four candidates ran. The election ended up in the House of Representatives when no candidate won a majority, the last time that has occurred in our history. Andrew Jackson had a plurality of electoral and popular votes, and he expected the House to select him as President. In what has become known as the “corrupt bargain,” candidate Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams and was named Secretary of State in Adams’ cabinet. Jackson spent the next four years opposing Adams whenever he could. Partisanship was back.

Conclusion

Wars and crises have a way of unifying the country. Certainly, the end of the War of 1812 brought the country together just as the attack on Pearl Harbor did in 1941. Partisanship declined for a brief time after 9/11. A landslide victory in a Presidential election could either signal a decline in partisanship or the dominance of a single party. Eisenhower won two terms with over 80% of the electoral vote and 55% of the popular vote. While the 1950s had its challenges, it is now generally considered a nostalgic calmer period. Reagan won two of the largest landslides in history with over 90% of the electoral votes and almost 60% of the popular vote in 1984. Nonetheless, Reagan faced strong opposition to his tax cuts, strategic defense initiative, and confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Partisanship has always been with us, with rare exceptions. It may wax and wane in different circumstances. We can try to follow President Monroe’s example and hope that Washington D.C. moves past the current level of partisanship and returns to business of good government.