The idea that an organized legitimate political opposition to an existing elected government did not exist until our Constitutional Republican form of government emerged from the chaos of The Articles of Confederation. Beginning as early as 1790, before political parties had even come into being, the political landscape was littered with contentious and frequently violent confrontations between people with profound political differences. Hence the antifederalists led by Jefferson and Madison, came to confront the policies of the Federalists led by Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Political disputes on occasion ended in physical assaults and on occasion duels—i.e., Burr vs. Hamilton. Shea’s rebellion ended poorly for the aggrieved party. If it hadn’t, we would not have a Republic today.
The term political party was equated with the concept of “faction” and with ‘faction’ was the implied possibility of violence. “Faction” and internal opposition to existing governments were equated with ideas of sedition and traitorous behavior. Opposition to one’s own government was unheard of before 1790. A people could rebel against a King because monarchy was an “illegitimate form of governance” —the legitimacy of government stemmed from the “consent of the governed”. Only an illegitimate government could be removed from the control of the people. Sustaining a position of opposition—organized or not, required a great deal of confidence that the moral predicate for one’s opposition was well grounded in the Founding Principles themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, who in 1790 was President Washington’s Secretary of State, and James Madison who wrote most of our Constitution and a good portion of our Bill of Rights opposed many of the Federalists in and out of government including Washington himself, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson’s vision of Republicanism with States rights and limited Federal government was at odds with the Federalists who supported a stronger more centralized form of government and a centralized banking system, that came into existence only to pay off the existing government debts—which it did at the great cost of inflation and recession. Sound familiar?
There was probably never a time in our country’s history with more political violence than the 15 years following the States adoption of our Constitution. Even the 10 years leading up to our Civil War didn’t approach the political rancor between our founding fathers during the 1790’s. Political discourse was coarse and angry, charges of treason and sedition were made frequently on the floor of Congress and in newspapers that individually would align themselves with one political narrative over the other. The “spoils system” —the post-election practice of rewarding loyal supporters of the winning candidates with appointive public offices and access—including judgeships, lucrative post masters’ positions, and “favors in commerce”, all sound very familiar today. Even though we had a new Constitution, the Code needed for implementing the principles of that Constitution was just beginning to be written in the States and at the Federal Level.
Election fraud was ubiquitous, and the line between political tribute and fraud was thin and often crossed. Civic honor was practiced publicly even when personal virtue was not. Sound familiar?
It took almost until the mid-19th century after Federalists turned to Whigs and then Republicans, and Republicans turned to Democrats that political parties were no longer looked at as “factions” and traitors to the existing government, but rather as “the loyal opposition. Political parties became like a capacitor in an electrical circuit that stores and releases a preset charge. Political parties allow for the passions of various persuasions to be stored and strategically discharged not exceeding a certain level. They are a means of controlling the passions of the “violence of faction”.
Today that has all turned on a dime. The power of government that Thomas Jefferson so worried about has come back to use all its resources to subjugate their opponents and marginalize their ideas. We have not yet reached the situation that our country was in in the last decade of the 18th century. Both sides of the political chiasm of self-righteousness need to stop acting as factions themselves and stop looking at their opponents as factions. For me anyone that loves their country, and our Constitution could never be considered a “faction”. If one denounces the Constitution and the Principles of our Founding then they should be confronted politically, and only if they break the law—rioting in the streets, doing business with foreign governments while using the imprimatur of political office as a conduit to transactions that improve the financial positions of themselves and their families for example, should they then be investigated and prosecuted by their government. The force of government should never be used as a political tool. When moral outrage turns to violence, the unintended consequence of such outrage needs to be considered. We must always remember that it is not “our lives, our fortunes (but) our honor that is sacred.”
When enlightened reason and contained passion are not allowed to prevail over violence we only need to look back to the differences between the American and French Revolutions. Revolution without a moral predicate ends badly—always.
As we enter what may become arguably the most contentious political season since our Founding or our own Civil War, let us pray that “the violence” of faction does not overcome the faith, reason, and Enlightenment principles that serve as our moral predicate for political action.
We need only to look to our Great Declaration for guidance as we proceed through these troubled waters. If “the violence of faction” is allowed to prevail, the result may look more like the French rather than The American Revolution. The French have yet to recover!