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Fight, Bicker, and Party Like It’s 1799

Thomas Jefferson v. Alexander Hamilton

With the looming sequester and furloughing of government employees, DC Insider Tours’ home of Washington, DC is abuzz with the politics of the day.  It seems one cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV without learning about the shrewd finagling and bitter disputes across party lines among our politicians.  With so much party bickering on our minds, we couldn’t help but think back to the origins of American political parties and wonder whether they were as . . . hmmmm . . . difficult? as today’s politicians.

In the wake of the American Revolution, political parties were abhorred because they were considered to be divisive and harmful to republicanism.  In fact, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson was vehemently opposed to the whole idea of a party system, and he was even once quoted as saying “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”  It was with great irony that Thomas Jefferson ended up leading one of our two main political parties in its embryonic stage.

Between 1791-1793, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed the Democratic-Republican party, also known as Jeffersonian Republicans.  It was created to oppose Alexander Hamilton and his nationwide Federalist party which advocated for a strong centralized government and good relations with Great Britain.  Jefferson favored relations with France (where the French Revolution was quickly taking hold) and a national government that did not meddle in domestic matters (he believed in strong state governments and individual self-sufficiency – he was horrified by the idea of Americans relying on their government). While most people today believe that these Founding Fathers and their contemporaries conducted themselves in the utmost professional manner in their political dealings, leaving the personal and partisan attacks at the door, this was simply not the case.

Quite to the contrary, they were a fiery lot who used savage and sharp language to not only prove their point, but to also attack one another.  For example, Alexander Hamilton remarked that Thomas Jefferson “is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and . . . he is a contemptible hypocrite.”  Not even George Washington was spared from such brutal assaults.  Thomas Paine wondered out loud whether Washington was “an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”  With such venomous rhetoric,  no wonder Washington detested partisan politics and thought they would divide the country instead of bringing it together, something he had fought so hard for.

Jefferson couldn’t have predicted it then, he was way too busy throwing barbs at Hamilton and his party, but his Democratic Republican party would eventually go on to be the world’s oldest continuous political party, coming to be known as the Democrats.  And amazingly, from Jefferson through Abraham Lincoln, all but two elected presidents were Democrats.  But one trait has remained the same throughout the tenure of American politics – regardless of which party – is the virulent partisanship exhibited by Hamilton and Jefferson. Unfortunately for us, because it would make for some awesome TV, today’s politicians can’t hold a candle to our Founding Fathers and their brothers-in-arms.