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The History of Partisanship In America

“You Lie!” Screamed Representative Joe Wilson (R SC) in the middle of President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The folks in the chamber were stunned.

The only appropriate reaction at the State of the Union is applause. It is a solemn occasion, and the act of impropriety . Is The Wilson episode an example of the dearth of civility in our national political discourse?–the civility that is needed to overcome congressional logjam? It is almost uniformly accepted by most Americans–even political junkies–that there is a growing lack of civility in our political discourse–a lack of civility unfounded in the history of the two-party system..

However, the acrimony in modern American politics is not unprecedented. During our national infancy, the display of partisan tantrums was viscious and cut throat. It makes today’s political bickering seem like child’s play.
Unfortunately, we do not teach our children history in elementary school and high school–we teach them about the myth that is America. It is indeed a myth that Washington’s Adminitration was non-partisan. Washington’s cabinet was divided into two factions: The Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson, and the Federalists led by Hamilton. Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on nothing and openly hated each other. And out of that discord and dislike the two party system was born.

Hamilton and Jefferson were Washington’s top advisers. Washington thought that it was beneficial to the decision-making process to have two men, for whom he has the utmost respect, advising him from two completely different political perspectives. He did not question their loyalty, nor did he question the purity of their motives.

However, Washington would not have been wrong in questioning Jefferson’s loyalties. His frustration towards Washington’s decision to adopt the Hamiltonian economic plan, and his ardent desire to keep America unencumbered from Revutionary France’s war with Britain, led Jefferson and his followers–who now started calling themselves “Democratic Republicans” because they stayed true to the republican principles of the revolution–to start partisan newspapers that criticized not only Hamilton, but the Washington Administration that Jefferson was an officer of. (“George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.)

Both Hamilton and Jefferson helped to create newspapers for their political parties: the New York Post and the National Gazette, respectively. Both periodicals launched vitriolic attacks on the leaders of the opposing party. The editors, with the backing of Hamilton and Jefferson, published articles that were bitter character assassinations.

In History of The United States, by James Callender, Hamilton’s adulterous affair with Maria Reynold’s, the wife of a United States Treasury Employee, was revealed. The source of the information: A Jefferson minion serving as the clerk of The U.S. House of Representatives by the name of John James Beckley.

Karma came back to bite Jefferson when, during his presidency, James Callender published an article revealing Jefferson’s sexual exploits with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings  (“Thomas Jefferson.” Library of Congress. Accessed March 13, 2015)
Jefferson continued to urge his political lieutenants to relentlessly attack the character of Secretary Hamilton: “For God’s sake, my dear sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of the Republic.” (Ibid.)

Secretary of The Treasury, Alexander Hamilton thought Jefferson a dangerous Francophile. Hamilton quipped, “They (Jefferson and Madison) have a womanish attachment to France, and a womanish resentment against Britain.”

Civility was not an ideal that the original partisans, Hamilton and Jefferson, aimed for. They are both the fathers of our current two-party system, and they were both heavily engaged in vitriolic bickering, character assassination, political scandals, and sex scandals. So before saying to yourself “our country has never been so partisan,” take a look at the partisan past.

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