Robert Samuelson: America’s political system remains a work in progress

07/05/2014 10:10 PM

07/06/2014 6:20 PM

I am reading historian Gordon Wood’s splendid “Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.” It was an ideal companion for this July 4th weekend because it reminded us of the great continuities in our politics and national condition.

Dynamic social and economic change, concern for the middle class, poisonous politics, bad policies, flawed leaders — they were all there two centuries ago, just as now. There's a lesson here.

Dynamic change? In 1800, the 5.3 million Americans (nearly a fifth were slaves) had increased by more than a third since 1790. They were moving west at a prodigious pace.

Before the revolution, the Kentucky territory had few settlers; by 1800, the state of Kentucky (1792) had 220,000. Americans uprooted often (sometimes six or seven times, reports Wood) and routinely occupied land they didn't own. President George Washington concluded that nothing “short of a Chinese wall, or a line of troops” would stop the squatters.

It wasn’t just the law that Americans disregarded. The revolution, Wood writes, “emboldened many ... to challenge all hierarchy and all distinctions.” Many refused to address their employers as “master” or “mistress.”

Hiring servants was hard because the unequal status was so glaring. Calling servants “help” obscured this because it suggested only temporary inferiority. It implied “a sense of independence and a hope of rising in the world,” said one minister.

Reinforcing this social leveling were early signs of a middle class. Commentators increasingly referred to “middling sorts” who “could not be classified either as gentlemen or out-and-out commoners,” writes Wood. They were successful small farmers, merchants, shopkeepers and artisans. They expected the same respect accorded their economic superiors.

It was not a calm time. “The United States are a young nation,” observed Alexander Hamilton. The use of the plural verb, Wood notes, remained widespread until after the Civil War. In 1794, Washington raised an army of 15,000 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, the refusal by Pennsylvania farmers to pay a federal excise tax on distilled alcohol. This was “the largest incident of armed resistance” to the federal government until the Civil War.

Political rivalries were often raw such as Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Although the Founders deplored political parties, a party system quickly took root. On the one side were the Federalists of Hamilton and John Adams; they favored a strong government and rule by educated elites. On the other were Jefferson’s Republicans, who championed small government, extolled freedom and were more trusting of ordinary voters.

“Except for the era of the Civil War, the last several years of the 18th century were the most politically contentious in United States history,” writes Wood. “As the Federalist and Republican parties furiously attacked each other as enemies of the Constitution ... every aspect of American life became politicized.”

The split caused the Federalist Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, giving the government broad powers to expel foreigners and try anyone for criticizing Congress or the president. This was an atrocious policy that became a permanent stain on Adams’ presidency.

Taken at face value, this history seems reassuring. Whatever our present problems and disputes, we’ve been here before. Though imperfect, the system works.

We live in an empire of contention. We disagree about government spending, immigration and America’s place in the world, among other things. The democratic dilemma is finding common ground between what’s acceptable to the public and what’s necessary for the nation, even though what’s necessary may not be clear. History’s lesson is that the political system remains a permanent work in progress. It can never be taken for granted. Failure is always an option.

Robert Samuelson writes for The Washington Post.

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