Divisive Issues Are Not New to U.S. Politics

Strong political differences have existed in the United States since before the American Revolution. As the desire to be independent from England gained momentum, two factions emerged. Loyalists wanted to remain English citizens and Patriots wanted independence. The division split families as well as the Thirteen Colonies.

Property rights of Loyalists who left with the British Army or stayed in the new United States were a major bone of contention during negotiations with the British. Differences between Loyalists and Patriots didn’t end with independence. The emotions (and labels) lasted well into the early 19th Century. Some of the lawsuits were not settled until all concerned had been in their graves for decades.

The U.S. had been independent for less than nine years when the French Revolution erupted. Our ambassador to France – Thomas Jefferson – was actively involved early on when he allowed his official residence to be used as a meeting place for those plotting the revolt.

Later, Jefferson helped Lafayette and his fellow revolutionaries write documents to present to King Louis XVI and the French Chamber of Deputies in the hopes of helping France transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution – but not the beheadings – continued into his time as the first Secretary of State under George Washington and later as John Adams’ Vice President.

So let’s look at the times. By 1792, the first of what the Europeans call the French Revolutionary Wars begins when France attacks those countries who want to put Louis XVI back on his throne.

On the west side of the Atlantic, President Washington wants no part of a foreign war. About 80% of U.S. trade is with England and it is growing exponentially, year on year. By the turn of the century, it had increased 300% over what it was in 1783!

The Jay Treaty is billed as an attempt to “clean up” some the issues that arose from the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Proposed by Hamilton, it was bitterly opposed by Jefferson, the treaty did achieve several aims. (see 6/21/2020 Blog Post –The Jay Treaty and Our First Use of Arbitration in an International Dispute – https://marcliebman.com/the-jay-treaty-and-our-first-use-of-arbitration-in-an-international-dispute/). Unfortunately, France took a dim view of the agreement because they believed it violated the 1778 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. It didn’t and the French began violating the treaty almost before the ink was dry. (See 12/6/2020 Blog Post French Diplomatic Duplicity During the American Revolution –https://marcliebman.com/?s=French+Diplomatic+Duplicity ). Nonetheless, the Jay treaty became one of the issues that led to the 1798 – 1800 Quasi War between France and the U.S.

Besides the conflict between France and the U.S. and the fallout from the Jay Treaty, President Washington was dealing with several tricky domestic issues. One was the orderly transition of power to his successor. This would be the first time that the theories outlined in the Constitution would be put into practice.

Two, two political parties were emerging. One was the Federalists led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and the other, led by Jefferson and Madison were the Democratic-Republicans. They bickered over almost everything. One such hot button issue wrapped around the Tenth Amendment in which essentially give all rights not given to the new central government by the Constitution are “reserved” for the states. (See 4/3/22 Blog Post – The Mighty Ninth and Tenth – https://marcliebman.com/the-mighty-ninth-and-tenth/).

Three, the flood of immigrants coming from war torn Europe and those seeking a better life had begun. It became a tidal wave in the late 1890s and continues today.

There were no TV stations, cable news or talk radio in the 18th Century, and predictably, the newspapers were virulently partisan.

Two quotes make my point. A writer in a paper that supported the Federalists wrote “Many a private person might make a great President; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as Washington?”

The Democratic-Republican press had a different view – “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington… Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind, that the mask of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people.”

This is more proof that nothing in U.S. politics is new. Times, individuals, cultures, inventions all change the way we live, but they do not change human nature.

FYI, in future posts, we’ll examine how the rights of states, immigration and civil liberties were dealt with in more detail.

Image is the top section of the Wednesday, September 9th, 1789 edition of Gazette of the United States.

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