During Wednesday night’s address to Congress,President Obama was interrupted by the shout of “You lie” by Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Sadly, the outburst was condemned by both parties and was seen by those in the chamber as a matter of principle to not shout out at the President. But for 222 years of American History, a shout is the least of problems between political parties in American history.
In the beginning of American history, political parties seemed unavoidable. From the writing of the constitution, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, and Patrick Henry lined up against the passage of the constitution and they became known as the anti-federalists. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and the principal author of the constitution, James Madison, wrote a series of essays in newspapers which became known as the Federalist Papers. The contentiousness of the dialogue initially was low compared to what it would be ten years later. By the mid 1790s, the Federalist and anti-Federalist views had morphed into the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. One viewed an America built upon commerce and a strong federal government and the other on Agriculture and strong states. The elections of 1796 and 1800 were far more brutal than anything we could conceive today.
John Adams of the Federalist Party and Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans were best friends. That did not stop them from dragging each other and their party through the mud. At the center of the debate was the issue of whether the US should favor France or Great Britain in the coming conflict. The original President, George Washington, had hoped to remain neutral. For Adams and Jefferson, they could not. The resulting conflict would tear apart the country politically and economically until the War of 1812.
It saddened George Washington to see parties form to fill the vacuum as he left office. I too see the wisdom of George’s wisdom. He states:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
Sadly, few listened. Jefferson’s Vice-President, Aaron Burr, would shoot and kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel over comments from the 1800 election.
After the War of 1812, the Federalist Party died out and the vacuum of dissent would not be be successfully filled against what would become the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The Whig Party tried and failed but could not sustain any momentum. By the middle of the 1850s, the brand new Republican Party and the abolition movement coalesced into a movement that would result in the Civil War. In one instance on the Senate Floor, Senator Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a cane nearly bludgeoning Sumner to Death.
Over the last 100 years, the parties have shifted regions and locals. Initially, the Republicans ruled the North while the Democrats ruled the South. For one hundred years after the civil war, that was the way it was. The Civil Rights movement changed all that. With it, the Republican base shifted to the South and the Democrat base moved to the more urban North during the 1960s through the 1990s. The parties will continue to change. This is not the end nor is it in sight.