Historic Times? Partisan Politics Today and in the Early Republic

Christine Rose

Congressional Pugilists, 1798. Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

I had the great fortune to begin my teaching career in August of 2016, with the course “The History of the United States Constitution.” As one can imagine, the timing was ripe for comparisons between the founding and the contemporary political landscape. Teaching this course at a community college, it was important for me to understand my students and what beliefs they were bringing into the classroom. The majority of students in this class were white, with a fairly even split between male and female students. Most were going to school part-time while they worked and/or raised a family. Only a handful were freshmen. I would say about one third of them were over the age of thirty. Most of the students had not taken a history course since high school.

Despite their differences, almost all of them entered the class with an idyllic view of the early republic, coupled with the belief that they were witnessing the most divided times our nation had ever experienced; they either verbalized this belief or included it in their response on the survey I had them complete on the first day of class. Throughout the course, I tried to illuminate for them how so many Americans before them have felt the exact same way.

As we discussed Article II and the transition of power, my students became familiar with the friction that occurred between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as they vied for the presidency, and ultimately the hearts and minds of the nation. The election of 1800 (and many of the years leading up to it) bears more similarities to the election of 2016 than my students previously realized. Through class discussions, presentations, and weekly readings, they quickly noticed how divided the nation was at this time during the early republic. Accusations and name-calling flew back and forth from each side, and supporters of each party began to distinguish themselves by the clothes they wore (or the bumper stickers they donned and news channel they watched). Fights in the street were not uncommon, just as Twitter wars are a normal occurrence today. Thomas Jefferson lamented that Americans were going out of their way to avoid old friends, simply because they belonged to the “other” party, much like some of my own students confessed to “unfriending” or “unfollowing” friends who had a different political opinion from them.

Without a doubt, the most useful resource to illustrate contentious early republic politics to my students is Gordon Wood’s recent work Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Through their readings from this book, my students were able to absorb the fact that the Republican/Federalist conflict was not only occurring in the upper echelons of the nation’s capital, but was in fact spreading throughout the nation. “Through parades, festivals, songs, political societies, and the unprecedented proliferation of newspapers, the populace was making itself felt as never before.”[1] I tried to make them view this as the equivalent of today’s proliferating political clickbait, blogs, Facebook posts, marches, boycotts, and tweets. Additionally, they get a true understanding of how heated politics were at the turn of the nineteenth century when even Wood, the renowned American historian that he is, refers to it as “perhaps the most frightening moment in all of American history.”[2] My students began to realize that political outrage is not new, and that it has been around since the beginning of our nation.

The prairie dog sickened at the sting of the hornet or a diplomatic puppet exhibiting his deceptions, 1804. Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At the end of the course, I asked students to reflect on how their views of American politics had changed, if at all. In a class discussion, I posed various questions for them, such as what surprised them most about the early republic? Was the creation and amending of the Constitution affected by politics, and how so? Knowing the history of the Constitution now, does this encourage you or discourage you about becoming more involved with politics and the government? Lastly, I asked them to reflect on whether or not we should take into consideration the political atmosphere of the day when we read and interpret the Constitution and related writings or judicial opinions.

One interesting takeaway I heard from a student is that she was surprised to realize that partisan politics wasn’t just a by-product of the overconnected, media-centric world we live in today. She had assumed that Americans were amped up in their political opinions directly as a direct result of Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Although this connectedness may contribute to our insanity, she realized that heated political rhetoric and debates also occurred when the public had only newspapers, pamphlets, and letters; even those media fed into the partisanship of that age. Another student in his final paper reframed the modern debate over the First Amendment as it relates to “hate speech” in light of what he learned about the early republic. He points to the Alien and Sedition Acts as a warning of what can happen when those in power get to arbitrarily pick and choose what speech is forbidden or not.

At the end of this course, my students left with a newfound appreciation for the fact that politics has always been a dirty business, even since our nation’s youth. Some viewed modern politics as a continuation of the norm; as one student noted, the political rhetoric is oftentimes annoying, but it comes with the territory of living in a republic and is nothing to worry about. Others came away a bit more depressed, seeing the normalcy of political division as a prison sentence rather than hope that the world will keep spinning. There are still others who insisted that 2016 ushered in the most politically divided times in our nation’s history, and that it’s all downhill from there. But no matter how they felt about politics or our brand of government at the end of the class, all of my students left with the awareness that partisanship is not a twenty-first-century invention.


Endnotes

[1] Wood, Gordon S. Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York, 2017), 267.

[2] Ibid, 305.

3 January 2020

About the Author

Christine Rose worked as a Part-Time Instructor of History at Truckee Meadows Community College.

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