George Washington was the first and only president to be elected who was not aligned with any particular political party. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, as the Commander of the Continental Army, he was the obvious choice to be the first president under the new government established by the Constitution. Secondly, and possibly more important, as our system of government was in its infancy political parties had yet to become the potent force they are today.
After serving for 8 years as President Washington decided to not seek a third term, to pass the reins on to someone else. In an address he wrote to the people of America Washington warned of the dangers of political parties, or factions as he called them, “However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Yet it was during his administration that political parties began to emerge in America; and had these parties existed prior to him having been elected I truly believe that he would have aligned himself with one of them rather than stay neutral. I will get back to this in a moment, but for the time being I would like to discuss how I see political parties as having developed way back then.
Two years prior to the election of George Washington a convention was held in the city of Philadelphia to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation. However, instead of restricting themselves to the wishes of their respective State Legislatures, these delegates decided to form an entirely new system of government. Since they were basically starting from scratch, all manner of suggestions were offered by the delegates as it pertains to what form this government should take and what powers it would hold.
On June 18th, Alexander Hamilton, who beforehand had remained silent, stood up and offered his suggestions for a new system of government. From Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention, we read that Hamilton was, “… particularly opposed to that from N. Jersey, being fully convinced, that no amendment of the Confederation, leaving the States in possession of their Sovereignty could possibly answer the purpose.”
You see, Alexander Hamilton was not born in this country, he came here just prior to the Revolution, and it was during the Revolution that made his name during it as George Washington’s aide de camp. His loyalty and allegiance was not to any State, unlike many of the other delegates; his loyalty was to the country that had adopted him. Had you asked any of the people alive back then to whom they owed their allegiance, many of them would have replied by saying the State they resided in. For instance, had you asked John Adams or Thomas Jefferson about their citizenship, they would have answered either Massachusetts or Virginia. They did not consider themselves to be citizens of America; rather they considered themselves to be citizens of the State they lived in. However, Hamilton owed no such allegiance; even though he had taken up residence in New York.
So it is not surprising that Hamilton would not be bound by any allegiance to any State when he proposed his plan for a new system of government; his loyalty was to the country as a whole. It, therefore, is also not surprising that to Hamilton, State sovereignty was an impediment to a strong centralized government, and he would have preferred that it be done away with entirely.
Why is this important? Well, it is important because Alexander Hamilton was a nationalist; he felt that, for America to survive; for it to become a great and mighty nation, State sovereignty and independence must yield, or be surrendered entirely, to the authority of the central government they were in the process of creating.
Hamilton’s suggested plan was soundly rejected; showing that a great many believed that, even though they were establishing a new form of government to replace the one established by the Articles of Confederation, this new system should remain more federal in nature than it should national.
Today the words federal and national are interchangeable in regards to our system of government, but back in 1787 they were understood to mean two entirely different things. I could take pages to explain the differences between a federal and a national form of government, but let it suffice to say that under a federal form of government the component parts, (the States), agree to surrender a portion of their sovereignty and authority to a centralized government, while under a national form of government all power is held by the central authority.
Having just defeated the British to obtain their independence from an all powerful centralized or national form of government, the delegates were reluctant to create a system modeled upon that form. Therefore, they established a federal one; one in which the States retained all powers not granted the central government, yet with the central government being supreme in all those powers specifically given it. This was reaffirmed by the inclusion of the 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Although Hamilton acquiesced, and even wrote a majority of the Federalist Essays urging ratification of the Constitution, he never abandoned his goal of establishing a purely national form of government. It was due to the weakness of the plan provided, and the particular wording of it, that caused Patrick Henry to fear that a fully national form of government would eventually come out of it. That is one of the reasons Mr. Henry stated the following during the Virginia Ratifying Assembly, “The fate of this question and of America may depend on this: Have they said, we, the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between states? If they had, this would be a confederation: It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, Sir, on that poor little thing-the expression, We, the people, instead of the States, of America.”
The seeds from which sprung the first political parties in America were sown during George Washington’s time as president; coming from Hamilton; who was his Secretary of Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson; who was his Secretary of State. Hamilton sought to urge, or nudge Washington towards a more nationalized form of government, while Jefferson sought to keep it a more federal one. Unfortunately for America, Washington was more inclined to listen to Hamilton than he was Jefferson. Therefore, as Alexander Hamilton is the father of the modern day progressive party, I believe had that party been in existence at the time Washington was elected, he would have chosen it over a more conservative party; such as the one which formed up behind Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Yet it is because of this division of beliefs between those two men as to the extent of power exercised by the central government that the first political parties emerged; the Federalists, (which is a joke really, because they were anything but FEDERAL in nature), and the Democratic-Republicans, later shortened to Democrats who sought to keep government small and limit its power while retaining State sovereignty. In short, Hamilton was the first liberal, or progressive, and Jefferson, and later Madison were the first conservatives.
In 2018 when one mentions liberals or conservatives people automatically associate those terms with Democrats and Republicans. Yet in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s a conservative would have been one who sought to govern according to a strict interpretation of the powers given government by the Constitution, while a liberal would have been one who sought a more open interpretation of the powers given government; finding implied powers within those specifically enumerated.
As America grew, most of the immigrants who came here did so for the jobs and opportunities they could not have back in their native countries. They, like Hamilton, owed no allegiance or loyalty to the State they chose to reside in; rather their loyalty was to the country that had opened its arms to them. As the North was where the majority of these opportunities were, the Federalists grew in power and began exercising it to fulfill Hamilton’s dream of a great and mighty empire; with government being used to benefit business and industry.
However, for some reason those chosen to be President were primarily Southern Democrats; who acted as some sort of a brake, or restraining force upon the expansion of federal authority over the States. Even so, there were times, such as the Nullification Crisis, where the excesses of governmental authority to tax that the Democrats were forced to exert their sovereignty by attempting to nullify laws passed by the federal government.
However, in 1860 that balance between State and federal authority shifted towards the federal government with the election of a Republican President; Abraham Lincoln. The South feared that with the election of a Republican that whatever limited restraints had been imposed upon federal authority would now vanish; and yes, this included federal interference in the institution of slavery. The South now had a choice to make, either stay in the Union and submit to federal authority no matter how oppressive it became, or leave the Union and form a system of government of their own. They chose option B and Abraham Lincoln initiated civil war by sending troops into the newly formed Confederacy to compel them into remaining in the Union.
It is interesting to note that, prior to Lincoln calling from 75,000 volunteers to suppress, what he called rebellion in the Southern States, Virginia had remained loyal to the Union. Yet when Lincoln called for troops to invade those States that had chosen to secede, Virginia chose to leave the Union as well. In his response to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Governor Letcher of Virginia wrote, “In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the act of 1795 — will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited towards the South.”
History books call this period of American History the Civil War. I have heard it called America’s Second War for Independence, or the War of Northern Aggression. What it really was though, was a war waged against State sovereignty and the federalist ideal as espoused by Jefferson and Madison. Those men believed that, as creators of the federal government, the States and the people were not subject to unlimited and unbridled power; that they could, if circumstances called for it, chose to revoke their consent to being governed by the centralized authority and resume their status as an independent State.
The delegates to the Virginia Ratifying Assembly made that point clear when they declared, “We the Delegates of the People of Virginia duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly and now met in Convention having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us to decide thereon Do in the name and in behalf of the People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.”
Yet Virginia was not the ONLY State to make such a declaration; a Northern State, New York, also declared, “That the Powers of Government may be reassumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness…”
That principle was enshrined in the birth certificate of our country, the Declaration of Independence, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Even Jefferson, in his Inaugural Address, acknowledged this as being the right of the people, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Although the Union Army fought against the Confederate Army, it was upon this very principle, consent of the governed, that Abraham Lincoln declared war upon. Lincoln believed that obedience to government was not by consent, it was mandatory; and that when any State chose to revoke their consent it was his right as President, nay, his DUTY, to use force against them to compel their obedience.
Abraham Lincoln ran the Declaration of Independence, and the idea of a federalist form of government through a paper shredder; replacing it with Hamilton’s vision of a fully national form of government; with the States as mere subsidiary appendages to it.
I find it both interesting and ironic that Democrats today are the ones primarily behind the tearing down of all these Civil War monuments dedicated to men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, yet those men were staunch Democrats. I also find it ironic that Republicans today call themselves conservatives, when in truth, Abraham Lincoln, (who was a Republican) was in fact liberal in his understanding of what powers the Executive could wield to compel the States into obeying federal authority.
Not only did Lincoln deny that the States had the right to revoke their consent to being governed by ANY form of government, he also declared war upon the Constitution itself and the Bill of Rights by violating many of the provisions found within those documents.
For instance, Lincoln violated the freedom of the press by shutting down newspapers and jailing newsmen who wrote in opposition to his war. He suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus; denying those imprisoned the right to face a judge and have charges brought against them. He marched troops into a Union State to suspend their State Legislature before it could vote on whether to secede and join the Confederacy. With his full knowledge, his generals waged a cruel and inhumane war against, not only those serving in uniform against him, but against all those loyal to the Confederate cause. Vast tracts of land, including the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman’s March to the Sea; where he conducted a scorched Earth policy of leaving a path of burnt wasteland in his wake as he made his way from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia.
Had there been the Nuremberg Laws regarding war crimes, it is quite possible that Abraham Lincoln would have been charged with war crimes and found guilty of violating the basic human rights of an entire region of the country; the South.
Then of course there was the actions of the Republican controlled Congress after the war. Instead of allowing the State to resume their status as sovereign entities and electing those they saw fit to represent them in Congress, the government decided to treat them like conquered territories; selecting Union Generals to govern over them; denying them of their right to a Republican form of government as found in Article 4 of the Constitution.
Of these Republicans there stands one Thaddeus Stevens who was behind much of the vengeful retribution unleashed upon the South after the end of the Civil War. Stevens not only sought to punish the South, he chose to declare war upon the very Constitution which created the government he held a position in. In one statement Stevens said, “The talk of restoring the Union like it was, and the Constitution as it is, is one of the absurdities which I have heard repeated until I have become sick of it. There are many things which make such an event impossible. This Union never shall, with my consent, be restored under the constitution as it is … The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is–God forbid it. We must conquer the Southern states and hold them as conquered provinces.”
Not only that, Stevens also perverted the entire relationship between those who created the federal government and the government itself when he said the following in a speech delivered on December 18, 1865, “…they are therefore only dead as to all national and political action, and will remain so until the Government shall breathe into them the breath of life anew and permit them to occupy their former position. In other words, that they are not out of the Union, but are only dead carcasses lying within the Union. In either case, it is very plain that it requires the action of Congress to enable them to form a State government and send representatives to Congress.”
The Confederacy may have been defeated, but the individual States that comprised it were still States, and it is an absurd perversion of thought for Stevens to say that Congress can recreate them from the ashes of the war. But it is not surprising, as it is in line with Lincoln’s own way of thinking that the federal authority is supreme and sovereign in all things, and that the States exist to serve the government.
Abraham Lincoln’s war, no matter what you call it, fulfilled Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a fully national government; and America has never been the same since.
After the war ended, and Reconstruction was over, the Democratic Party had to change its way of thinking if it wished to remain a viable political force. Their former stance as defenders of a limited form of government and State’s rights became irrelevant after the defeat of the Confederacy. It was then that America saw the Democrats transform themselves into the party of the people.
This gave rise to Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt; who gave us the New Deal, and Lyndon Baines Johnson; who gave us the Great Society. If it were not for the defeat of the Confederacy America may very well have never seen the likes of either a Bill Clinton or Barack Obama either. The Civil War forever altered the political landscape in America. Gone are the distinctions between true conservatism and liberalism; to be replaced by varying shades of liberalism. Both parties today refuse to adhere to the limits imposed upon government by the Constitution; albeit for different purposes. Yet when it comes to major issues involving our rights or our being taxed to fund programs that are blatantly unconstitutional, both parties are identical in their belief that government should exercise that authority; and that for the people to oppose such authority makes them treasonous or criminals.
In the America we live in today we fight amongst ourselves along political party lines; over issues it was never intended our government have any business legislating upon; and upon our stances on societal needs; such as abortion or gay rights. Yet rarely, if ever, does talk of what the Constitution originally authorized our government to do enter into political discussions; and when it does those who speak of it are marginalized and ridiculed as radicals.
Today America does not have a truly conservative party; what it has are Liberals, and Liberal Lites in the form of the Republican Party. If you vote for candidates from either of the two parties you are NOT voting for the Constitution and Bill of Rights, you are voting for those who seek to exercise unconstitutional authority over you. The only difference is the extent of and purposes for which that unconstitutional authority is to be used.
As much as I despise the things most liberals stand for, I do have to give them some credit for being somewhat honest about what they believe in.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are blind to the fact that their party is no better than the liberals in its support and defense of the Constitution; and this includes their new golden boy Donald Trump.
You Republicans demonize Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, yet it was a Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who tore down the framework upon which this system of government was built, and it is upon the ruins of that destruction that your precious GOP has built its platform. Y’all call yourselves conservatives…you wouldn’t know real conservatism if it came and bit you in the ass!