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Opinion | America’s founders lived in a strange world


As regular readers know, I am a little (okay, more than a little) obsessed with and spend a lot of time reading about the Revolution, the Articles of the Confederation, the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, and the Washington and Adam’s -Administrations. One of the things I learned from all of this reading is that with all of our modern day worship of the Founding Fathers, we have no sense of how strange their world was compared to ours.

This reminded me of Matt Glassman, a senior executive at the Government Affairs Institute in Georgetown, who made a similar argument on Twitter in connection with a political ad in which the candidate, a Conservative Republican, praised the founders for “getting it right the first time to have done “. Time.”

Here is Glasmann:

People really don’t understand how many (understandable) mistakes the founders made, even on their own terms and, more importantly, how differently the early republic was from the pre-civil war mass republic that most people (mis) to associate with the foundation.

There are the obvious differences. The United States as of 1790 – the year of the first census – was a predominantly rural country with an extensive system of slave labor. 33,131 people lived in the largest city, New York. For a visitor from Paris (524,186 inhabitants) the busiest metropolis of the young republic would have looked like a provincial capital. The new nation’s borders were on the move and threatened by foreign powers and domestic adversaries, from the British in Canada and the Spanish in Florida to the Native Americans in the western territories struggling to keep settlers and speculators out of their lands.

Politics was also very different. Not only were there no parties, but there was also no concept of loyal opposition. When James Madison and Thomas Jefferson began to conflict with Alexander Hamilton over his financial policy and broad influence within the Washington government in 1791, they had to develop more or less a theory of partisan opposition. And even then, as historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick note in The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800:

The decisive fact is that in this vague phase of party formation there were no rules and no limits within which suspicion and even hatred could be classified and controlled. Parties could not yet be thought of as other alliances for warfare that were about nothing less than survival or annihilation – let alone changing associative structures through which government affairs were regulated.

In the present day, Americans of different perspectives and beliefs see themselves largely as legitimate political actors. Or at least they know that is how they should see themselves. But that’s not a natural idea. It had to be developed. And in the meantime, political conflicts between Americans could take on existential risks.


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