"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with
power to endanger the public liberty." - - - - John Adams

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Book Review - The Revolution of American Conservatism

Book Review
The Revolution of American Conservatism
The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy
By David Hackett Fischer
(1965)  -  Out of print book

By Gary;

I have been blessed with a very large and extensive local public library with some books going back to the 1840s.

In wandering through the stacks I ran across this book which is perfect for my area of interest  -  The Federalist Party.

In recent years I have been exploring the politics of the early American Republic to fill in the massive gaps that neither high school teachers nor college have filled.  Basically, according to our teachers George Washington was President and then came the "great" Thomas Jefferson, he who must be worshipped no matter what.  Period.

The fact that an entire political party existed and was dedicated to opposing Jefferson is glossed over very rapidly by our teachers.  After all, who could possible oppose Jefferson?  That is "crazy" talk.  Students are never told about the huge number of Founding Fathers and their followers who worked for years to oppose Jefferson's brand of republicanism.

The book's author provides wonderful and detailed information on America's first two-party system between Alexander Hamilton's Conservative Federalist Party and Jefferson's Democrat-Republican Party.

The book covers not just the politics, but it documents the massive shift in American society itself.

"I fear Federalism will not only die,
but all rememberence of it will be lost."  
Fisher Ames (1807)
Federalist Congressman
Changes in Society  -  The book covers changes in America from 1800 to 1816.  American society was changing from the powdered wig colonial society of gentlemen and sturdy yeomen patriots who looked to England. 

As America moved west more and more voters were interested in stealing land from our neighbors like Spain and Canada than in the international commerce of the Federalist dominate coastal cities.

But no study of the period can ignore the massive influence of the French Revolution, the Terror that murdered 40,000 people followed by the dictatorship and endless wars of the Emperor Napoleon. 

It should be remembered that a French army was sent to the New World to put down the slave revolt in Haiti.  More than 50,000 French troops died in an attempt to retake the colony.  That huge French army could just as easily landed in Virginia.

A comparison of the French Revolution to the rise and military expansion of violent 1950s Communism is a good one.  Both the French and Communist events seriously impacted American politics and the economy.

The author shows larger and larger shares of the American electorate turning against the very Federalist Founding Fathers who fought against monarchy and created the Republic in the first place.  There was a tide of radical egalitarian French inspired anarchy in the air and the Jeffersonians were encouraging the movement in order to gain political power for themselves.

Many have pointed out that a wealthy, over educated, slave owning Jefferson was hardly a man of the people.  But facts have nothing to do with politics.  It is about feelings and emotion.  Jefferson was acting as a symbol for the lower classes looking for more "free" land in the West.

"We must consider whether it be
possible for us to succeed, without,
in some degree, employing the
weapons which have been
employed against us."  
Alexander Hamilton (1802)

American society was dividing into rival camps

Jeffersonian Republicans favored French clothing while Federalist British styles.  Emotions were running so high that members of each party would throw the members of other out of different local social groups.  Family members would even refuse to attend funerals of dead members of the other party.

The Revolution of 1800  -  The author shows how the Jeffersonian Revolution almost did not happen.  The Federalist Party only lost New York's electoral College votes because of a hand full of New York City ballots rounded up by Tammany Hall "ward healer" Aaron Burr.  But politics itself was changing.

The author tells how 18th century politicians stood for office and did not campaign to voters.  Burr and Republicans around the country changed the rules and took an active face to face campaign directly to voters.  Jeffersonian "Republican Societies" were created nationwide.  Jeffersonian newspapers were started to control the news.  Get out the vote efforts were becoming the norm.

The wealthy plantation owning Jefferson himself demagogued to lower income voters about the evil rich monarchist Federalists.   Never mind that the Federalists fought to overthrow the monarchy. 

Propaganda and class warfare was now the rule of the day in American politics.

Politics changed with direct campaigning to voters
"We must court popular favor. We must study popular opinion and accommodate measures to what it is." - - - Fisher Ames, Federalist Congressman
"Honest, independent men of talents should yield so far to public opinion, as to retain the confidence of the people; for without that confidence, they are lost . . . If they do not lead the people, fools and knaves will."  - - - Noah Webster, Federalist
"The leading Federalists are gentlemen of fortune, talents and education, the natural leaders of the country. The leaders of the democratic party, on the other hand, are for the most part, what may be called politicians of fortune; adventurers who follow politics as a profession. With them politics are pecuniary, with the Federalists, they are a secondary consideration."
- - - An Englishman wrote of politics while touring 18th century Virginia

Electioneering Techniques  -  The author details political pandering to the mass of often uninformed voters.  The 1800 - 1816 period refined this new election technique pioneered by the Jeffersonians. 

The author shows how the Federalist fell behind in the political arms race of direct electioneering and pandering.  But slowly they started to copy Republican party organization.  The Federalists started party newspapers to get the word out. 

Then a party caucus system started to form.  The first Federalist caucus was formed in New York state where a state central committee of 50 members was elected.  The state was divided into four districts with sub-committees at county and town levels.  The committee nominated the Federalist candidate for Governor and planned campaign strategy.  Other states soon followed.

As a young attorney, Roger Taney copied the
Jeffersonians and organized the Federalist Party
in Maryland to better reach out to the mass
of voters with committees, mass meetings,
barbecues and a Federalist newspaper.
Committees engaged in party fundraising. They organized the systematic distribution of pamphlets, broadsides and ballots.

Mass voter meetings were organized.  In 1808 a Boston Grand Caucus attracted 4,000 Federalists.  Jeffersonians used BBQs to entertains partisans.  The Federalists adopted the system along with "turtle dinners", clambakes and "oyster roasts".  Both parties sponsored separate holiday events on Independence Day with speeches, parades and fireworks.

Candidates for high office even started to personally campaign.  In 1808 James Ross, Federalist candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, spent two months on the road meeting people, visiting churches and making promises. 

By 1808 every voter in New York city was given a Federal ballot (parties printed their own ballots then).  The modern campaign was here.

There was also a new class of "leader" - the professional politician.  Gone were the days of gentlemen like George Washington who did public service and then returned to his farm.  Now America saw a new class of politician that did nothing for a living except politics.  The term politics even changed to mean a negative.

Searching for Major Issues_- The author shows that like politicians to this day, the Federalists started to "moderate" their views on some key issues in order to broaden their voter appeal while searching for major issues to use against the Republicans.

In using current issues, Federalists flocked to defend Vice President Aaron Burr in Jefferson's phony, trumped up treason trial and accused the Republicans of being French "mobocrats".

"Pro Patria" ("For Country")
A membership ribbon for the Federalist
Washington Benevolent Society

The Federalists attacked Jefferson's refusal to build up the American military to stand up against British impressment of sailors.  Rather than spend money on the navy, the Republicans passed Embargo Act of 1807 that directly crushed the businesses and voters in Federalist controlled states and created unemployment.

Federalists used the run-up to the War of 1812 as a major issue.  Federalist declared themselves party of "Peace, Union and Commerce."

The Federalist newspapers used Jeffersonian mob riots in cities like Baltimore to stir the voters to their cause.  This new type of anti-war issue oriented direct electioneering worked.  In 1812 the Federalists swept the elections in Maryland and in other areas.  The party added 32 Congressional House seats and doubled their number of US Senators in the next 3 national elections.

Washington Benevolent Societies 

The author notes how the Jeffersonians broke new political ground in popular politics with the creation of Republican or Democrat societies to promote candidate for election. 

The societies were closely connected with sympathy for the French Revolution.  But many of these groups faded as the French Terror killed tens of thousands of people.  In the late 1790s the groups reformed calling themselves "Republican Societies" or "Friends of the People."

The Federalist were suspicious of these rabble rousing type groups and had to pay political catch up.

That changed in January, 1800 with the creation of the "Washington Society of Alexandria" by a group of prominent Virginia gentlemen.  Dues was $4 a year.  A larger sum of money for the time.

For several years this was the only group of its kind.  As disenchantment with Jefferson grew new chapters of Washington Societies began to spring up around the nation.  With the insane Jeffersonian Embargo Act causing depression and unemployment there was an explosion of Washington chapters.

1808 Washington Benevolent Society Silver Medal.
The author managed to count at least 208 Washington Societies around the nation.  The largest was the Washington Society of Pennsylvania with over 3,000 members as of 1816. 

The Boston Society had 1,647 members and the Berkshire County, Massachusetts Society had 2,300.  The only chapters in the West were in Ohio, the rest were in the east.

The author even presented detailed breakdowns of the occupations of the memberships in several chapters.  Some 80% of the Philadelphia chapter membership was made up of the middle classes of professionals, merchants and shopkeepers.

New members were required to take a solemn oath to support the Constitution, stay true to Washington's principals and "to oppose all encroachments of Democracy, Aristocracy, or Despotism."   To stand for a Constitutional Republican form of government rather than mob rule.

Washington Benevolent Society toast:

"To the Tree of our Liberty - May the apes of French policy no longer suspend
themselves from its branches, nor the jackals of the French emperor
repose in its shade."

For a political junkie like myself I could go on and on.  The volume of detail of early American politics in this book moves into the excruciating category.  There is also the bewildering numbers of Federalist politicians, both major and minor, that the author covers.  But I have to say there is nothing like this study that I have ever seen.  The book is a wonderful read if you can find it.

Washington Benevolent Society
Traveling desk box, probably Mass., 1812. Pine, original iron hinges, iron lock, brass drawer knobs, molded brass oval pull on top, brass escutcheon, original painted decoration, initialed and dated in red paint “W.B.S.” “1812” and “N.L.,” with an engraving of George Washington under glass.

(Washington Benevolent Societies)

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