Sunday, April 24, 2011

Understanding the Founding:

From the perspective of who won the battles. Regarding America's fight for independence, not everyone at that time favored it. John Adams, to appeal to his expert authority, claimed originally 1/3 of America were "Whigs" (meaning those who favored independence), 1/3 were "Tory" (meaning loyalists to the crown) and 1/3 were on the fence. Eventually propagandistic forces won over enough of the 1/3 on the fence to the Whigs. And, in turn, we argue over what convinced the 1/3 on the fence. I think the pulpit played a big role, even in the face of Romans 13. So what kind of "theistic" principles gave victory to the Whigs? A Presbyterian dissenter line of thought, more in line with traditional orthodox Christianity? Or the Enlightenment theistic rationalism (that is the "liberal Christians" of their day who disbelieved in both the Trinity and eternal damnation) of men like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy?

The Whigs won both the ideological and literal battle. Next was the battle over the Constitution. A Declaration of Independence affirming Whig could be either an Anti-Federalist (that is one who was AGAINST the ratification of the US Constitution on the grounds that it gave too much power to the Federal government) or a Federalist (that is one who favored the ratification of the US Constitution). Hamilton, Madison, Jay (authors of the Federalist Papers) and of course Washington (first President under the new US Constitution) were the quintessential Federalists with Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry losing that battle just as the Tories lost the earlier battle on whether to revolt or remain loyal.

So with the Whigs and later the Federalists winning the battles, eventually, to the chagrin of President Washington, political parties broke out with Hamilton, J. Adams leading the Federalist Party and Jefferson and Madison leading the Democratic-Republicans.

It's hard to say which of either party won "the battle" -- if either really did; we've had partisan politics ever since. And whether today's Left v. Right battles match up with Federalists v. Democratic-Republicans. It's tempting to say Jefferson and Madison were more on the Left, Hamilton-J. Adams, on the Right. However, the Federalists back then favored a stronger, centralized government, the Democratic-Republicans, more the party of states' rights, limited federal government. This in spite of the fact that James Madison originally wanted the Federal government to have more power to enforce individual rights against the states.

We should also, instead of writing them off as losers, keep in mind the way the Tory and Anti-Federalist dissenting American citizens influenced Whig and later Federalist politics. For instance, without Anti-Federalist critiques, we would never have gotten a Bill of Rights.


JMS said...

I love your blog. But the Adams quote from the 1815 letter you reference has been mischaracterized by many historians.

Adams was referring to American divisions over the French Revolution, not the American Revolution.

As William Marina has noted, "Adams, in point of fact, was writing about American opinion of the French Revolution and the subsequent struggle between England and France which had a considerable impact on the United States in the 1790’s during the period of his presidency from 1797 to 1801."

But this correction in no way detracts from your main point.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Yes you are correct. On my other blog, John Bell corrected me almost immediately on this.