America Needs a John Quincy Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president and the son of the nation’s second, had a reputation as a prickly, aloof man. He was a one-term president and by no means a popular one–yet he came to be seen as a man of iron principle and honesty, even in the face of political pressure from his own party. Politicians of his ilk are largely missing from the political landscape today.

I: Switching Parties

Adams, the son of one of America’s most prominent Federalists, entered the Senate in 1803 as a Federalist himself. Yet he remained distant from his colleagues. In an era of hyper-partisanship in which Federalists accused the Republicans of colluding with France, and the Republicans accused the Federalists of colluding with England (sound familiar?) Adams stubbornly trod his own path. He supported both President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the administration’s hardline on England, which his fellow Federalists opposed. His father, former president John Adams wrote:

“You are supported by no Party. You have too honest a heart, too independent a Mind and too brilliant Talents to be sincerely and confidentially trusted by any Man who is under the Dominion of Party Maxims or Party Feelings.”

His stubborn refusal to fall in line with the Federalists, and his support of Jefferson, cost Adams his seat in the Senate, his place in the party, and many friends back in Boston. To Adams, it was a matter of principle, and a matter of what he thought was right and wrong according to the U.S. Constitution.

This sort of political courage is rare in Washington today. To be fair to today’s politicians, the landscape has changed. There is pressure from lobbyists, constituents on social media, and from within the party itself to toe the party line. Political purity tests are the cause celebre of today, and politicians that stray too far from the party line face possible challenges from the left or right of their own parties. It’s doubtful that Adams–with his iron will and stubborn personality–would be swayed. But it’s also likely that he’d never make it to Congress (or the presidency) in the first place.

II: As President 

John Quincy Adams’s presidency spanned a divisive time in American. After the relative political tranquility of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe’s presidencies–“the Era of Good Feelings”–, in which the Republicans enjoyed almost unanimous support, Adams entered office as the country’s political unity began to fray. The nature of campaigning had also begun to change–in the day of George Washington, a man had to practically be dragged to the presidency by his fellow citizens. In John Quincy Adams’ day, it was becoming permissible for a man or his friends to campaign actively.

The electoral system in America of the 1820s had begun to evolve as more states joined the union, and although there wasn’t a uniform way of voting, regular people had more of a sway than ever before. Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, supported this democratic uprising. The fact that Adams entered office in 1824 under the auspice of a “corrupt bargain”–Jackson won the most electoral votes, but not a majority, so the election was sent to the House of Representatives where Adams was alleged to have struck a deal with Henry Clay–only increased the divide between the two parties.

John Dickerson’s piece for the Atlantic The Hardest Job in the World postulates that the presidency has become a beast unmanageable for one man, and that the current system of campaigning rewards skills that aren’t necessary applicable or important to the presidency once he/she is in the office. Campaigning rewards skills like charisma and debate; the office requires management and governance. Adams would probably agree with Dickerson–part of his cohort’s campaign against Jackson was that the fiery formal general couldn’t spell and lacked the necessary political experience to be president. Adams likely couldn’t be elected today, and perhaps was the last person to be elected based on political merits, rather than his power of campaigning. James Traub, an Adams biographer, notes of Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828: “Of course, the whole episode was founded on the archaic assumption that Americans would not elect a man who couldn’t spell or hold his temper.”

III: Post Presidency

Adams served a single term as president–becoming only the second man to be voted out after four years, after his father, John Adams. But Adams refused to be cast into political obscurity. As part of his upbringing in Massachusetts, his parents had always encouraged him to find ways to be useful. “Usefulness” is also a reason James Comey invoked to justify writing his book after he was fired by Donald Trump.

When the opportunity rose for Adams to join the House of Representatives, he took it. Although many of his friends and family feared it would be degrading for an ex-president to join a lower chamber, Adams refuted this logic, saying it wouldn’t be at all degrading to serve “as a selectman of his town, if elected thereto by the people.” He joined the House in 1830 and would serve until his death in 1848–Adams literally collapsed on the House floor and died in the Speaker’s office.

As a member of the House, Adams took on slavery as his cause. Although he never labelled himself an abolitionist–at the time, abolitionists were hated by both the North and South as dangerous rabble rousers–Adams became a thorn in the side of the “slavocracy.” He insisted on introducing petitions to the House which raised questions about slavery–and continued to do so even after the passage of the gag rule, which forbid any such thing on the House floor. A rival Congressman once tried to bait Adams, reading back a line that he’d spoken to a group of black citizens: “The day of your redemption is bound to come. It may come in peace or it may come in blood; but whether in peace or blood let it come.” The Congressman read the line twice. He reminded his colleagues what this meant–emancipation and maybe civil war. Adams replied:

“I say now let it come. Though it cost the blood of millions of white men let it come. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Although the political climate was not at all amenable to this sort of thought–indeed, at the time such a statement was shocking, and Adams received his fair share of death threats–Adams never cowered from a controversial political issue that he thought was right, or wrong. He challenged the slavocracy as a Congressman and as a lawyer, when he defended the men and women of the Amistad and won their freedom. 

In today’s increasingly partisan climate, where politicians are falling over themselves to move further to the left or right in order to move up the ladder, a politician like Adams, who sticks to his principles even under immense political pressure, would be a welcome change.

Thomas Jefferson & Emmanuel Macron: Foreign Dignitaries, Then & Now

By Kaleena Fraga

On Tuesday night, the Trump White House welcomed Emmanuel Macron, president of France, and his wife Brigitte to the Trump Administration’s first official State Dinner. The Macrons were greeted with all the pomp and circumstance that has come to be expected of state dinners. It’s quite a contrast to how some foreign dignitaries were treated during the early years of the country.

When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House in 1801, he was determined to represent himself as a republican in dress and manner–not like his political foes, the Federalists, whom he suspected were all aristocratic monarchists.

But Jefferson’s simple republican ways ran up against traditional procedure of greeting foreign guests. When the British Minister to the United States (this in a time where American presidents received envoys from foreign nations, rather then meet with other leaders face to face) Anthony Merry, presented himself for the first time at the White House he had quite a shock. Merry had dressed up for the occasion–wearing a blue dress coat with a gold braid, his white breeches and silk stockings, and a plumed hat, with his sword at his side. Accompanied by Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, Merry was shocked to find that the president had not jeffersoncome to formally greet him–in fact, he was no where to be found. Madison and Merry more or less ran into Jefferson while wandering the halls of the White House looking for him. From there, Merry’s sense of insult deepened. Jefferson wore simple clothing–slippers, breeches, and woolen stockings.

Merry was shocked, and felt that Jefferson’s dress and appearance was not only an insult to him, but to the Crown. And it got worse. At dinner that night–where the Merrys assumed they would be guests of honor–Jefferson, a widower, took the arm of Dolley Madison, not Elizabeth Merry (despite Dolley’s insistence that he should “take Mrs. Merry” instead). Then, because Jefferson favored a “pell-mell” style of seating–that is, random seating, not by rank–the Merrys found themselves fighting for a seat. As Merry tried to take a seat next to the Spanish ambassador, an ambitious Congressman barreled ahead of him to take it for himself.

Utterly dismayed, the Merrys boycotted all future White House events.

According to Jon Meacham’s Jefferson biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, this sat perfectly well with the nation’s third president. “We say to them, no,” Jefferson wrote, referring to those, like the Merrys, who preferred the time-honed tradition of formal dress and dinners, “the principle of society with us, as well as of our political constitution, is the equal rights of all: and if there be an occasion where this equality ought to prevail preeminently, it is in social circles collected for conviviality.”

Of course, Jefferson, a Francophile who distrusted the British, would probably be more thrilled to host the Macrons at the White House than he ever was to host the Merrys.

The Final Voyage: Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train

By Kaleena Fraga

Between April 21st and May 4th, 1865, the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s body journeyed from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, where the president would be buried. It also carried his son, Willie, who had died at the White House in 1862 of typhoid fever.

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Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

The train would travel 1600 miles and visit 180 cities across seven states. The journey was a mammoth effort coordinated by Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. In order to force the railroad companies to cooperate, Stanton declared all railroads as military domains. Although Mary Lincoln had pushed for the train to take the most efficient route possible, Stanton insisted that the train take a path that would allow the most people to see it. Mary Lincoln, however, had the last word for the president and her son’s final resting place–Oak Ridge Cemetery, outside of Springfield, Illinois (accepting and then rejecting a request to have the president buried in downtown Springfield, near a train line. Mary Lincoln wanted her husband to rest “in some quiet place.”)

The train, called The United States, had been built with the purpose of presidential travel, the same role that Air Force One plays for presidents today. It was built by the U.S. Military Railroad starting in 1863–this department imagined that once the Civil War ended Lincoln would need to travel great distances to meet with Americans and mend the country. Lincoln had an appointment to see the train for the first time on April 15th, 1865–the day after he was shot at Ford’s Theater.

The train itself was bought by Union Pacific before its completed its voyage to Springfield. It was made into a regular passenger train, and then purchased by a private citizen, Thomas Lowry. Lowry called the train “the most sacred relic in the United States.” He had planned to restore and permanently display the funeral car, but he died in 1909 of tuberculosis. In 1911, a fire destroyed the train.

The train’s scheduled stops were published in local newspapers, giving people plenty of notice for when they could come and pay their respects. Anyone in the country who loved Barbara Bush could have tuned into her funeral on April 21st, 2018, but in April 1865 mass media didn’t exist. Lincoln’s funeral train would allow seven million people across the country to share in the mourning of the president–about a third of the country’s population in 1865.

TR and Lincoln
TR can be seen looking out the second story window, on the left side of the photograph

At each scheduled stop, the coffin was taken off the train and placed in a public place so that the people could say goodbye. People waited for hours for this chance, some watching from windows or from the street as the funeral procession went by, and thousands more gathering into places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia to mourn Lincoln. A young Theodore Roosevelt was one such mourner–he and his brother Elliot watched the funeral procession from their grandfather’s Union Square mansion in New York City. Others stood along the track to watch the train as it went by–chugging along at 20 miles per hour, with a portrait of Lincoln at the front of the train.

After a long journey, the train stopped in Springfield, Illinois. Here the president and Willie were taken off the train and laid to rest. Ten thousand people followed the procession from the Springfield Capitol to the cemetery. Major Grenville Dodge later recalled that the procession was:

“the saddest sight of my life…the streets were lined with thousands and thousands of people, evidently in great distress and sorrow…There was hardly a person who was not in tears, and when I looked around my troops I saw many of them in tears.”

Mary Lincoln, still inconsolable over her husband’s death, had remained in Washington D.C. with her young son Tad. The Lincoln’s other son, twenty-two year old Robert Lincoln, represented the family at the funeral.

Only one other president’s body would be taken by train to its grave–Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who died in Warm Springs, Georgia, travelled 1100 miles from Georgia to Washington D.C. Five hundred thousand people gathered at Union Station to witness the body’s arrival back in Washington. The president was brought to the East Room of the White House, where he lay in state for about five hours. From there, Roosevelt went to his final resting place–Hyde Park, in New York state.

Of War and Poets: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln

By Duane Soubirous

In celebration of National Poetry Month, History First recognizes Walt Whitman for crafting his observations into poetry, giving future generations of Americans the ability to see Whitman’s time period through his eyes.

Walt Whitman is best known for his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 with 12 poems. He continuously revised and added to Leaves of Grass throughout his life, and the final 1892 “deathbed” edition consists of almost 400 poems, including “Drum-Taps,” a collection of poems written about the Civil War, and “Memories of President Lincoln,” containing Whitman’s best-known poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

ralph waldo emersonIn 1842 Whitman attended a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson, where Emerson predicted that America would soon have its own poet who would write about the American experience in a uniquely American style. “When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history,” Emerson said.

If Walt Whitman believed he could be the “genius of poetry” that Emerson prophesied, few others shared his confidence. The first edition of Leaves of Grass, where Whitman debuted his style, free of the forms that defined poetry, was met with scathing reviews. It sold fewer copies than Whitman had given away. One reviewer called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth,” and Whitman’s brother even said he “didn’t think it worth reading.” Emerson, however, wrote Whitman a letter of encouragement, praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

The 1850s were a time of unprecedented divisions in the United States. Northerners denounced pro-slavery laws of Congress and Supreme Court decisions, and Southerners threatened secession over Northerners’ hostility to slavery. Whitman hoped Leaves of Grass would unite the country. “I think that Whitman believed that Leaves of Grass was going to prevent a Civil War,” Whitman scholar Ed Folsom said in the Walt Whitman episode of PBS’s American Experience. “Leaves of Grass is really a book about preserving the Union. It’s a book about holding things together, being able to absorb contradictions and still maintain a single identity.”

Whitman’s poetry couldn’t keep the country together, and the ensuing Civil War hit especially close to home. Whitman read in the papers that his younger brother was a casualty in almanack-battle-fredericksburg-painting.jpgthe Battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union was badly defeated. Whitman rushed to the battlefield, only to find that his brother was minimally injured. Whitman stayed with his brother for over a week and witnessed the realities of war. “Living so close to the front, to the dressing stations and the hospital tents pitched on the frozen ground, the fresh barrel-stave markers in the burial field, the vexed Rappahannock, and the ruins of Fredericksburg, he saw ‘what well men and sick men and mangled men endure,’” Justin Kaplan wrote in Walt Whitman: A Life. Whitman began writing down these observations, later using them for his “Drum-Taps” poems.

After his experience on the battlefield, Whitman, too old to fight, became a dedicated volunteer in army hospitals. He served the non-medical needs of wounded soldiers, providing them with items like food, linens, stationery, and money. He often wrote letters informing families of a loved one’s death. “In his poem ‘Come Up from the Fields Father,’ Whitman imagined the family that received a letter like those he wrote,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering. “It reports his gunshot wound but does not yet communicate the more terrible truth that ‘he is dead already’ by the time the letter arrives. It is a letter that will destroy the mother, as a rifle has already destroyed the son.”

Whitman captured the widespread grief after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” on the day of Lincoln’s funeral. “Whitman speaks as one of the people, leading the soldiers in mourning and urging common men to whom he is so devoted to join him in tribute to ‘our dear commander,’” Faust wrote. Another poem commemorating Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” was written with a rhythm so uncommon to Whitman’s poetry, a democratic style that is accessible to common people. In this poem, Whitman represents “the searing grief of a single man, in a representation of the individual pain of which the cumulative loss is constituted.”

If Irish folklore is to be believed, Irish clans fighting in the old wars had an agreement to spare the poets. “Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story,” historian David Blight said. Through Walt Whitman’s poetry, the modern reader can see the total devastation of war and pain of losing a leader and a hero.

 

April 14th, 1865: On the Sidelines of Lincoln’s Assassination

By Kaleena Fraga

On April 14th, 1865 Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. This much is well known. But the plot to kill the president was larger than two men, and it struck Washington with such force that it left more than one casualty.

William Henry Seward: Along with Lincoln, the conspirators of the assassination sought to kill both the secretary of state, Seward, and the vice president.  While Booth went to Ford’s Theatre, Lewis Powell headed for Seward’s residence, where the secretary had sewardbeen bedridden for nine days following a carriage accident that had almost killed him.

The president and his secretary of state, once political rivals, enjoyed a close relationship and partnership. Indeed, when Lincoln visited Seward after his carriage accident, he lay down in bed beside him, and recounted his recent journey to Richmond until Seward fell asleep.

On the night of April 14th, Lewis Powell, a friend of John Wilkes Booth, was dispatched to the Seward residence. Powell claimed he had been sent by a doctor with medicine for Seward and that he must deliver it in person. Seward’s son, Fred, refused to let him by and at this point Powell pulled a pistol. It misfired, but Powell used it to clobber Fred, leaving him unconscious.

Powell stormed Seward’s chamber, slashing Seward’s guard in the face. Seward’s daughter, Fanny, ran into the room and begged Powell not to kill her father. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the word kill is what revived the secretary–who awoke just as Powell stabbed him in in the neck and face. Seward’s other son, Gus, ran into the room, and he and Seward’s injured guard managed to pull Powell away. Powell fled, stabbing a stabbing-seward-national-police-gazette-4-22-1865young State Department messenger on his way out of the house.

Seward had been saved in part by the carriage accident that almost took his life. Goodwin writes that, “the knife had been deflected by the metal contraption holding Seward’s broken jaw in place.”

How Seward learned of the president’s death is disputed. His biographer Walter Stahr wrote that Seward was informed by his wife, who told him “very gently” “Henry, the president is gone.” Goodwin writes, however, that news of the president’s death was kept from Seward because of his fragile condition. According to her biography Team of Rivals, Seward noticed the flag at half- mast at the War Department from his window, and announced:

“The president is dead. If he had been alive he would have been the first to call on me. But he has not been here, nor has he sent to know how I am, and there’s the flag at halfmast.”

Mary Surratt: A name largely forgotten by history, Surratt was the first women ever to be executed by the U.S. government. Surratt grew up in a family that owned slaves and during the war she and her husband used their home as a safe house for Confederate soldiers. Her son Isaac fought for the Confederacy. Heavily in debt after the death of her husband, Surratt moved to Washington D.C. and opened a boarding house. Her son John came too, and befriended a frequent visitor to the boarding house, John Wilkes Booth.Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt (1820 or May 1823 – July 7, 1865) Dated 1865

On the night of the assassination the police came to the boarding house looking for both Booth and John Surratt, whom they suspected had participated in the failed assassination of William Henry Seward. Neither were there, but as the police were questioning Surratt, Lewis Powell showed up. One of Seward’s servants identified him. Both Powell and Surratt were taken into custody–her son, John, fled and escaped to Canada.

Surratt claimed innocence–however, a tavern keeper named John Lloyd disputed this, testifying that she had told him to keep guns at the ready on the night of Lincoln’s assassination–the same guns that were later used to shoot the president. After he heard of Lincoln’s death Lloyd is reported to have cried, “Mrs. Surratt, that vile woman, she has ruined me!”

Up until her execution, Surratt maintained her innocence. Powell also insisted that she had nothing to do with the conspiracy. Despite this, she was tried and convicted. On July 7th, 1865 she was hanged.

Henry Rathbone & Clara Harris: Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee Clara Harris accompanied the Lincolns to Ford’s Theatre on April 14th. Clara was a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two often went to the theater together. The Lincolns had originally invited Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, but Julia, not a fan of the First Lady, insisted they go to New Jersey instead. With the war over, Clara later recalled that the Lincolns were “in the gayest of spirits.” At one point Lincoln took his wife’s hand and Mary Lincoln chided him, saying, “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” Lincoln, speaking his last words before his death, is reported to have replied, “She won’t think anything about it.”

henry-and-claraWhen Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone leapt up and tried to disarm him. Booth stabbed Rathbone and then escaped, as Clara, now covered with her fiancé’s blood, cried, “The president is shot!”

Rathbone was never the same. In the years following the assassination he was diagnosed with “attacks of neuralgia (intense pain) of the head and face and in the region of the heart attended by palpitations and at times difficulty breathing.”

On Christmas Eve 1883, while living in Germany, Rathbone murdered Clara–attacking her with a pistol and a dagger, and then slashing himself in an eerie reproduction of the night in Ford’s Theatre. He barely survived, and later insisted that he was injured trying to intervene in an attack by someone else.

Rathbone was declared insane and sent to the Provincial Insane Asylum in Hildesheim, Germany. He stayed there until the day in died in 1911, refusing ever again to speak either of the assassination or of the murder of his wife.

George Atzerodt & Andrew Johnson: The original plot to kill the president included the Secretary of State Seward as well as the Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But while Lewis Powell and John Wilkes Booth went through with their plot, the man assigned to kill Johnson, George Atzerodt, lost his nerve.

Atzerodt had rented a room in the same hotel, the Kirkwood House, where the vice andrew johnsonpresident was staying (lacking foresight, Atzerodt made the reservation in his own name). Anxious about his assignment, Atzerodt tried to steel his resolve by drinking. He was armed with gun and a knife and the vice president, alone and unguarded, would have been an easy target. But Atzerodt couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. Instead he got drunk, and wandered around Washington D.C. until around two in the morning, when he checked into another hotel.

He was arrested on April 20th, about a week after the assassination. Investigators had found a gun and a knife in his room at the Kirkwood House, and evidence linking him to John Wilkes Booth. Atzerodt confessed to everything–including the role the others had played. Despite his cooperation, he was hanged with the rest of them. Andrew Johnson became president.

Truman, Roosevelt, and the Day that Changed History

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. President since 1933, Roosevelt was only a few months into his fourth term in office.

He was spending some time in Warm Springs, Georgia, hoping that the the temperate climate and hot springs could restore his health. Roosevelt had another reason to visit Warm Springs–he’d planned a rendezvous with his long time mistress, Lucy (Mercer) Rutherford. Rutherford had arranged for her friend, Elizabeth Schoumatoff, to paint a portrait of the president.

unfinished portraitSchoumatoff was standing at her easel painting the president when something in his demeanor changed. She later recalled: “He looked at me, his forehead furrowed in pain, and tried to smile. He put his left hand up to the back of his head and said, ‘I have a terrible pain in the back of my head.’ And then he collapsed.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt died a few hours later. He was 63.

In Washington D.C., Vice President Harry Truman arrived at the White House, where he was greeted by the president’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. She told him that the president had died. Truman, stunned, was silent. Then he asked if there was anything he could do for her.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Eleanor replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

For many people, Roosevelt had been the only president they had ever known. He died as WWII had begun to come to an end. In David McCullough’s Truman, McCullough writes that the similarities of Lincoln and FDR’s death were not unappreciated–both had died in April, both died as the wars they’d fought ended, and both would be remembered as great men. “But implicit,” McCullough writes, “was also the thought that Lincoln, too, had been succeeded by a lackluster, so-called ‘common man,’ the ill-fated Andrew Johnson.”

Truman, for his part, told a crowd of reporters:

“Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Truman’s premature ascension to the presidency prompts one of the what-ifs of presidential history. It was Truman, not Roosevelt, that guided the country through the last stages of WWII, including the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Today’s historians have to wonder what FDR might have done in his stead.

Still, Truman finished the three years of Roosevelt’s term and (narrowly) won reelection Harry Trumanin his own right. Although his approval rating hovered in the thirties at the end of his term, history later came to regard Truman as one of the nation’s best presidents. Per McCullough, his legacy includes “the creation of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the recognition of Israel, NATO; for committing American forces in Korea and for upholding the principle of civilian control over the military.”

Truman certainly had big shoes to fill. When FDR died 73 years ago today, the New York Times eulogized him by writing:

“Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House…it was his leadership which inspired free men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and courage. Gone, now, is this talent and skill…Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men and humble people.”

 

James Madison, the Theory of Expansion, and Purity Tests in Politics Today

By Kaleena Fraga

Long, long before the presidency linked itself with Twitter, James Madison gathered with his fellow Americans to retool the government, discarding the Articles of Confederation for what would become the United States Constitution. The men who came to the Constitutional Convention came armed with different ideas and doubts. Madison lay out what he believed were the greatest problems with democracy, and how he proposed to solve them.

Madison believed in two things: that a large country would allow for a variety of ideas and opinions to thrive, safe from a looming majority, and that friendship was possible even when the two parties disagreed politically. However, the Internet Age has threatened both Madisonian ideas. In the United States, not only do most Americans belong to one of two parties, and view citizens of the opposing party with distrust, they are increasingly likely to demand purity tests within their own parties, and to cast out anyone with a nuanced opinion on a controversial subject.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 1787, Madison laid out his view of democracy. “All civilized societies,” Madison told the assembled delegates, inevitably, “[divide] into different sects, factions and interest…in all cases where a majority are united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger.”

Madison’s response to this was his theory of expansion:

“The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or that of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

In other words, the size of the country would allow for so many different opinions and ideas that no one party could monopolize the national discussion. Madison wrote this at a time when many Americans were wary of changing the national makeup from a loose array of states into one country. Madison argued that doing so would multiply the number of interest groups, therefore protecting them from each other.

Future Madison-foe Alexander Hamilton jotted down his own notes on Madison’s proposal. He speculated that “paper money” would unite people no matter what their location. He also thought that even a large republic could be vulnerable to a demagogue, writing, “an influential demagogue will give an impulse to the whole.”

As the country became increasingly partisan, Madison eventually morphed this theory to fit his political aims. As the de facto leader of the Republican Party, opposing Hamilton and the Federalists, Madison relied on increasingly partisan language. He shifted his belief to say that while there could be disagreement among Republican ranks, anyone on the other side was an enemy to the notion of America itself (this in a time when leading Republicans believed that leaders of the opposing party, the Federalists, aimed to bring monarchy to America). In 1792 Madison wrote an article encapsulating this idea, entitled “The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends?” The answer: anyone who agreed with him and his fellow Republicans. Madison’s view of a large country, then, with many different views and opinions, had begun to wither on the vine.

Although he came to embrace partisanship, Madison believed strongly in maintaining friendships amid political disagreement. He believed in the difference of ideas, as long as he could trust that the other person shared his larger goals (i.e. the good of the nation, that is to say, that the nation would remain a republic instead of a monarchy). He and James Monroe are a good example. Although they ran against each other, Madison eventually made Monroe his Secretary of State. Similarly, although Madison’s friend Edmund Randolph didn’t support the Constitution, Madison later recommended him for a job in George Washington’s cabinet.

Although partisanship and distrust of those with opposing views may be a stance as old as the nation itself, the interconnectedness of the country in the Internet Age has not only deepened the divide between the two major parties–it has increased the demand for purity of its candidates. Senator Kamala Harris, speaking to David Axelrod on his podcast The Axe Files, argued that Democrats need to support candidates across the political spectrum–not just those furthest to the left or who ascribe to a strict set of liberal principals.

The political action committee “We Will Replace You” has vowed to do just that–vote out any Congressional Democrats (largely representing red states) who cooperate with the Trump Administration. On the right, the G.O.P. has seen an exodus of its more moderate members–Jeff Flake and Bob Corker chose to not run for reelection, citing their belief that, as Republicans who sometimes opposed the president, they could not win in their districts.

James Madison began his political career with two strong beliefs: that the size of the country would allow for a variety of opinions to thrive, and that friendships were possible even in the face of political disagreement. He faltered on his first point early on as partisanship ran rampant; but Madison applied it to his second–that a big country could allow for a variety of views as long as, overall, the people wanted the best for the country. In this way, Madison found it easy to remain friends with fellow Republicans who disagreed with him.

But today, as Americans are becoming more likely to identify people in the opposite party as endangering the nation, they also are turning on members of their own party.

Madison’s theory of expansion, then fails spectacularly in the Internet age. Americans still live far apart, but are closer than ever in their shared experience of national and international events. The two biggest political parties are able to spread information across a wider platform than ever before, leaving little room for competing voices or third party candidates (although American history is dotted with attempts by third party candidates, they have never succeeded).

As a result, Madison’s belief in friendships beyond politics is also in jeopardy. As American voters and their representatives drift further and further toward extremes, it’s becoming easier for candidates on the fringes to demand political purity across the spectrum, and to cast out any candidates who do not fit their desired, purist mold. Political compromise, in the age of social media, seems increasingly out of reach.