Monday, July 4, 2011

Four For Fighting

It's the Fourth of July. Independence Day in the United States.

I suppose some of you are expecting me to make some high-minded speech where I once again decry the toxic political discourse in this country. Which, don't get me wrong, is completely unacceptable for a nation that has any right to call itself a moral compass or global authority. You're probably looking at me, on this day, to reach back to the Founding Fathers and talk about what they'd think of us were they to see how we lay into each other on this most patriotic of days.

I can do that for you. But you may not like what you hear.

First, let's cover the revolution itself. The revolution was not a united group of colonists against the British; let's make that clear. Some of the colonists were loyal to the British crown. What's not as cut-and-dried is the exact split of loyalists to patriots, and how many people were undecided, as it were. The long-standing conventional wisdom on the topic was that it was an even three-way split. More recently, though, the split's been refigured more like 15-20% loyalist, 40-45% patriot or patriot-sympathetic, and the rest neutral. A little more in favor of the patriots than before.

And, of course, as things progressed, the patriots pressed their numbers. Much of the war revolved around trying to win the hearts and minds of the undecideds. This was accomplished partially through persuasive argument and, eventually, partially through forcing the loyalists to shut up via lootings, beatings, harassment and various other indignities. After the war, some of the loyalists got out of Dodge. Just like Liberia was "founded" by Americans leaving America, Sierra Leone was "founded" by black loyalists who had fled to Nova Scotia and discovered that life wasn't much fun there either.

Most of the loyalists, however, stayed put. However, they continued to harbor loyalist feelings for the remainder of their days. Sentiments you went to war over die hard, win or lose. In the end, when the first political parties in America were formed, one, the Federalist Party, took a decidedly more pro-British tack. It's not hard to figure out where the loyalists went.

This would come into play over the Fourth of July.

If you happened to be perusing the Daily Beast last year, you'll have noticed Sean Wilentz talk about exactly what the Founding Fathers were up to on Independence Day: sniping at each other. The two parties of the time, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, wouldn't even hold events with each other.

The Democratic-Republicans would spend the day attacking the Federalists over the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or officials within. In practice, the law basically made it illegal to criticize then-President John Adams, especially since the law had an expiration date that just so happened to also be Adams' last day in office.

In turn, the Federalists spent the day attacking Thomas Jefferson and downplaying his role in writing the Declaration of Independence. A few scattered loyalists were still around, and they had huddled with the Federalists. One, Timothy Pickering, called the Declaration "high-wrought Philippic against Great Britain and her King.”

Albert B. Southwick of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette recalls here how things went down in Worcester in 1808. The ill will harbored by each party in that story was repeated nationwide; the book Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic by Len Travers tells about how that same year in Philadelphia, Federalists aimed to "excite hostility even to blood," with both parties threatening each other, each attempting to goad the other into throwing the first punch so they would have an excuse to fight.

So what happened to calm things down on the Fourth? Simple: the Federalists died off as a party. When Jefferson became the third President in the 1800 election, the Federalists found themselves on their back heel. Accustomed to an upper-class lifestyle, they found themselves out of touch. And when Jefferson's handpicked successor, James Madison, was elected to two terms of his own, they found themselves near death. (Opposing the War of 1812 didn't help their case any.) By the time James Monroe came along in 1816, they barely had enough power left to even field a candidate to oppose him. They would informally send twice-defeated vice-presidential candidate Rufus King to oppose Monroe, and when that failed, by 1820, the Federalists were left fielding only a candidate for Vice President, Richard Stockton, without a Presidential candidate for him to run with. It was the last gasp before the party dissolved entirely. And without two parties that could attack each other on the Fourth, and without a party sympathetic to the British, Independence Day became a day of unified patriotism.

The immediate post-Federalist era was known as the Era of Good Feelings. It wasn't entirely good feelings; the issues that would later result in the Civil War were beginning to take root. But for one day a year, at least, it was an improvement.

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