The Republican Reign of Witches

Being the 4th of July it is almost mandatory to discuss some parallels between the early days of the nation and conditions today. While most are looking back to the revolution, and comparing George Bush to King George, Kevin Horton has another significant comparison in Harpers. Horton looks back at the term of John Adams:

And in fact the early years of the Republic were plagued by intense partisan strife, as quasi-wars arose involving France and Britain. Americans were at various points bitterly divided in their sympathies between the colonial motherland and the Continental power whose support made America’s independence possible. Washington had wisely cautioned against entanglements with the European great powers and urged distance. His view maintained peace and unity. But after his departure came a period of rule by the heavier hand of the unfortunate John Adams. For Adams, the nation faced grave perils from abroad and retrenchment of civil liberties was therefore needed. He secured—though by a single vote in the House—passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, under which measures of political repression were taken against those who opposed the Federalists (which was roughly half the country). In many ways, Adams’s heavy-handed rule resembles that of George W. Bush more than two hundred years later.

Thomas Jefferson referred to this period as the reign of witches:

Jefferson believed that the Federalists had overplayed their hand—that they had manipulated threats from abroad to seize for themselves vastly greater powers than the Constitution permitted them. He also believed that their demonization and mistreatment of the political opposition was an abuse of the powers of office and an assault upon the body politick. Adams had used the power of criminal prosecution to destroy the reputations of dozens of opposition political leaders, and to throw many of them behind bars. Even Jefferson expressed concern that he might be prosecuted (in fact he cautions Taylor to be careful about this letter; he is even concerned that it will be intercepted and read by Adams’s agents).

Jefferson is troubled by a growing divide in the nation—by the fact that Massachusetts and Connecticut were increasingly embracing intolerant theocratic values and the political interests of a rising merchant class. But in Virginia and the more agricultural states of the Mid-Atlantic and South, the views were “liberal”—that is, “liberal” the way Jefferson and Washington used the word, namely opposed to a church-state, embracing freedom of religion, tolerance, and suspicious of government intrusion into private life and commerce. (It seems strange to us today that Massachusetts and Connecticut are the “red” states and Virginia and the South are the “blue” states, but in a sense that is just how it was.)

There are many parallels to today. One parallel not stressed by Horton is the fate of the parties. The Federalists soon died out after Jefferson’s election. Today the Republican Party is dominated by political extremists of the far right and is in danger of being only able to win in the deep south. They risk suffering the same fate as the Federalists who overplayed their hand.

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