Though I am not handing over my liberal credentials, I’ve been thinking since my Constitutional Law class last semester that I should write an essay on what the Republican party would look like if they were really Republicans… because the party we have now is nowhere near the way that Thomas Jefferson envisioned it (we’ll talk about why the modern day Democrats would make Alexander Hamilton purposefully lose the duel that killed him another time). The reason that I want to focus first on what the Republican party should be is that if it were that kind of party, I’d have a much harder time deciding which way I would vote.
When Thomas Jefferson was a young man, his vision for the United States was that we would all be a group of yeoman farmers, capable of governing ourselves. In order to understand why he would think that way, it helps to view those thoughts in context. The English monarchy from which he’d just escaped was, at the time, the most corrupt in the world. Whenever the American colonies expressed a slight dissatisfaction in anything concerning the British crown, they were served a new tax on something essential, like sugar, tea, postage, etc. Instead of stamping down the feeling that the colonies would be better off governing themselves, a flame broke into a wildfire.
The breaking point came in 1773 with the Boston Tea Party, which brought stiff punishment for Massachusetts called The Intolerable Acts. The port of Boston was closed. The economic lifeblood of the state was destroyed. Any chance at self-government was eliminated. The British empire wanted to make an example out of the Bostonians… to say, “see what will happen if you misbehave?” Unfortunately for them, the rest of the colonies were outraged and the idea of American Revolution began.
While most of this was going on, Thomas Jefferson was in France, trying to get us enough money to fight back against the British, because all of our operating capital actually belonged to them. The toll of living under a regime in which he did not believe, coupled with the stress of having to come up with enough resources to get out from under it, made Jefferson a firm believer in the idea of republicanism. In his America, there was only enough federal power to loosely collate us into a country. The states would even be free to make their own treaties with other countries, as well as having their own militias.
Jefferson’s idea of federalism fell apart during the Revolutionary war, because since there was no national bank and no centralized military, there was little to no hope of getting the troops the supplies that they needed. Lots of soldiers went without food. Some went without the appropriate clothes or boots. The colonists won the war based on one simple truth: the longer we drag this out, the more the British Empire will tire of it. Travel time from Britain to the US was roughly six months. Though the British had more resources than the colonists, the problem was getting them there.
Eventually, Britain conceded, and the United States was born.
It was then that the differences between Alexander Hamilton’s view of America and Thomas Jefferson’s became frighteningly apparent. Though not still loyal to the British crown, Hamilton thought that the British model for government was still the best in the world, and he strove to make the rest of the members of the Constitutional Congress understand that fact… and in my personal opinion, ignored everything that the country had just been through. Jefferson was so opposed to any kind of tyranny or injustice that he was completely set on local government. If the Republicans of that day were in power now, the highest form of government would probably be the school board.
As with most things, the truth was somewhere in the middle. George Washington knew better than anyone that we needed a federal government that was strong enough to defend the entire country, because there were several countries around the world that were just waiting for us to fall apart so they could reclaim their land… and honestly, most people do not know how close that came to happening, because the first “constitution,” the Articles of Confederation were so flimsy that every state had its own militia and its own ability to form treaties with foreign nations.
The “founding brothers” (thanks, Joseph J. Ellis) knew that the trick to making a successful country was to throw out the Articles of Confederation, and to create a constitution that married the two ideas of national government- just enough federal to unite us, and just enough local to divide us… taking away the threat of monarchy.