In the 1790’s, the period immediately after the adoption of our Constitution, there were fissures in the country that bear an eerie resemblance to those that now divide the United States. It could be said that then, as now, there we were deeply divided by our political and cultural beliefs.
The Federalists, who, for a brief period in our early history, controlled all three branches of the government, were allied with England and favored a strong national defense and a strong commercial presence in the world and measures for economic development; while the Republicans (or the Democratic-Republicans, as they then were called) were more favorable to republican France and wanted a more agrarian and less commercial polity.
The Republicans eventually won the presidency with Thomas Jefferson, after an astonishing campaign of public mendacity which is a preview of the era of "fake news" in which we now find ourselves.
Jefferson’s opponent, John Adams, was the victim of a carefully calibrated campaign of exaggeration and innuendo, which, coupled with his own ineptitude as a campaigner, cost him a second term in office.
Adams and Jefferson, major founding figures of our nation, eventually patched up their differences, but Jefferson’s support for the hysterical anti-Adams press caused a rift for many years, as Adams and his wife Abigail found it difficult to forgive the ambitious Jefferson for underwriting the organized libels against Adams.
Adams and his fellow Federalists concluded that the republic was then imperiled (as it is now) by a licentious and unscrupulous press, and worried that the American people would not be able to marshal the wisdom and virtue needed to ignore the barrage of untruths.
The Federalists, influenced greatly by Edmund Burke, understood that Europeans, overwhelmed by the Napoleonic armies which arose after the French Revolution, were in danger of losing their traditional civilization. Jefferson’s sympathy with the French made many Federalists wonder whether American civilization might not be put at risk by his election.
How little things change, or as the French themselves say, the more things change the more they remain the same. Our universities, the victims of the seductiveness of European (partly French, partly German) thought, have bought into European socialist notions suggesting the bankruptcy of traditional Western Judeo-Christian culture, and these ideas, horibile dictu, have now been generally accepted by the media and the Democratic Party.
These include the ideas that it is the responsibility of government to redistribute income, and in particular to ensure that the formerly less powerful, particularly women, minorities, gays and transgenders be free from discrimination.
Other Americans disagree. Without wishing to discriminate against anyone, they worry that the Democrats would use anti-discrimination laws as a sword against traditional religious believers, and not merely as a shield to protect minorities.
These Americans, who constitute the base of the current Republican Party, think that the task of their governments should be to protect persons and property rather than to redistribute wealth, and thus their resistance to the heavy taxation that now characterizes our federal government.
If social change is to occur, it should be not at the behest of a central government, the courts, the academy or the media, but rather through the state and local governments, those closest to the people.
The parties have now switched sides. The heirs of the Jeffersonians, today’s Democrats, favor a strong redistributionist central government, while the heirs of the Federalists, today’s Republicans, now embrace something that looks like the Jeffersonian belief in state’s rights.
One legacy of the first political divisions in the country remains intact, however, and that is that today’s Republicans still understand the primacy of virtue in politics, and still embrace the Federalist understanding that there can be no order without law, no law without morality and no morality without religion.
Appalled by those on the left who embrace a culture and a philosophy of self-actualization, or perhaps self-indulgence, they fear that a failure to resurrect the classical virtues of prudence, temperance and frugality will make it impossible for Americans to practice the Christian values of faith, hope and charity.
That is where many on the center and right think the left has been dragging this country for the last administration, and the triumph of the secular redistributionist ethic seemed to many of the Trump supporters to have destroyed traditional culture in Western Europe, and to have sapped the will of most Europeans to resist.
This explains the incredible success of Mr. Trump’s brilliant campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again." That campaign was rooted not in discrimination, xenophobia, or misogyny, as Hillary Clinton’s supporters claimed, but rather in the restoration of the virtue the Federalists thought was necessary to preserve a republic.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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