Civility Project: Americans Have Always Been at Each Other’s Throats

In Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis shows the political debates concerning the size and role of the government have been a part of our nation since the beginning. Originally, the founders did agree on some broad principles: namely the necessity to secede from Britain and a representative form of government. But once the Revolutionary War ended, the founders no longer had a common enemy and their differences with each other came to the fore.

Contemporary debates about the shape of government and even the meaning of the American Revolution are nothing new. These debates are in our national DNA and will likely never find resolution. That we have held together for so long — with one notable exception — is something of a miracle considering how uncivil we have been to each other. In retelling important events from the early years of the United States under the Constitution, Ellis shows the truth of the proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

In the chapter, “The Collaborators,” Ellis describes the political landscape at the end of George Washington’s presidency. The nation began to fray and political parties formed, despite previously being considered anathema. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two allies before and during the Revolution, found themselves as opponents in the contest to succeed Washington. While Adams won the election, Jefferson proved to be more percipient as he realized parties would dominate the future of American politics.

Consider this excerpt from “The Collaborators” and how much it sounds like it could describe American politics today. We don’t seem to have matured much in how we describe our opponents, nor are we more willing to view our own shortcomings. (I’ve added the emphasis.)

The ongoing debate between Federalists and Republicans had degenerated into ideological warfare. Each side sincerely saw the other as traitors to the core principles of the American Revolution. The political consensus that had held together during Washington’s first term, and had then begun to fragment into Federalist and Republican camps over the Whiskey Rebellion and Jay’s Treaty, broke down completely in 1797. Jefferson spoke for many of the participants caught up in this intensely partisan and nearly scatological political culture when he described it as a fundamental loss of trust between former friends. “Men who have been intimate all their lives,” he observed, “cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch hats.” He first used the phrase “a wall of separation,” which would later become famous as his description of the proper relation between church and state; here, however, describing the political and ideological division between Federalists and Republicans: “Politics and party hatreds destroy the happiness of every being here,” he reported to his daughter. “They seem, like salamanders, to consider fire as their element.”

Jefferson’s interpretation of the escalating party warfare was richly ironic, since he had contributed to the breakdown of personal trust and the complete disavowal of bipartisan cooperation by rejecting Adams’s offer to renew the old partnership. But Jefferson was fairly typical in this regard, lamenting the chasm between long-standing colleagues while building up the barricades from his side of the divide. Federalists and Republicans alike accused their opponents of narrow-minded partisanship, never conceding or apparently even realizing that their own behavior also fit the party label they affixed to their enemies.

The very idea of a legitimate opposition did not yet exist in the political culture of the 1790s, and the evolution of political parties was proceeding in an environment that continued to regard the word party as an epithet. In effect, the leadership of the revolutionary generation lacked a vocabulary adequate to describe the politics they were inventing. And the language they inherited framed the genuine political differences and divisions in terms that only exacerbated their nonnegotiable character.