Imagine a country where rival political factions see themselves as an existential threat to the survival of the republic. The media publish outrageous accusations against major political figures. Citizens are swept away by conspiracy theories. Fear of foreign interference in domestic politics is widespread. And people resort to violence against their political opponents.
It can describe our own time. The America of 2022 is plagued by polarizing figures, including a former president who led an unsuccessful and deceptive campaign to overturn an election he lost, while the The House committee hearings on January 6 illustrate. People assume the worst of their political enemies. Magical thinking abounds.
The picture we paint in this episode of The story as it happens is not from our current swamp. We are in the 1790s.
When George Washington retired after two terms as president, his restraining influence on national politics disappeared. Federalists and Republicans began to openly accuse each other of trying to destroy the country.
Ordinary citizens expected a French invasion of the American continent to spread the radical contagion of the French Revolution. Republican newspapers published scurrilous attacks on the Adams administration, prompting congressional federalists to pass the Sedition Act. Rival factions brawled on the streets of the capital, Philadelphia. As historian Gordon Wood underline, every aspect of American life has become politicized. The nation nearly broke apart.
Are there any useful parallels between that controversial era and ours? The answer is yes, according to historian Joseph Ellis, who said he feared for the future of the republic or, as he put it, res publicathe general interest.
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“The United States faces a crisis that is somewhat unprecedented. The challenge we face now puts democracy as we define it, or as the founders would call it, a republic, in real danger,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ellis.Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.”
Mr. Ellis is troubled by polls showing that around a third of the electorate believes former President Donald Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Democracy cannot work when the losers of an election refuse to accept their loss, thereby undermining public confidence in the electoral system.
As contentious as the 1790s were, President John Adams finally accepted that he had lost the election of 1800. Relative calm returned to politics, as the ascendant Republican Party controlled the presidency for the next 24 years under the so-called Virginia dynasty.
Hear why Joseph Ellis doesn’t expect calm to return to American politics today in download this episode of the story as it happens.