By Paul Hicks

Pullquote: “We are not the first Americans to witness our political parties mired down in vitriolic political warfare.”

While delving recently into the period from 1776 to 1815, I was struck by certain episodes in our nation’s history, which bear remarkable resemblance to a number of current news stories:

*On July 9, 1776, upon hearing the newly adopted Declaration of Independence publicly proclaimed, 40 American soldiers and sailors under the command of Capt. Oliver Brown stole down to the Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan under cover of night. They lashed ropes around the gilded statue of King George III, pulled until their ropes broke and then pulled again.

At last, the symbol of a detested monarchy lay in pieces on the ground. It was then transported to Litchfield, Connecticut, where it was melted down and made into 42,088 musket balls by a group of the town’s women and girls.

*On September 1, 1796, President George Washington wrote to his Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott (who had jurisdiction over ports for customs and tarrifs):

Dear Sir,

Enclosed is the name, and description of the Girl I mentioned to you last night. She has been the particular attendent on Mrs Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy & useful to her, being perfect a Mistress of her needle.

We have heard that she was seen in New York by someone who knew her, directly after she went off. And since by Miss [Elizabeth] Langden, in Portsmouth; who meeting her one day in the Street, & knowing her, was about to stop and speak to her, but she brushed quickly by, to avoid it... Whether she is Stationary at Portsmouth, or was there <en passant> only, is uncertain; but as it is the last we have heard of her, I would thank you for writing to the Collector of that Port, & him for his endeavours to recover, & send her back.

:I am sorry to give you, or anyone else trouble on such a trifling occasion—but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a servant (& Mrs Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impu[nity] if it can be avoided. With great esteem & rega[rd] I am always

Yours,

Go: Washington

*The goal of the founding fathers was to avoid partisan politics. However, even the widely popular George Washington was subjected to vicious partisan attacks during his second administration. By the time John Adams came to office, embryonic political parties were tearing at each other. Between 1799 and 1815, Democratic-Republicans, a more populist party, mounted a formidable challenge to the Federalists, labeling them as elite and “undemocratic.” 

*A series of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by Congress (controlled by Federalists) in 1798 and signed into law by Federalist President Adams. These laws included new powers to deport aliens as well as making it harder for new immigrants to vote. Previously, there was a five-year residency requirement, but the new law raised it to 14 years.

*The Sedition Act provided that fines and imprisonment could be used against those who “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government or its office holders. Under the terms of this law over 20 Democratic-Republican newspaper writers and editors were arrested and some were imprisoned. In 1798, Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican Congressman from Vermont was found guilty for a publication that criticized President Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self-avarice.”

*Even though the Sedition Act expired at the end of the Adams administration, six Connecticut Federalists were indicted in 1806 by a Democratic-Republican prosecutor under common law charges of seditious libel of President Jefferson. After long delays, the charges were dropped, perhaps because of the Jefferson administration’s concern that some of the defendants were going to bring up the current rumors of Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings.

*As one commentator noted: “The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course and an inconclusive outcome. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History —one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as ‘dreary and unproductive ... an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”

It is obvious that we are not the first Americans to witness our political parties mired down in vitriolic political warfare or to suffer a president who is the subject of widespread hatred, fear, and anger. We can only hope that the judgment of future historians won’t conclude that ours was an even more dreary and unproductive period, and, surely, that it won’t be climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.