A cautionary tale

Some Republicans want to pass a comprehensive immigration bill and some voted to do so in the Senate.  And now two of them, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, will likely have challengers from the Tea Party wing.  Which brings me to the cautionary tale.  They should read some history and look at what happened to the Federalist Party.  They could begin by reading the very interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times by James Traub.

Tea Partyers often style themselves as disciples of Thomas Jefferson, the high apostle of limited government. But by taking the ramparts against immigration, the movement is following a trajectory that looks less like the glorious arc of Jefferson’s Republican Party than the suicidal path of Jefferson’s great rivals, the long-forgotten Federalists, who also refused to accept the inexorable changes of American demography.

The Federalists began as the faction that supported the new Constitution, with its “federal” framework, rather than the existing model of a loose “confederation” of states. They were the national party, claiming to represent the interests of the entire country.

Culturally, however, they were identified with the ancient stock of New England and the mid-Atlantic, as the other major party at the time, the Jeffersonian Republicans (no relation to today’s Republicans), were with the South.

John Quincy Adams portrait. "John Quincy ...

John Quincy Adams portrait. “John Quincy Adams”. Metropolitan Museum of Art . . Retrieved September 4, 2009 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then came the Louisiana Purchase.

“The people of the East can not reconcile their habits, views and interests with those of the South and West,” declared Thomas Pickering, a leading Massachusetts Federalist.

Every Federalist in Congress save John Quincy Adams voted against the Louisiana Purchase. Adams, too, saw that New England, the cradle of the revolution, had become a small part of a new nation. Change “being found in nature,” he wrote stoically, “cannot be resisted.”

But resist is precisely what the Federalists did. Fearing that Irish, English and German newcomers would vote for the Jeffersonian Republicans, they argued — unsuccessfully — for excluding immigrants from voting or holding office, and pushed to extend the period of naturalization from 5 to 14 years.

They even thought about separating New England from the rest of the country.

,,,in the fall of 1814, the Federalists convened the Hartford Convention to vote on whether to stay in or out of the Union. By then even the hotheads realized how little support they had, and the movement collapsed. And the Federalists, now scorned as an anti-national party, collapsed as well.

Contrast that defiance with Jefferson’s Republicans, who stood for decentralized government and the interests of yeoman farmers, primarily in the coastal South.

They ruled the country from 1801 to 1825, when they were unseated by Adams — who, after splitting with the Federalists, had joined with a breakaway Republican faction.

In response, Jefferson’s descendants, known as the Old Radicals, did exactly what the Federalists would not do: they joined up with the new Americans, many of them immigrants, who were settling the country opened up by the Louisiana Purchase.

Their standard-bearer in 1828, Andrew Jackson, favored tariffs and “internal improvements” like roads and canals, the big-government programs of the day. The new party, known first as the Democratic-Republicans, and then simply as the Democrats, thrashed Adams that year. (Adams’s party, the National Republicans, gave way to the Whigs, which in turn evolved into the modern Republican Party.)

Will the Republicans disappear like the Federalists?  Traub doesn’t think so.  But hey are, like the Federalists, on the wrong side of history.

One thought on “A cautionary tale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s