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Lance Banning argues that within a decade of the creation of the US Constitution the nation was engaged in a bitter battle over the soul of the American Republic (2004)

In the Preface to his anthology of writings by the Federalists (the "friends of order") and the Jeffersonian Republicans (the "friends of liberty") the late Lance Banning noted that it was a struggle over concepts that are at the core of the American political tradition: popular self-governance, federalism, constitutionalism, and liberty:

Within three years of the inauguration of the new federal Constitution, America’s revolutionary leaders divided bitterly over the policies most appropriate for the infant nation. Within five years, two clashing groups were winning thousands of ordinary voters to their side. Within a decade, the collision had resulted in a full-blown party war. There has never been another struggle like it. These were the first true parties in the history of the world—the first, that is, to mobilize and organize a large proportion of a mass electorate for a national competition. More than that, these parties argued at a depth and fought with a ferocity that has never been repeated. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans—the friends of order and the friends of liberty as they sometimes called themselves— were both convinced that more than office, more than clashing interests, and more, indeed, than even national policy in the ordinary sense were fundamentally at stake in their quarrel. Their struggle, they believed, was over nothing less profound than the sort of future the United States would have, the sort of nation America was to be. Each regarded the other as a serious threat to what was not yet called the American way. And from their own perspectives, both were right.

Within three years of the inauguration of the new federal Constitution, America’s revolutionary leaders divided bitterly over the policies most appropriate for the infant nation. Within five years, two clashing groups were winning thousands of ordinary voters to their side. Within a decade, the collision had resulted in a full-blown party war.

There has never been another struggle like it. These were the first true parties in the history of the world—the first, that is, to mobilize and organize a large proportion of a mass electorate for a national competition. More than that, these parties argued at a depth and fought with a ferocity that has never been repeated. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans—the friends of order and the friends of liberty as they sometimes called themselves— were both convinced that more than office, more than clashing interests, and more, indeed, than even national policy in the ordinary sense were fundamentally at stake in their quarrel. Their struggle, they believed, was over nothing less profound than the sort of future the United States would have, the sort of nation America was to be. Each regarded the other as a serious threat to what was not yet called the American way. And from their own perspectives, both were right.


This first great party battle is, of course, completely fascinating for its own sake. Between the framing of the Constitution and the War of 1812, the generation that had made the world’s first democratic revolution set about to put its revolutionary vision into practice on a national stage. This generation was a set of public men whose like has never been seen again. Without significant exception, they believed that the American experiment might well determine whether liberty would spread throughout the world or prove that men were too imperfect to be trusted with a government based wholly on elections. In an age of monarchies and aristocracies, they were experimenting with a governmental system—both republican and federal—unprecedented in the world. They had a never-tested and, in several respects, a quite unfinished Constitution to complete. They represented vastly different regions, and they had profoundly different visions of the nature of a sound republic. To understand why they divided and how they created the first modern parties is a captivating object in itself. It is the more worthwhile because not even in the years preceding Independence or during the debate about adoption of the Constitution have better democratic statesmen argued more profoundly over concepts that are at the core of the American political tradition: popular self-governance, federalism, constitutionalism, liberty, and the rest. Perhaps they still have much to teach about the system they bequeathed us, along with entertaining stories of our roots.

About this Quotation:

When we hear people complaining about the “gridlock” which afflicts congressional politics in Washington, D.C. it is good to remind them of what Lance Banning had to say about the early rise of political “collision” and “full-blown party war” between 1788 and 1812. There seems to have been little “consensus” between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, or between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians. Each group had a very different vision of what kind of politics and economics they wanted for the new nation. He suggests that their bitter conflicts may “still have much to teach about the system they bequeathed us, along with entertaining stories of our roots.”

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