In 1976, Senator Jim Buckley of New York—William F. Buckley’s brother—won renomination to seek a second term, and Pat Moynihan won the Democrats’ Senate nomination. At his headquarters, Buckley said, “I congratulate Professor Moynihan and look forward to running against Professor Moynihan, who will, I am sure, run a campaign worthy of a Harvard professor.” Back at Moynihan’s headquarters, a journalist said, “Pat, Jim is referring to you as ‘Professor Moynihan.’” Moynihan responded, “Ah, the mudslinging has begun.”

Mudslinging is nothing new in American politics, and it has frequently been considerably less pleasant than sardonic jabs about academic pedigree. In the popular American imagination, politics has only recently become a landscape of extreme polarization. But as much as Americans like to recall a past in which genteel public service reigned supreme, nothing of the sort existed. Political passions and partisan mobilization have prevailed since the dawn of the republic.

The old and abiding phenomenon of political discord is the theme of Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics. This new history by H.W. Brands excavates the tradition of rancorous and occasionally vicious party politics in the United States, which has been both a cause and an effect of the nation’s singular form of government.

One of America’s most prolific popular historians, Brands has a firm grip on the Founders’ political thought. Founding Partisans probes their sober view of human nature and the simultaneously delicate and robust design of government that was its chief by-product. What distinguishes this narrative, though, is not only a shrewd exam-
ination of the Founders’ political philosophy. It’s that Brands also portrays the architects of the American regime as a quarrelsome lot practiced in the art of personal insult and partisan backbiting. This is history “as it really was,” to employ the Rankean dictum.


In the early years of the republic, Brands explains, the battle of ideas took on an almost literal quality. Ideological differences and rivalries threatened at any moment to erupt in physical violence—as they eventually did between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, with flintlock pistols at 12 paces. In addition to being sage philosophers and wily politicians, the leaders of America’s revolutionary generation were masters of criticism and confrontation. The story of their fierce attachments and antagonisms lends force to Henry Adams’s definition of politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds.”

Founding Partisans opens by briskly recounting the formation of America’s first political party, the Federalists. Formed around Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the Federalists sought to overthrow the Articles of Confederation that enfeebled the government during and after the Revolution. The parochial impulse to husband power at the state level had ensured a miniscule federal government unable to perform its basic functions. As Brands shows, to the Federalists, what was needed was “a newly established government, not a renovation of the existing government.” They hankered to rectify what Hamilton called the “awful spectacle” of a nation without a national government.

The Framers at the Philadelphia Convention created the federal Constitution to foster a limited but energetic government, which ignited a great debate in the form of oratory and pamphleteering about the nature of man and society. The process of explaining and defending the Constitution drew out the most concentrated eloquence and ingenuity ever marshaled on behalf of a new political order (before or since). The trenchant 84 essays of The Federalist Papers (printed in book form at 85) were a marvel of journalism that fleshed out the reasoning behind the institutional architecture of a government established to secure preexisting natural rights.

The men who took up the pen of Publius catalyzed the birth of the Anti-Federalists in opposition to the proposed national compact. The ensuing contest of wit and intelligence inaugurated what Samuel Huntington would later call “the promise of disharmony” in American politics. The staunch critics of the Constitution feared that a concentration of power would breed unfathomable corruption and smother hard-won freedoms. They aimed to put strict limits on power at all levels of government, and particularly at the federal level. During the ratification debates, the creedal passions that have long animated American politics made an early appearance. Patrick Henry accused supporters of the Constitution of conspiring to “convert” the young republic into a “great and mighty empire.” To Anti-Federalists like Henry, this was a straightforward betrayal of the founding promise of America. “When the American spirit was in its youth,” he said to the chairman of the convention, “the language of America was different: Liberty, sir, was then the primary object.”

The political battle over the design of the Constitution set off an explosion of personal invective. And this struggle between combatants, fighting under hostile banners, helped ultimately forge a meaningful solidarity even amid deep differences, then and in the future. The personal heat in Philadelphia was an important source of light. For it was the constructive tension of the Constitutional Convention that yielded what James Forten later called “that glorious fabric of collected wisdom.”

The opponents of the Constitution lost the fight over the founding charter of the nation, but not before staking out a potent political identity. The philosophical character of the early parties can be thorny, but Brands is at the peak of his power and craft in finding a pregnant anecdote and generally allowing the protagonists to speak for themselves.

Having been entrusted with inaugurating the world’s first democratic republic, the Framers needed to strike multiple complex balances at once. As Madison noted in Federalist No. 51, the constitutional architecture was simultaneously intricate and dynamic. It had to “first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Republics, as the Founders knew, were prone to tyranny. And given the principle of rule by consent, this meant tyranny of the majority. To forestall this specter, Brands recounts, the Constitution’s ingenious separation of powers created a government of checks and balances, replete with blocking mechanisms, including supermajorities, vetoes, veto overrides, and judicial review. This surplus of safeguards and competing power centers would enhance political liberty while guarding against its dangers and defects.

The conventional wisdom of the age held that republics could survive only in a small and homogeneous society bereft of opposite and rival interests—known as “factions.” As Brands explains, the Founders turned this thinking on its head. Madison proposed an “extensive” republic in which the impulses and appetites of citizens would be filtered through and tempered by liberal institutions. A system of indirect (representative) democracy—what he called a republic—would “enlarge and refine” the public view and cultivate public virtue. In this system, a grudging respect would be shown to majority opinion, but guardrails would check popular passion and prejudice. To this day, the Constitution gets a bad rap in progressive precincts for these counter-majoritarian provisions, from the Electoral College to the Senate.

A liberal order with a “multiplicity of factions” was not mere conjecture by the advocates of the Constitution. It was personified by their inveterate habits of disputation. Brands chronicles the record of the Founders who sought to advance the common good while dealing unsentimentally with political rivals.

The United States was still in embryo when Americans began to speculate about its imminent demise. During a riot over a new tax on alcohol in 1791–94 , Hamilton, the treasury secretary, vowed to quell the Whisky Rebellion: “Civil war is undoubtedly a great evil.…But it is incomparably a less evil than the destruction of government.” Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s self-declared enemy, harbored his own fears about the longevity of the republic. He reckoned that the ruling Federalists, who had praised the British constitutional system and established a national bank, were devising “the plan of sliding us into monarchy.” An outspoken defender of rural interests, or at least a flatterer of rural prejudices, Jefferson personified the populist creed when he impugned Federalists who “all live in cities, together, and … give chief employment to the newspapers, and therefore have most of them under their command.”

This burgeoning conflict of visions reached its apogee in the presidential election of 1800, when the “feuding fathers” turned their full partisan wrath on one another. The breathtaking tale of what is sometimes called “the revolution of 1800” is very well wrought in Founding Partisans. And it sheds light on the pervasive belief in republican virtue. Republicans (known today as the Democrats) led by Jefferson were pitted against the Federalist John Adams, and it was a scorched-earth affair.

For starters, Jefferson and the Republicans were savaged in the Federalist press. Hamilton deemed their standard-bearer a “contemptible hypocrite” who was “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.” In turn, Republicans unleashed a torrent of abuse against the Federalists, who were “bewitched and perverted by the British example.” Hamilton was an “arch intriguer” and an “evil genius.” The sitting president was hit hardest. James Thomas Calender, a Republican surrogate, depicted Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

This nasty electoral contest signaled to a watching world that the American system was on the verge of breaking down. President Adams was trounced, and two Republican candidates claimed an equal share of votes in the Electoral College. In these circumstances, the Constitution directs the House of Representatives to decide the out-come. After a prolonged stalemate of 35 separate ballots, the defeated Federalist faction cast the decisive vote in the House between their two rivals. Hamilton, who had made no secret of his contempt for Jefferson nonetheless knew him to be a man of principle. Despite his “revolutionary” notions, Hamilton allowed that Jefferson was “yet a lover of liberty” whereas Burr “loves nothing but himself.” A potential crisis was averted after Hamilton rallied Federalist opposition to Burr, and Jefferson was sworn in as the third president of the United States.

It was a fitting end to an era of ubiquitous political conflict and creativity. Partisan animosity had not obstructed a public-spirited act but, on the contrary, helped to motivate it. In the creation of the republic, Brands reminds us, the Founders never lost sight of the enormous stakes involved. Even with the victory at Yorktown, America’s experiment in self-government had just begun. The Framers found themselves in a “wilderness,” literally and figuratively, as Madison mused, “without a single footstep to guide us.” The failure to organize the Union “efficiently on republican principles,” would mean “the partition of the empire”—the United States—“into rival and hostile confederacies.”

A close reading of the partisan strife of the founding generation leads one to suspect that its noble fruit could not have been borne any other way. A bracing exchange of ideas (and no shortage of ad hominem invective) culminated in a dynamic form of government that respected both majority rule and minority rights. The founding bristled with patriotic sentiment as well as organized hatred. The upshot was a resilient Madisonian system that has managed to achieve the synthesis of contradictions ever since.

Brands equips readers to see an oft-forgotten truth: that political discord is not a deplorable present malady but a perennial reality as old as America’s founding parchments. At a time when the phrase “divisive politics” has been trivialized, an account of the tumultuous beginnings of our nation helps citizens recognize the inherently truculent nature of politics in a free society and invites us to ponder the duties that bind even stalwart partisans to the national interest. In the age of Hamilton, it was believed that partisanship would not elevate to “the office of the president” “the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

It’s a lesson that could not be more timely in an election year when “the talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity,” as Hamilton put it, are in abundant supply.

Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Library of Congress

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