On an overcast June day in 1788, delegates to Virginia’s ratification convention listened raptly to Patrick Henry, fiery patriot and five-term governor, rail against the proposed Constitution. It went too far in replacing the Articles of Confederation with a “consolidated” national government, he charged. “The rights of conscience, trial by jury, liberty of the press, all your immunities and franchises, all pretensions to human rights and privileges, are rendered insecure, if not lost, by this change.” The room was hushed as Henry proceeded to invoke the Almighty.
When I see beyond the horizon that binds human eyes, and look at the final consummation of all human things, and see those intelligent beings which inhabit the ethereal mansion reviewing the political decisions and revolutions which in the progress of time will happen in America, and the consequent happiness or misery of mankind …
As he spoke, the sky grew ominously dark. Thunderclouds unleashed a furious storm, lighting the sky and shaking the entire building.
“The spirits whom he had called,” one delegate wrote, “seemed to have come at his bidding.”
Relentlessly, Henry escalated his appeal. “Availing himself of the incident, with a master’s art … he seemed … to seize upon the artillery of Heaven, and directed its fiercest thunders against the heads of his adversaries.”
Stirred by Henry’s theatrics and frightened by the storm, the delegates rose in confusion and rushed from their seats.
As the controversy over ratifying the Constitution exemplifies, things did not go smoothly as the embryonic alliance of former British colonies in America tried to invent a new country. The times were a stew of clashing principles, ideas, fears, and egos. The Founding Fathers rarely saw eye to eye. Alexander Hamilton’s ambition irritated everyone. Thomas Jefferson, an aloof intellectual, was hard to pin down. John Adams wore everyone out with his complaining. James Madison, bookish and quiet, the youngest of the four, had to turn heated oratory into a blueprint for a new kind of government. It wasn’t easy. As Madison later put it, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”
By the time the Constitutional Convention ended in Philadelphia, the fissures of earlier days had started to cleave into partisan divisions—Federalists versus Anti-Federalists. A central fault line in American politics was already clear: the authority of the national government versus the states. Hamilton and Adams were Federalists; Jefferson was in Europe but disfavored strong central government; Madison’s views were more complicated, as a protégé and longtime ally of Jefferson’s who also authored most of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Federalist Papers. The convention, through bitter compromises, papered over differences temporarily, but the fissures would recur and sometimes widen into chasms in the decades ahead.
Founding Partisans, by the historian H. W. Brands, traces the early origins of these fractures in American politics. The Founders, as he portrays them, were willing to endure a “brawling birth” and agree to compromises they hated because they shared an overarching aim: to unify the congeries of weak and independent states into a single country that would one day rival the great powers of Europe.
Brands’s book joins a rich literature on the period of the founding and the men who led it, including The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800, by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick; Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, by Pauline Maier; Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman; The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788, by Jackson Turner Main; and other works. Brands adds to the historical conversation a sharp focus on the emerging battle lines of partisanship using the Founders’ writings. He illustrates—by their own hand—their evolving thinking about each new crisis and what, when, and how to negotiate through their intense conflicts and find a way forward.
Brands moves steadily through territory that will be familiar to readers of American history: the Continental Congress; the Constitutional Convention in 1787; the ratification of the Constitution; the First Federal Congress; George Washington’s presidency; John Adams’s foreign policy and crackdown on dissent; and the deadlocked election of 1800, in which Republicans, led by Jefferson, at last triumphed over the Federalists. Given today’s intense partisanship, no doubt Brands hopes revisiting this history through the Founders’ words will reveal a path out of our own political wilderness.
Major flashpoints flared up in each of the periods he covers, challenging this first generation of leaders to improvise and agree over and over to bargains they abhorred, at times sacrificing not only policy preferences but even principle to the larger goal of a United States grounded in both stability and liberty.
Of course, they could not have predicted how the deals they made then would play out over more than 200 years. Take the knotty problem of representation. The Constitutional Convention deadlocked over it, and the impasse dragged on for weeks. The large states, led by Madison and the Virginians, wanted to overthrow the Articles of Confederation and replace them with a new charter that fairly reflected the greater wealth and population of the large states. The small states clung to the one-state, one-vote model of the articles. Matters such as the power of Congress and the executive were delayed until representation was resolved.
Delegates were eager to go home. Benjamin Franklin, not a religious man, surprisingly suggested they pray about it. Hamilton objected, saying the public would interpret that as an act of desperation. Finally, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut proposed creating a House of Representatives with members apportioned by population and a Senate with each state represented equally. This, Ellsworth argued, “will secure tranquility.” Legislation would have to pass both houses of Congress. Ellsworth raised the specter of dissolution. “If the great states refuse this plan, we will be forever separated,” he said.
“The diversity of opinions turns on two points,” Franklin declared. “If a proportional representation takes place, the small states contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large states say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition.”
The so-called Connecticut Compromise kept the states together, but it was harsh medicine. Madison even voted against it. He had wanted “a government wholly national. But when the convention accepted the Connecticut compromise, he reconciled himself to getting half what he’d aimed for,” says Brands.
Almost 250 years later, Madison’s fears seem justified. Brands’s historical narrative stays firmly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not venturing to address present-day ramifications of the Connecticut Compromise or other events he writes about. But as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their new book, Tyranny of the Minority, the Connecticut Compromise “was a ‘second-best’ solution to an intractable standoff that threatened to derail the convention and perhaps destroy the young nation.” Over time, the malapportionment of the Senate relative to population has escalated into massive structural inequality. In 1790, Virginia, the largest state, had a population 13 times that of the smallest state, Delaware. But by 2000, California, the state with the greatest population, was 70 times larger than Wyoming, the smallest. This also skews the Electoral College, another invention of the Founders, in which the number of electors for each state is the total of its representatives and senators. Until the 21st century, rural and large states were both Democratic and Republican, but in the past 20 years, partisan sorting into rural and urban areas has created a significant national advantage for Republicans. This realignment has intensified partisan politics in Washington and in the states, potentially threatening a fundamental principle of democracy—majority rule combined with minority rights.
Brands writes at length about the fraught process of the Constitution’s ratification. Nine of the 13 states had to ratify for it to take effect, but all of them needed to sign on to ensure that the new structure would work. Five states quickly approved it, and gradually four more. But Virginia and New York held back—their state conventions were riven by partisanship and a sense that, as larger states, they had given up too much.
In Virginia, former Governor Patrick Henry, who had refused to attend the national constitutional convention in Philadelphia, opposed the Constitution for a host of reasons. Madison, meanwhile, did not want any amendments to the document he had largely drafted. During heated debate in Richmond, the majority of delegates started to lean toward ratification. What closed the deal was a proposal that accommodated both sides—ratification accompanied by appointment of a committee that incorporated the objections of Henry and other anti-Federalists into 40 amendments, 20 specifying rights reserved to the people, and 20 changing the structure of the new government. Virginia forwarded both certification of ratification and the proposed amendments to Congress. During the First Federal Congress, Madison drafted 19 amendments, drawn from more than 200 proposals demanded by the states. Eventually 10 of them were adopted and are known today as the Bill of Rights.
In New York, state interests and sharp differences between factions almost derailed the constitution. Governor George Clinton opposed it, for example, for giving the federal government a monopoly over trade, when tariffs were the state’s principal source of revenue and political leverage. The Anti-Federalists stalled for time. Then news arrived of ratification by New Hampshire, the ninth state, clinching adoption. A few days later, on July 2, a dispatch from Richmond announced Virginia’s ratification on June 25th. With the Constitution technically in force, New York narrowly agreed to ratify it as well, though it also circulated a letter to the other states recommending changes.
Conflicts that had existed since the beginning repeatedly threatened to derail the emerging republic. By the late 1790s, Adams and Jefferson, once close friends, had become rivals and leaders of bitterly opposed political parties. There were few policies that the two men agreed on, which made for a rocky relationship between president and vice president from 1797 to 1801. Jefferson loved France and supported the French Revolution, while Adams brought the U.S. to the brink of war with France.
Adams also locked horns with Jefferson’s Republicans over freedom of the press. Enraged by the attacks on him and his administration by Republican newspapers, Adams and the Federalist majority in Congress passed the deeply controversial Sedition Act of 1798. Some partisans even called for separation of the Federalist North and the Republican South. But Jefferson defused what might have become a shattering split. “In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time,” Jefferson wrote. “Seeing, therefore, that an association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which never yet existed … I had rather keep our New England associates for that purpose, than to see our bickerings transferred to others.”
The book effectively ends with Jefferson’s inaugural speech in March 1801, in which he once again touched on an issue that has remained sensitive to the present day. “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable,” he said. “The minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” And he encouraged reconciliation: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”
Throughout this richly sourced book, Brands hesitates to directly draw parallels to our “brawling” politics today, leaving readers to make their own inferences. He relies perhaps too heavily at times on lengthy quotations from his characters. Some readers may enjoy the ornate language from that era, while others may find it an obstacle. In addition, Brands scants clear chronology that could help guide the reader who does not already know the period well. Still, the book provides intimate access to the Founders’ thinking as it developed and insightful synthesis of complex events. Indeed, Brands may be trying to show us, through language that sounds archaic to modern ears, how our leaders—even now—can place unity above deep differences on policy and even principle, ahead of personal discord and dislike, and find a path forward—not an easy one, not one that is ideal or even acceptable to all, but one that holds together a country that is essential to world stability, prosperity, and freedom.
Madison, not surprisingly, had the final word. He was the last to die, a decade after Adams and Jefferson passed away on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He lived to see the emergence first of the Republican and Federalist Parties, and then the Democrats and the Whigs. Once fiercely partisan himself, at the end he warned against the dangers of excessive partisanship:
The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the states be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise.