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Dispatch: A Question of Loyalty

Dispatch: A Question of Loyalty
A return to the rough-and-tumble 1790s

“I have, for sometime past, viewed the political concerns of the United States with an anxious, and painful eye. They appear to me, to be moving by hasty strides to some awful crisis; but in what they will result—that Being, who sees, foresees, and directs all things, alone can tell.” —George Washington (1799)

A Loyal Opposition

On Thursday, President Biden delivered his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. As we’ve all come to expect, the President didn’t hesitate to compare these troubled times to the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, likening himself to Roosevelt and Putin to Hitler. He then warned about domestic threats to democracy, invoking liberals’ second-favorite bugbear, January 6th, when insurrectionists “placed a dagger to the throat of American democracy.”

“Many of you were here on that darkest of days. We all saw with our own eyes. The insurrectionists were not patriots. They had come to stop the peaceful transfer of power, to overturn the will of the people.

As I’ve done ever since being elected to office, I ask all of you, without regard to party, to join together and defend democracy!

Remember your oath of office and defend against all threats foreign and domestic.

Respect free and fair elections. Restore trust in our institutions. And make clear — political violence has absolutely no place, no place in America. Zero place.

Again, it’s not, it’s not hyperbole to suggest history is watching. We’re watching. Your children, your grandchildren will read about this day and what we do.

History is watching another assault on freedom.”

The rest of the speech, which dragged on for another hour, was fairly typical: Roe v. Wade, universal pre-K, health care costs, student loan forgiveness, and the rich needing to pay their “fair share.” Biden did briefly mention illegal immigration and “Lincoln Riley,” but he was generally dismissive and eschewed all responsibility—again, as we’ve all come to expect.

But it was the first part of the address—Biden’s talk of patriotism, loyalty, and defending democracy—that left the most lasting impression on friend and foe alike; it’s probably the only thing anyone will remember.

American politics today is a dog’s breakfast, and with all the hyperbole and righteous bathos, it can be hard to take these people—our leaders—seriously.

But the charge that the opposition leader and his party are disloyal, is worth exploring, no matter how dishonest or preposterous it might appear on its face.

A couple of years ago I wrote this short thread in response to the outpouring of grief and despair that accompanied the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago.

If you feel that your nation is rapidly disintegrating, believe that the Constitution is toothless and its institutions barely hang by a thread… If you are convinced that the only way to avert disaster and ruin is by vanquishing your subversive, power-hungry political opponents in one final climactic battle…

Congratulations, you have more in common with an American from the 1790s than you do your own great-grandparents.

It may seem that I was being dismissive of concerns about an abuse of power, but that isn’t the case. My intention was, instead, to offer my friends a little historical perspective that could alleviate the sting.

We tend to see history as merely a prologue to the present, with ratification of the Constitution establishing “a certain form upon the whole historical story… to produce a scheme of history that is bound to converge beautifully upon the present”—to borrow a line from Herbert Butterfield.

But if we scrape off the veneer from the decade immediately following ratification, we find a more complex and explosive political configuration that could have ended the nation before it really began. And at the center of everything was this question of loyalty.

A New Nation

As historian James Roger Sharp explains in American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, ratification presented the new nation with an impossible problem to solve: could citizens legitimately oppose the national government while still remaining loyal to their country?

With 234 years in the rearview mirror, the role of dissent in a constitutional republic may seem obvious, but to that early generation of elites, it was anything but… and nearly tore the country apart.

Miraculously, thirteen clocks had been made to strike together in the war with Britain, with “private, ethnic, sectional, and other differences...submerged.”1 But the period after independence was marked by chaos, division, and uncertainty.

As Sharp explains:

“By 1789… with the Peace of Paris already six years old, the sense of national purpose that the Revolution had temporarily given Americans was clearly waning, and the corrosive forces of sectional hostility and suspicion were in ascendance. Furthermore, the Revolution, by eroding the authority of the traditional political elite and destroying the central and legitimizing authority of the crown, had politicized large numbers of people and had whetted the public’s appetite for greater popular participation in public affairs.

Now, with the ratification of the Constitution, Americans were attempting to take a giant step in the long, complicated, and agonizing process of creating a national community… [with many fearing] that the country was too large and too diverse to develop and sustain a sense of national community…”

Elite decline, institutional disintegration, polarization and division, national identity… sound familiar?

But what are we to make of this talk of the “legitimizing authority of the crown?”

Weren’t Americans fiercely anti-monarchical? Well, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction…

In the prelude to revolution, the American colonists had complained bitterly against colonial governors, Parliament, the Cabinet, and other government officials, while still retaining their loyalty to the English Crown.

Monarchy, as a symbol of sovereignty and unity, enabled political opponents to legitimately challenge each other while acknowledging a supreme loyalty to king and country.

This idea of a “loyal opposition” is what gave rise to the Court and Country divide that so inspired Lord Bolingbroke and gripped British politics decades before the American Revolution.

From my essay, Country Party Reprise, in IM1776:

“The struggle between Court and Country is most evident in the years following the Glorious Revolution, when Sir Robert Walpole — Britain’s first real Prime Minister — sought to stabilize a fractious political landscape by bolstering the Crown and strengthening Parliament. Cunning and highly capable, Walpole wielded considerable influence over the Hanoverian kings, and through personal connections, patronage, and skillful bribery, was able to control parliamentary business and dominate foreign affairs. Walpole’s breakneck consolidation of money and power and his reputation for corruption earned him many enemies, most notably Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. But his fiercest adversary was Tory luminary Lord Bolingbroke, who excoriated Walpole’s ministerial usurpations…and advocated for an energetic opposition outside of government.  

A student of Machiavelli and critic of oligarchy, Bolingbroke considered Walpole’s cabalistic regime to be both irredeemably corrupt and hopelessly detached from the nation’s interests — a true imperium in imperio. To Bolingbroke, bribes and patronage had turned the government’s constitutional procedures into a ceremonial farce and rendered any distinction between Court Whigs and Tories irrelevant. Internal reform was, therefore, unlikely, if not impossible. For Bolingbroke, the solution to this stubborn problem had to come from the countryside — from the landed class — who were not only patriotic and suspicious of centralized government, but also self-sufficient and inherently hostile to merchant class corruption. Emerging from outside Walpole’s orbit, this ‘Country Party’ could challenge the Court’s power and champion the ‘voice of the country.’ Moreover, if the Party’s efforts were successful, it might embolden a future “patriot king” to seize the initiative, purge the government of its corrupt factions, and finally act in the best interest of the people.

The Country Party would mount a vigorous offensive against the ‘Court Party’ for several decades, with Bolingbroke’s call for a ‘patriot king’ even inspiring the Prince of Wales to engage in a little political intrigue before his untimely death. But without a formal structure or dedicated leadership, the Country Party would ultimately flounder, even as Bolingbroke’s reactionary letters and speeches spread throughout the world. And whereas the Country Party’s campaign would wither on London’s cobbled streets, it would find new life thousands of miles away in the fertile Virginia countryside, where Bolingbroke’s words would nourish a revolution and sustain nearly fifty years of American republicanism.

Indeed, the episode influenced Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries, who saw a striking resemblance between the Country Party opposition to Walpole’s financial and political consolidation and their own struggle against scheming British creditors and corrupt government officials.

“When [they] bristled at Parliament’s alleged violations of their rights and obligations…they appealed to the virtuous prince of Bolingbroke’s ‘patriot king,’ beseeching the British Crown for relief. When their petitions were ignored, and those same colonists recoiled at the perceived collusion between Crown and Parliament against them, they condemned the arbitrary power of that union and repeated Bolingbroke’s jeremiads from decades earlier.”

With the English Crown not only a symbol of sovereignty and unity but the rightful protector and defender of the people, the Continental Congress directly (and respectfully) petitioned King George III in 1774, after every attempt to urge repeal of the Coercive Acts had been exhausted.

And naturally, when the Crown demurred, it left the aggrieved colonists despairing. How could British citizens faithfully and legitimately oppose an  assault on their rights and privileges when the King himself refused to honor his most fundamental obligations? For even the most reluctant revolutionaries, men like John Dickinson, this royal “abdication” left no other choice but disobedience.

The rest is history.

A Nation in Crisis

After achieving independence, struggling through the Articles of Confederation, and finally ratifying the Constitution, however, the problem of loyalty and dissent remained.

Again, James Roger Sharp:

“…although the Colonial Americans and the English could legitimize opposition through loyalty to the king, there was no comparable institution in the United States symbolizing the unity and sovereignty of the country and providing consensual boundaries within which opposition might be expressed or party competition occur. Americans of the 1790s could not make that crucial distinction between a party, which might temporarily hold the power of office, and the government itself. This was critical.”

Without monarchy, could American citizens still faithfully and legitimately oppose their national government?

There was no precedent, no elite consensus; the Constitution was silent.

The answer to this question would have to evolve outside of constitutional parameters, in that smoky no man’s land between order and chaos. It was there in the struggle between two ideological camps—one federalist, the other republican—that the new American nation saw the development of political parties; an innovation that brought frustration and despair but ultimately resolved the problem of loyalty and dissent.

The growth of parties in this country was slow and painful, generating intense fear and suspicion. Federalists and Republicans alike suspected their opponents of disloyalty and foreign subversion, with most believing that internal bloodshed was likely, if not inevitable.

But remarkably, despite bitter divisions and fears of violence and civil unrest, parties helped to contain the public spirit and channel its energy into shaping and influencing government action.

The nation remained intact, of course, with the Federalists later collapsing into a regional party and the rest of the country enjoying years of prosperity and national unity; we now remember this period as the Era of Good Feelings.

Let’s give Sharp the final word:

“Thus, when conflict over government policies broke out and opposition to the new government developed in the 1790s under the aegis of the Republicans, what did not happen was perhaps more extraordinary than what actually did. Given the almost hysterical fear that was rampant, it is remarkable that the considerable civil unrest, including secession threats and insurrections, were not used by Federalist and Republican extremists to foment greater violence and even civil war.”

We live in troubled times, make no mistake, but today’s chaos and division is nothing new. And while the problem of loyalty and dissent was more or less resolved centuries ago, we may need to wrestle with the issue once again.

“The old mid-century consensus is collapsing, and the old spirits have returned. Questions of identity and national belonging are on the tip of every tongue, and power is quaking before a growing chorus of dissent.”

Even without consensus, precedent, or a readymade constitutional fix, we should take comfort in knowing that we are walking a well-trodden path… that the solution may be waiting in that same no man’s land, between order and chaos, just beyond our lamp of experience.

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Seymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation: The United States in Historical Perspective (New York, 1963), pp. 16

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