Ink had barely dried on the Constitution, which defined a form of government that had never been tried before. There were constant worries about British intentions, and there was talk of war with France.
They had not forgotten the insurgency in Massachusetts of unpaid veterans of the Revolution led by Capt. Shays, which chance had prevented from taking over the state government. The Confederation was too weak to act against the insurgency or even defend against an invasion.
These were nervous times for the mainly young political pioneers and their fragile new government but for the calming presence and character of the first president, 6-foot-2 George Washington.
Even the magisterial presence of Washington was not enough to bury the constant anxiety among so-called Republicans of the day such as Jefferson, James Madison and John Monroe that plots were afoot to install a hereditary monarchy in America like that of George III, from whom we fought to free ourselves.
In debates during the Constitutional Convention, in private conversation with representatives in the newly minted Congress, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams had advocated a hereditary monarch for life as well as a hereditary Senate.
In Hamilton’s words, only a monarch would be “capable of resisting the popular current …”
Reading the actual history of those tense times makes one want to cry, laugh or pound his head with his fists when the Tea Partiers chatter on in total ignorance about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.
While spooking themselves about a conspiracy to remake America in the Soviet image (if they could even define socialism) they speak of the founding leaders and documents as if they were gods on Mount Olympus.
To a man, all those who defined the legitimacy of the Revolution and who fought to free themselves from a tyranny of church and state were courageous. They knew that if they failed, they would be hanged.
Yet, they were also men spurred by ambition and different views of how the colonies should govern themselves. They were intelligent, sometimes devious, and they disliked criticism. Washington was thin-skinned, so much so that Hamilton persuaded him to delete a section in his farewell address raising hell with newspaper critics.
This sensitivity and the vastly different views on self-governance would lead to a crisis of democracy — a real one, not a Tea Party imaginary one.
Thomas Jefferson believed in a strong central government. Any intelligent person who remembered the paralyzed Continental Congress would agree that the center had to be strong enough to hold the states together for common protection.
But Jefferson’s Republican Party (which in time would morph into the Democratic Party) believed that the people should be sovereign while Hamilton and Adams believed the British monarchy to be a better model.
The megaphones for the two sides were newspapers: The American Aurora for Jefferson’s Republicans and The Gazette of the United States for the Federalists, who over time became the Republican Party we know today.
In a country centuries before the invention of television and smart phones, the daily press was the only mass medium available and, thus, a powerful voice.
In those days, the “party press” didn’t mince words about the opposition. An editor of The Aurora, William Duane, had this to say about John Adams, who had succeeded Washington as the second president.
“A short, fat man who puffed at ‘seegars’ and believed in monarchy was President of the United States … When the Senate considered titles for the president, this man favored ‘His Highness The President … many of us soon mocked him with the title “His Rotundity.”
But mockery soon turned deadly serious with passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts that made it a crime to criticize the government — a body blow to an essential agent of a free democracy.
Under the act, editors and preachers were imprisoned and troops of soldiers, presumably believing they were enforcing the act, seized and whipped one editor; Duane himself was beaten by some 30 soldiers until he could no longer get up and was then whipped on the ground.
In retirement, even Washington himself thought the press should be reined in, surely a thought that has passed through the mind of every subsequent holder of the office. Clearly, though, as Jefferson thought it might, Adams had gone too far toward the presidency as an all-powerful monarch. The crisis wasn’t resolved until Jefferson was elected president in 1801 and had the gag laws repealed.
If only the Tea Party would read the history of the early years of the Republic, it would be able to tell a real conspiracy from an imaginary one.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.