America, ever the same

I learned this week that if you want a fresh perspective on American politics you need to help your daughter study for a high school history test.

My oldest daughter is taking Advanced Placement U.S. history, and asked me to help her study for a chapter test coming up. She'd written out key bullet points on index cards and handed me the stack to review with her. As I did, it became clear -- card after card -- that nothing changes in America, ever.

In the earliest days of the republic, the Federalists and their vision of a strong central government fought with the Democratic-Republicans, who wanted government to be as small as possible. Founding Fathers were found on both sides: Federalists Washington, Adams and Madison against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.

The arguments then mirror the arguments now: Alexander Hamilton, Washington's Treasury Secretary, argued for a federal takeover of state government debts outstanding since the Revolution, in order to set the nation's fiscal house in order. His opposition saw this as a power grab by the federal government. Hamilton and his supporters wanted to invest in American industry, imagining a nation of vibrant big cities filled with merchants and exporters. Jefferson saw a country of quaint villages filled with "yoeman farmers," the equivalent of today's semi-mythical Middle American Main Street and its "small business owner."

Jefferson came to power in 1801, only to be vilified by his supporters for compromise with the Federalists. His party saw the Louisiana Purchase as a betrayal, just the kind of government expansion they had vowed to fight. For years power swung between these competing views as the presidency went back and forth and the nation struggled to decide which vision fit it best.

The main essay question my daughter faced on her test was this: Which view won? Who came out on top: Jefferson or Hamilton? The Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans? She voted for the Federalists, because we are now of course a country of big cities, industry, innovation, and a strong central government. But I wondered if anyone had really won, or if victory were even in the cards. Centuries later, the arguments remain remarkably the same -- even as our circumstances as citizens could not be more different. But it is an argument that seems to be stamped in our DNA -- an argument without conclusion or end. An argument we Americans seem to like having so much, that we won't ever stop.


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