Day 950: Washington’s One-Off Moment Of Calm

originally published August 7, 2014

The 1810’s were a weird time in American history. The capital city burned to the ground, the country was poised to split in half (an east-west rift, not the north-south one that would roll in a half-century later), and it all culminated in a segment of time so groovy it was actually named the Era of Good Feelings. Political divisiveness faded away, a renewed sense of warm, cuddly patriotism tickled everybody’s squishy bits, and for just the briefest of pages in that grand ol’ tome of history, the States truly felt United.

We are currently dredging our political boots through a period of ludicrously sticky partisanship. Reading through a newspaper, through the finger-wagging of the left and the manic hypocrisy of the right, has launched me into several grey periods of willful ignorance over the last few years, in which I find myself skimming through the pages, pausing only at the movie and television news, and any articles involving puppies.

But while we gaze briefly and longingly at this mystical nugget of political respite, we’d bestn’t pine for the nation’s lost idealism. The so-called Era of Good Feelings was little more than the deceptive breath of a cool breeze on a day so hot it could boil the paint off the Capitol dome. When it fell apart, so began the nation’s journey toward the scissor-snip of the Civil War.

The story begins with the Hartford Convention of 1814, which probably did not take place in the Hartford Convention Center, pictured above. This was a gathering of curmudgeonly white guys representing the Federalist Party. These men had more gripes with the administration running the country than would a modern-day gaggle of hemorrhoidal Fox-News bobbleheads. Here’s why they were pissed:

  • The War of 1812 was not going well. The cocky British, fresh off their victory over Napoleon, had careened into Washington DC back in August and burnt much of it – including the Capitol and the White House – into ashes. This did not bode well.
  • The war was also wrinkling the smooth flow of overseas trade. You don’t mess with old New England money.
  • The three-fifths compromise, which gave slaves a say in public elections, was giving an unfair advantage to the southern states. Better these slaves have no voice at all, according to the Federalists.

The Convention was heated. There was talk of checking out of America completely.

All but one Federalist newspaper was in support of secession, of splitting New England away from the rest of the union and letting those ignorant Washington-centric bastards face their own demise at the hands of the British. There remains debate as to how strongly the guys in charge – the elected elite of the New England states – truly wanted the split, though. It’s entirely possible the passionate plea for separatism was rooted in a propaganda-laced balloon of the media’s invention. Yes, even back then the media was fond of beating the truth into humble submission with the heavy stick of repetition.

In the end, the states compiled an elaborate report with specific demands, which included the elimination of slave representation, limiting future presidents to one term, and a guarantee that each US President had to come from a different state than the guy who served before him. The delegates huffed their demands over to Washington, hoping to humiliate James Madison and his filthy Democratic-Republican ilk.

It might have worked too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. And by ‘kids’, I mean the United States Army.

On January 8, 1815, General Andrew Jackson solidified his future status as “that 20-dollar-bill guy” by defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the scrap that ultimately led to the end of the war. By the time the Hartford crew showed up in Washington, the country was in a state of celebration. Laying down their demands at this point would appear trivial and embarrassing.

By the time the 1816 election rolled around, almost no one felt Federalist Rufus King would win (despite his awesome pimp name), and Democratic-Republican James Monroe took office in a landslide.

Apart from being reputedly charming and kind-hearted, Monroe was also the right leader to deftly handle the new state of affairs in American politics. There was no more war, and the Federalists were pushing for little more than reconciliation with the G.O.P. Monroe wasn’t going to appoint any former Federalists to key cabinet positions, but he wasn’t going to shut them out either. It was weird.

James Monroe hoped to unite everyone in the political process into a non-party system. He felt the existence of political parties was not compatible with a free and functional government. He envisioned a system wherein statesmen acted in the national interest, not on behalf of personal ambition or simply to “get the other guys”. This was the sentiment George Washington had conveyed in his famous 1796 farewell address. Ambitious? Sure. Utopian? Maybe. But achievable? Well, you look around and tell me.

Monroe did his damnedest. Benjamin Russell, writing in a Federalist newspaper out of Boston, claimed they were living in the Era of Good Feelings in July, 1817. President Monroe made a point of never attacking the Federalist position – in fact, he never mentioned them at all. He allowed his opposition to drift into obscurity and obsolescence by giving them no attention whatsoever. Indeed the Federalists put forward zero viable candidates in 1820, and by 1824 the party was essentially a footnote of history.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of politics that no system shall ever run so smoothly it won’t piss someone off eventually. During Monroe’s second term, under what was now a one-party system, things began to fall apart internally within the Republican Party. There was no party discipline, and it didn’t take long for various factions to emerge. Some pushed harder for state sovereignty, others claimed that the current imbalance of power was going to lead to a nation-splitting rift between slave-states and non-slave-states.

Historical foreshadowing. Gotta love it.

In 1824, a quartet of Democratic-Republicans ran for president, leading to a raunchy quagmire of a result, in which the winner was chosen by the House of Representatives for the only time in the nation’s history. Despite garnering fewer physical and electoral votes, John Quincy Adams was handed the presidency over Andrew Jackson. I have no idea how that came to be, but that’s a topic for another day.

Within a few years of Monroe’s Good-Times-Happy-Funky-Joy era, we were back to more of the same. The groundwork had been laid for the rise of the Democratic and Whig parties, and everyone in Washington went back to hating each other again.

Kind of a sad conclusion, but hey – at least it felt like home.

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