Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Presidency of Barack Quincy Adams Obama

When one focuses on just how obstructionist the modern Republican Party has become in Congress, it's difficult to find any parallels in our history. Certainly, one that comes immediately to mind is the decade preceding the Civil War.

This was, like now, a time when political passions ran high and political compromise between contending factions was difficult. It is signaled most dramatically, perhaps, by the odious 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. This disreputable federal statute enabled anyone who claimed another person was a runaway slave to enlist the U.S. Marshals for help in seizing by force the unfortunate victim. Nothing more than the slave owners' oral word was required. No evidence was required. No bail was allowed. Anyone resisting 'return' of the purported slave was subject to criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and a ruinous fine.

Even then, however, Southern pro-slavery congressmen -- who ceaselessly worked to ensure that slavery would spread as fast as the growing nation admitted new states to the Union -- refrained from holding hostage every single presidential domestic and foreign policy initiative. They did, that is, until we approached the very edge of Civil War.

Perhaps the closest parallel to our times is the presidency of John Quincy Adams. By then the first political parties -- Federalists and Republican-Democrats -- were on the edge of extinction. Nevertheless, it was a time of intense, and then-unparalleled-- political partisanship.

The time immediately before and during the Adams' presidency was regarded as one of “horribly embroiled conditions” and “unexampled bitterness” and “strife.” Religious pastors became politicians-in-the-pulpit. The public press was highly partisan and sharply divided. Virtually every newspaper sided with one partisan faction or another, and each attacked their opposite numbers with zeal.

At the local level, thinly-veiled vituperation and name-calling in the guise of “toasts” on Independence Day and other celebratory occasions became political ammunition for each side. As one historian of the times immediately before the Adams' presidency wrote, "This rage of party continued several years, and was sometimes so violent as to be in danger of degenerating into animosity and personal hatred."

Partisans, to a degree, did disagree over some major issues. Chief among these was the War of 1812; tariffs on imported foreign goods to protect nascent industries from aggressive foreign competition; creation of the National Bank; federal financing of "internal improvements" such as roads, canals, and a postal service creation of a national bank; and (of course) slavery. To a large degree, the fault lines over these differences paralleled the dominant regional split that plagues us even today between North and South. The overwhelming sense one gets is that in the North society was liberalizing rapidly and in the South the ownership class was intent on resisting those changes at all costs.

In the midst of this political maelstorm came the presidency of John Quincy Adams. Adams, like another president we can think of, strived to bridge the partisan divide. He retained several of his predecessor's key cabinet secretaries. He took on as his vice-president John C. Calhoun, a bitter political opponent and pro-slavery conservative who quickly betrayed Adams himself. Undaunted, Adams continued to the end of his term to appeal for bipartisanship (or, more accurately, non-partisanship in the interests of the new nation).

All to no avail. Southern reactionary opposition to tariffs, federal financing of "internal improvements," the National Bank, and even the postal service managed to stop most of Adams' legislative proposals. But not all. He did enjoy some modest success in persuading Congress to enact the Tariff of 1828 and finance some, but hardly all, of the internal improvements that were essential to the nation's expansion westward.

For all of his struggles to rise above the intense partisanship of the times, Adams was personally vilified and turned out of office after one term. Most of the nation's needs were to remain unmet for another generation. And, the silent ghost left in the attic by our founding fathers -- slavery -- eventually was to emerge as the real and unbridgeable difference that led to internal civil war.

So now, today, we are seeing obstruction of government at a level unprecedented since those times. Somewhat like then, it seems that the issues of today are in themselves less important than partisanship for the sake of partisanship. Whether, as before, this means all will end badly remains to be seen.

Rachel Maddow has the scorecard:

minor edit 2-10 pm


Anonymous said...

John Quincy Adams? Maybe. The danger is Obama could become the next James Buchanan. He just sat in the White House and begged everybody to get along. Worst president in history until George W. Bush. Obama needs to man-up and push his agenda through. Like Maddow says, 'No.' The Republicans don't care about the country any more than than the Confederates did.

Anonymous said...

Nice. Obama as an old Whig. That is closer to the truth than calling him a liberal.