Shift to Idealism

George Washington Inauguration, 1789.

The early Republic years were filled with hope and optimism for what the new country could achieve. The Republicans, through the 1790s and into the first decade of the 1800s, had a new idea about what government should be and how it should fit into the citizens’ lives.

Republicans imagined “that people’s natural sociability and willingness to sacrifice their selfish interests for the sake of the whole would be sufficient social adhesives,” and a powerful federal government would not be necessary. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 301.

Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists thought these ideas were merely “pernicious dreams” of the Republicans and were surely too radical to be true. See id.

Since those early years of the Republic, there has been a continuation of this debate. Undoubtedly, at least part of Thomas Jefferson’s and the Republicans’ view regarding Americans’ compassion and charity is true. Americans, as a collective, are charitable to a number of causes and organizations around the world, and Americans reinforce that principle that they are willing to occasionally sacrifice their selfish interests for the betterment of others.

However, that compassion and charity does not supplant the need for a federal government to take some actions that could not have been contemplated by the Republicans or the Federalists. The Federalists’ misguided notion that a bureaucracy was necessary for the perpetuation of the country was just as incorrect as the Republicans’ belief that the people would inherently be willing to sacrifice their selfish interests in all regards.

This would later become evident as the federal government’s intrusion was necessary to eradicate slavery, prevent discriminatory laws from being enforced, and ensure minorities’ rights, among a myriad of other examples.

Some of what the Republicans believed and some of what the Federalists believed ultimately has proven to be true. Both Hamilton and Jefferson would be satisfied in knowing that their debate has vigorously continued, even if they would not be elated to know some of their ideals have been eroded.

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