The Ohio System

Lithographic Print of Cincinnati, Ohio. 1800. By: Stobridge Lithographing Co.

Ohio was admitted into the Union in 1803, and it introduced a new political system to the United States. Each county in Ohio had county commissions that each county’s citizens elected, rather than the states of the South and Southwest, who had self-perpetuating commissions. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 365.

Further, each county commission had overlapping jurisdiction with “towns, school districts, and other subdivisions,” which produced a variety of offices for election. Id. Local citizens were responsible for electing its local representatives to these towns, school districts, and county commissions, as well as fulfilling their obligations for electing representatives to the Ohio State Senate and House of Representatives and of course the federal Senate and House of Representatives.

Gordon Wood notes in Empire of Liberty that so many political offices open created a widespread, competitive political atmosphere, with dozens and dozens of candidates running for the various offices then open for politicians in Ohio. For example, 116 men ran for “Hamilton County’s [the County including Cincinnati] seven seats in Ohio’s third territorial assembly.” Id. In 1803, 22 candidates ran to be Ohio’s first governor. Id.

Meanwhile, because of Ohio’s diverse economy, “with a variety of markets and no simple distribution for the region’s many products,” small towns began popping up all over Ohio. Id.

These early years in Ohio inevitably created a sense of participation in politics on all levels for Ohioans. As is familiar for modern Americans, early Ohioans, beginning in 1803, would participate in their local politics, state politics, and federal politics. Unlike other states in the Union in the South and Southwest of the country then, Ohioans would have an active role in electing their local governments and having a say in how local affairs were conducted.

The fact that so many Americans had no ability to be involved in their local elections prior to this Ohioan system being adopted deserves more analysis. The uniquely American obsession with having democratic principles from top to bottom and from small to large has spread throughout the United States by now, but in those early years, it is clear that the extent of democratic rights were, for some, perhaps just limited to state elections and federal elections.

Americans now enjoy the full benefits of democracy on the local level, the state level, and the federal level. Some in the early years of the Republic may have questioned the capability of the citizenry to be informed enough to elect their local politicians. But there is no question that the election of local politicians, whether they be in school districts, county commissions, or towns, is a fundamental responsibility that is valued by Americans who choose to inform themselves and exercise their right to vote.

The Great Replacement

Cotton Plantation, 1800s.

By 1776, indentured servitude had become a widespread and prominent part of English life. By the 1810s, however, indentured servitude was seen by most Americans as inherently at conflict with the “natural rights of man.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 346. Some Americans concluded that servitude as a whole was “highly anti-republican.” Id.

However, as indentured servitude became less prominent, black slavery took its place. The servants who continued to work were quick to differentiate themselves from the black slaves, often times not admitting that they were servants but instead classifying themselves as merely “help,” who was “staying in the house.” Id.

It is plausible to hypothesize that the decline of indentured servitude led to the increase in using slaves. As repulsive and disgusting as it may seem now, early Americans did not view the slaves as individuals, instead classifying them as property. Servants had a different role altogether, sometimes sitting at the table with their “bosses.” Notably, slaves did not use the word “boss,” but instead used the word “master” typically.

While this issue gets to a broader piece of American history rife with controversy and hypocrisy, it also reflects perhaps a reason that slavery grew to become such a staple of American life in the decades leading up to the Civil War. With the increase of “human rights” came a decrease in the use of servants in Americans’ lives, which ultimately appears to have led, at least partially, to an increase in the use of slaves.

This development in American history is troubling, as it shows the profound misplacement of belief that the early Americans had in what human rights meant. While some were opposed to the idea of slavery altogether in the earliest years of the Republic, many tolerated it, despite also proclaiming to be Republicans concerned with the rights of all humans.

Fortunately, as the decades wore on, it became increasingly clear to Americans that human rights inherently must include slaves. One wonders what would have been had the indentured servants not so readily been replaced by slaves, and if widespread slavery could have been prevented altogether before it came to dominate the Southern economy.

Early American Behavior

Simon Snyder.

Americans in the late 1700s were “known for pushing and shoving each other in public and for their dread of ceremony.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 329. Further, violence, rioting, and demonstrations in America had become commonplace, more than in England. See id. at 335-36. Some blamed this uniquely American behavior as being caused by an excessively alcohol-centered culture. By way of example, Gordon Wood explains in Empire of Liberty that during a trial in court, “a bottle of liquor might be passed among the attorneys, spectators, clients, and the judge and jury.” Id. at 340.

These early American behaviors changed the nature of politics. Republicans began to realize that the dream of a Republic full of virtuous, compassionate individuals who would sacrifice their wellbeing for those of their compatriots was not coming true. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 329.

Common Americans began to want unpretentious men for politicians, which some took as troubling. When some attempted to mock those politicians who were unpretentious and unrefined, the majority of individuals would crowd out the naysayers. For example, Simon Snyder was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1808, and insisted in not having an honor guard at his inauguration because he did not want the “pomp and parade,” which he felt was un-democratic. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 331. Opponents mocked him, calling his followers clodhoppers as an insult, however, him and his supporters took that term and reversed it, treating it as a badge of honor.

To illustrate the new American mentality even further, while in the 1700s men had worn colorful, varied clothing, in the 1800s men came to dress alike with “black coats and pantaloons,” so as to be equal with all other men. Id. at 332.

Since those early days of “wild American behavior,” much has changed. The days of passing around liquor bottles in court are certainly gone. But the sense of having a truly democratic society, as Simon Snyder preferred, has not changed. When an inauguration occurs, whether at the state level or the federal level, there are traditions that have developed over the past two centuries. However, these traditions fall short of anything close to the monarchical traditions of Europe at the time of Simon Snyder.

Setting aside the fact that Americans have apparently had a reputation for violence from the beginning, it is interesting to note that Americans have tightly held to the belief that a modest Republic is possible to maintain and is preferable to other types of government. While America is no longer quite so modest as in its early days, it stands alone as one of the most powerful countries in the world, both economically and militarily, while also keeping an identifiable modesty in the conduct of the government.

Some may take issue with such a conclusion, that America is a noble republic that does not display “pomp and parade.” But then again, looking to other powers in the world currently and looking to the great powers of years past, when has a country with so much power carried a quiet confidence that its power was here to stay? It surely takes a significant amount of scouring the history books to answer that question.

The American Spirit of Work

Pittsburgh, 1790s.

Arthur Young, an English writer who was supposedly enlightened and known for his writings about agriculture commented that “Everybody but an idiot knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.” Derek Jarrett, England in the Age of Hogarth, (London, 1974), 79-80.

This English belief, that the lower rungs of society were not entitled to an equal chance with their peers, captured the view of many for centuries leading up to the American Revolution. Most people in England believed that “people would not work unless they had to.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

Benjamin Franklin, in 1784, asked the question: “Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to labour and Industry?” Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughn, 26 July 1784. In the 1790s and early 1800s, farmers were now working hard and participating in national commerce “to increase their purchase of luxury goods and become more respectable,” not just to stay “out of poverty” or work by mere necessity. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 324.

The equality amongst citizens in the early Republic was not only captured in the Constitution, but also had become woven into the fabric of American society. There was a universal belief that individuals were capable of accomplishing goals, of moving up in their profession, and of not being hindered by their modest means.

Some would look to these formative years as the spark that led to the great American economy. It is not clear how this culture emerged, or what prompted this culture to emerge, but it became obvious by the early 1800s that the American economy was a force to be reckoned with, largely in part because of its burgeoning population and rapid expansion westward.

That American spirit of work carries forward to today. Often, many politicians, commentators, and common folk are quick to explain that the American dream is dead. At least a part of the American dream, the ability for individuals to generate enough income to purchase luxuries to enjoy, has been present in Americans’ minds since the early Republic. Few would question whether this portion of the American dream is still being fulfilled by ordinary Americans.

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.

The Indebtedness of the Early Republic

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty.

From its declaration of independence to the start of Thomas Jefferson’s first term as president in 1800, the federal government had consistently taken on a significant amount of debt: $80 million in total. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. Prior to that, the federal government had taken out millions of dollars from Europe, including from the French government and from Dutch bankers, to finance the Revolutionary War effort. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans.

By the time Thomas Jefferson took office in 1800, the Revolutionary War debt had been paid off, however, Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans were especially concerned about the growing debt that the United States had taken on. In fact, in 1798, Jefferson considered the idea of amending the Constitution to take the power of borrowing away from the federal government. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. While Jefferson never accomplished such a drastic step, he prioritized paying the debt down each year. He foretold that the United States would “be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution. The discharge of the debt, therefore, is vital to the destinies of our government.” See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298.

Throughout the 1790s, the United States shifted all of its obligations from the governments of Europe to private investors. By 1795, America only owed money to private investors. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans. This, combined with the federal government’s payments created a solid credit rating in Europe, which enabled taking low-interest loans from European lenders for the Louisiana Purchase. Id.

By 1810, the Republicans reduced the debt to approximately $40 million, even after having spent $15 million in cash on the Louisiana Purchase. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 298. Thomas Jefferson had made significant progress in moving the federal government away from its borrowing spree. Perhaps Jefferson was fearful that the federal government would default on its obligations as it had in 1785 on interest payments to France and further installments in 1787. United States Department of State, available at https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/loans.

This brief history of the federal government’s debt illustrates the difficulty of balancing spending with saving. Few would question significant investments like borrowing for the financing a war for independence or for a purchase that effectively doubled the size of the country. The question that arises nearly every year is rather, how much discretionary spending is necessary?

Jefferson’s fear of corruption leading to revolution is likely at the furthest end of the spectrum of possibilities. Regardless, a default on indebtedness held by the federal government would have significant consequences that could not be ignored in the early Republic and cannot be ignored now. Where there are benefits to be gained, investments are necessary.

While some may be opposed to debt as a matter of principle, Jefferson’s concerns show the true threat of excessive liability for the federal government. Simply having debt to pay down is not a threat to the future of the country. When America’s wellbeing is endangered or America’s credit rating is threatened, action is unquestionably necessary to prevent those results.

How Small is Too Big?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson. By: Rembrandt Peale. 1805.

When Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1800, they had a major priority: reverse the Federalist trend of expanding the federal government.

In Thomas Jefferson’s first message to Congress, in 1801, Jefferson framed the role of the federal government as only being “charged with the external and mutual relations only of these states.” All other matters were to be left to the states.

In 1800, the American federal government was “small even by eighteenth-century European standards.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 291. Gordon Wood explains in Empire of Liberty that in “1801 the headquarters of the War Department, for example, consisted of only the secretary, an accountant, fourteen clerks, and two messengers. The secretary of state had a staff consisting of a chief clerk, six other clerks (one of whom ran the patent office), and a messenger. The attorney general did not yet even have a clerk.” Id.

Throughout the 1790s, there was significant growth in the governmental offices, so the numbers cited for 1801 would have appeared to be a major jump from those in the first years after the adoption of the Constitution. Nonetheless, Jefferson and the Republicans were determined to reverse the trend of a growing federal government that began to resemble the bureaucratic monarchies of Europe.

Jefferson’s perspective of the role of government, and the tension between the Federalists and Republicans on the desirable and proper size of the federal government continue to be relevant today. Obviously, the federal government has grown to include numerous other departments and agencies since the early Republic, but the same question is still discussed amongst common people, analysts, and politicians: how much of a presence should the federal government have in the common person’s life?

While Jefferson and the early Republicans sought to limit the presence of the federal government to essentially handling the mail and foreign relations, the belief that the federal government needed to be involved in crucial aspects of Americans’ lives undoubtedly won the contest.

Few Americans now would advocate abolishing Social Security, taxes, downsizing of federal agencies, and having a more passive, impotent federal government overall. These federal responsibilities feel necessary to the average American. Justifiably so, as the federal government is uniquely positioned to oversee the implementation of policies that benefit all Americans.

Perhaps the gradual growth in the federal government, with occasionally growing under liberal-leaning presidents and Congresses and occasionally diminishing under conservative-leaning presidents and Congresses, was the best way for the United States to progress from a small republic to a global superpower.

It seems that the healthy debate between the parties over the past two centuries of what the federal government should be is what kept the United States on a moderate path, never straying too far from its principles.

The “Plebiscitarian Principle”

U.S. Capitol. 1800.

The president’s role in the government in the early Republic was different than today, and sometimes, it was unclear exactly what role the president would play in the federal government. With the election of 1800, the newly elected Republicans introduced the “plebiscitarian principle,” according to one scholar, Bruce Ackerman. Bruce Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 85.

The plebiscitarian principle was the new belief that the President of the United States owes a duty to the voters who gave him the electoral mandate to rise to the prestigious office. See id.

Thomas Jefferson had a similar belief. See Thomas Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson, Papers of Jefferson: Retirement Ser., 2, (Jan. 25, 1810), 183. Jefferson stated that the president’s duty was “to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people” so he could “produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind.” Id.

This principle, that the President of the United States was to owe a duty to the entire population of the country and lead them as one, helped form the presidency that we recognize today. It created a balance between the monarchical principles that the Federalists had come to admire about England and the decentralized, less powerful federal government that the Republicans had advocated for in the early Republic.

Even as the power of the presidency has expanded, few would question that the President of the United States should only serve a portion of the population. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Americans hold tight the belief that a president should represent the entire country and lead the entire country.

The critical question that has existed and will always exist is what direction each president should take in leading the country. Some would argue that the reason we can have that healthy debate is because of the election of 1800 and the creation of the plebiscitarian principle.

The Fall of the Federalists

Thomas Jefferson.

The election of 1800 ushered in a new era of American politics. Thomas Jefferson won the election to become America’s third president, but also, it was a defeat for the Federalists, who had dominated politics in the first few decades of the country’s life. This was not just any defeat, however. This would mark the beginning of the end for the once powerful Federalist party.

By this point, Gordon Wood explains in Empire of Liberty, the Federalists had come to believe that ordinary people did not have “a direct role to play in ruling the society. They were so confident that the future belonged to them, that the society would become less egalitarian and more hierarchical, that they treated the people with condescension and lost touch with them.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 276. Wood concludes by stating that the Federalists “were so out of touch with the developing popular realities of American life . . . .” Id. Noah Webster, at the time, concluded that the Federalists had led to their own demise by resisting “the force of public opinion . . . .” David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy, (New York 1965), 151-52.

The fall of the Federalist party in the early Republic provides lessons to the modern political parties of the Republicans and the Democrats. The most obvious lesson is: Avoid public opinion at your own risk. The Federalists held onto the traditions of the monarchical republic, despite public opinion becoming increasingly more Republican-minded (the old Republican, that is).  Public opinion undoubtedly can be illogical, unreasonable, and misinformed, but the social compact that the government only is as legitimate as its people allow it to be highlights the importance of public opinion, whether it is right or wrong on any given issue.

Looking at recent news, the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner, and the subsequent announcement by his presumptive replacement, Representative Kevin McCarthy, that he will not be seeking the Speaker’s chair, draws an interesting parallel between the modern Republican party and the Federalist party of centuries ago. The Republican party is currently fractured between its most conservative segment and the relatively moderate segment, both of which agree on some fundamental ideals, but the conservatives holding tightly to traditional beliefs socially, legally, and fiscally.

Recently, some of those positions held by the most conservative political figures have begun to be behind the curve of public opinion. While this is only a segment of the Republican party, it is also a vocal, active segment that has considerable sway in the party. Most analysts agree that John Boehner’s resignation is due to that vocal, active segment of the party.

Regardless, it is food for thought how the Republican party’s future may be shaped by its proclivity to maintain the traditional nature of the party, despite the changes in public opinion, socially and otherwise. While some have speculated the end of the Republican party may be nearing, this is unlikely barring significantly more turmoil and further clinging to traditional beliefs that have become outdated and antiquated from decades past. It is unlikely the Republicans will split, considering the party has been in existence for approximately 160 years. But it is possible.

The Newspaper Revolution

National Gazette, April 12, 1792.

Newspapers are a source that many turn to even now for getting their news. The craze for newspapers in America began in the early years of the Republic, with the proliferation of newspapers to nearly every town in the country.

Then and now, newspapers had political slants. In the early Republic, most newspapers had a Federalist slant generally, but there were a set of newspapers that had a Republican perspective. Those Republican newspapers were not just delivering the news to their readers, however. Reading those newspapers became part of participating in the politics of the young Republican party. See Jeffrey L. Pasley, The Tyranny of the Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, (Charlottesville, 2001), 1-47.

Experts have estimated that approximately three-quarters of Americans received newspapers in the 1790s. See Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period, (Albany, 1969), 13.

The biggest difference between the readership of 1790s and present readership is that newspapers are far from the only source for news or opinion. Now, television, radio, magazines, blogs, apps, all compete for the attention of the average American, and that attention is generally spread amongst those forms of media. With that being said, there is no question that party affiliation and party participation are entirely disconnected from newspapers. However, the slants still very much exist. Just as the New York Times is known to favor Democratic-leaning readers, the Wall Street Journal is known to favor Republican-leaning readers.

The fact that American public opinion is now shaped by so many varied forms of media is perhaps better for a healthy political discourse. It allows for wide dispersal of information throughout the country, but public opinion is likely more scattered now than the early Republic. In the early Republic, each town’s newspaper would be the one reliable source for information about what was happening in the town, the state, the country, and the world, both politically and otherwise.

While it is difficult to quantify the effect of the diversification of media in American news, there is no question it has changed how Americans learn events, view the world around them, and participate in politics.