Amid the fog of words of the two parties' national conventions, speakers bandy about the names of the Founding Fathers as if they expect their audiences to understand the numerous differences among the Founders' beliefs. When Rand Paul beats up on Alexander Hamilton and his doctrine of implied Constitutional powers by invoking James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, does Congressman Paul himself understand that Hamilton was the founder of the Federalists, forerunner of the modern Republican Party? In fact, Madison and Jefferson fathered the present-day Democratic Party, destroying the Federalists and fostering our winner-take-all brand of politics.
One of the enduring American myths we cherish is the two-party system. We must have two parties! To have three parties or more is impossible; to have only one, unthinkable. George Washington ran unopposed in the first two presidential elections but ever since 1796, the first election in which there were two competing candidates, Jefferson and John Adams, one political party has always tried to utterly destroy the other. From the outset, American presidential elections have been vicious. They didn't just get that way in the 21st century.
To begin with, the Constitution did not provide for any political parties. It's not that the Founding Fathers didn't think about them but, to them, even the word "party'' was anathema. They preferred a presidential election, the linchpin of our political system, in which the top vote-getter got to be president; the number two man, vice president. Why would you need parties?
To the Founders, opposition to the new nation's political leadership meant opposition to the government -- treason. Many of their families, including George Washington's, had fled for their lives from the bloody partisan warfare of the English Civil Wars of the 1640's that ended with King Charles I's beheading. In the ensuing contumacious political infighting, the austere, budget-slashing opponents of free-spending friend of the arts (and numerous mistresses) Charles II were branded "Whigs,'' a derisive Scottish term for curdled milk. Whigs hurled back the word "Tory,'' an Irish word for highway robber, at defenders of the king's lavish lifestyle. Negative references were considered badges of honor and the first party labels.
During the civil warfare of the American Revolution, the two warring parties adopted these old English labels. Adherents to the American independence movement were called Whigs. The pro-English party, the Loyalists -- the real Tea Party -- was denominated Tories, the "intestine" enemy which had to be purged and cast out.
So deep went the fear that post-Revolutionary party politics would again degenerate into civil warfare that the Founding Fathers understandably shunned the word party, much less the idea. Scottish philosopher David Hume, learning that his old friend, Benjamin Franklin, was armpit deep in American political intrigues, recoiled in horror. "I am surprised to learn our friend, Dr. Franklin, is a man of faction. Faction, above all, is a dangerous thing.''
Even when, in 1787, the thorniest political questions of a new nation were thrashed out in secret during the Constitutional Convention, there was no provision for a two-party system. Opposition to the new Constitution, while strong in many states, was so disorganized that it was expected to be short lived.
Away in France during this reform convention, Thomas Jefferson objected to the lack of any formal provision for a two-party system. "Men are naturally divided into two parties,'' he wrote, "those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of the higher classes [and] those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.''
It was obvious to the first president, George Washington, that unless he drew Jefferson into his government, Jefferson would organize anti-federal opposition into a political party. The uneasy honeymoon of the first American political system lasted less than two years. Inside Washington's cabinet lurked the seeds of two quite opposite political parties. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton spoke for the prosperous seaport towns of the North, the banking and commercial interests, the creditors. Jefferson, the perennially debt-ridden man from Monticello, spoke for the South and the West, the farmers, the workers, other debtors. To Jefferson, the Federalists were intolerably aristocratic "monocrats.'' To Hamilton, Jeffersonians were French-style incendiaries who must be kept in check.
For awhile, James Madison, putative father of the Constitution and major author of the Federalist Papers, upheld Hamilton. But Hamilton's pro-business, pro-banking policies, his coziness with land speculators who were swindling veterans out of their bounty lands, quickly drove Madison into Jefferson's camp. At the end of the First Congress in the spring of 1791, ostensibly on a vacation tour of the Adirondacks and Vermont, Jefferson and Madison decided to launch a political party to oppose Hamilton's, ergo President Washington's, fiscal policies.
They arranged to hire Princeton-educated journalist Philip Freneau to set up the National Gazette, a Philadelphia-based weekly, to combat the Gazette of the United States, backed by Hamilton and his Federalists. They followed up this first step in forming two distinct political parties by spawning Democratic-Republican Clubs all over America.
Washington, a thin-skinned chief executive, only decided to stay on for a second term to prevent his lieutenants from, as he feared, splitting the country into two parties. To him, political parties spelled disunion. Eventually, Jefferson and Hamilton both resigned from Washington's Cabinet to lead the two parties' attacks on each other, using anonymous surrogates to write vitriolic columns for their thrice-weekly party newspapers.
To suppress the challenge of a second party, Washington's successor, Federalist John Adams, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it a federal crime to criticize the president or his administration's policies. Supreme Court justices became circuit-riding inquisitors, trying, fining and imprisoning some 25 editors and printers who subscribed to the Jeffersonian party line.
Religious groups blessed their favorite candidates and condemned opponents. In the 1804 campaign, the Congregational clergy of New England ganged up on candidate Jefferson in sermons reprinted in Federalist newspapers, branding him an atheist at a time when four out of five American newspapers were Federalist-owned.
In his turn, when Jefferson became president he instituted what later became known as the spoils system. With his idea of even-handedness, he dismantled the Federalist Party. He fired half of all federal officeholders, the top half. He kept Federalists only in low-level clerical, postal and customs service jobs. Jefferson effectively deprived the Federalists of any chance of rebuilding a power base by excluding them not only from the federal payroll but from political and administrative experience. The Federalists never won another election. Their party died.
Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans became Andrew Jackson's Democrats. They held power, except for a single term, for 60 years. And then it was Abraham Lincoln's turn. His new Republicans were ushered into the White House by the nearly terminally-divisive Civil War. To oppose the governing party again became treason, Lincoln's critics rounded up and incarcerated, the writ of habeas corpus suspended. No Democrat would be elected president for another generation. The GOP of Abraham Lincoln held sway, with only two brief interruptions, for nearly 80 years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Through much of our nation's history, in effect, there has been only one real national political party thriving at any given time in our winner-take-all system. And even though the pendulum swings may be shorter these days, neither party seems to want to relinquish the possibility of utterly destroying the other. Arguably, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney would be unhappy to take total control of the nation's political power.
Willard Sterne Randall, formerly an award-winning investigative reporter, is the author of six Founding Father biographies including, most recently, Ethan Allen, His Life and Times, published by W. W. Norton.