These are troubling and resentful times. Every day there seems to be another headline about the growing political divide in the country. And it’s not just Democrat versus Republican. Within each party, the gulf between extremes widens as progressives angrily cry out against centrists and Donald Trump’s followers refuse to tolerate any deviation from his staunch party line. The word “unprecedented” is often used to describe the level of combative partisanship that has gripped the nation.
And yet, despite all the fury and dissent, a bipartisan infrastructure bill has somehow made its way into the Senate. Is President Biden correct that the way forward is through dialogue and compromise? If George Washington were magically transported to this day, I’m sure he would say something like, “Yes, but don’t put your hopes too high.” “
Washington also faced a partisan divide at the start of its presidency in 1789. There were no official parties, but the ratification of the Constitution had divided the American people into two distinct (and now oddly familiar) factions. ): those who embraced the strong national government created by the Constitution (the federalists) and those who distrusted the notion of a centralized government supplanting state powers (the anti-federalists).
It could be argued that the only reason the Constitution was ultimately ratified by the nine states required for a national election was that no matter what a person believed about the merits of the new government, just about anyone could s hear about the person to lead it: 57-year-old War of Independence hero George Washington. However, two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had refused to ratify the Constitution at the time of Washington’s inauguration in New York.
Early in his presidency, Washington realized he had to do something to please all Americans, no matter which side of the political fence they were on. Instead of proposing an infrastructure bill, Washington decided to hit the road. At a time before the mass media made the president virtually ubiquitous, Washington believed he should get out and visit as many cities in the country as possible.
Once Congress went on vacation that fall, he embarked on the first of a series of presidential trips “in order,” as he put it, “to get to know the main characters better and internal circumstances, as well as being more accessible to figures of knowledgeable people, who could “provide” useful information and advice on political matters “.
Over the next two years, Washington ventured north to Kittery Point, Maine, and south to Savannah, Georgia. He traveled in a horse-drawn carriage and pretty much everywhere he went he was greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds. People began to realize that they were now part of something bigger than their city, state, or political faction; they were part of the Union. As reported in a newspaper from Salem, Mass., The President’s appearance “unites all hearts and all voices in his favor.”
Today, the phrase “Washington slept here” is a historical joke, but during the two years of intermittent travel during the start of his presidency, all those nights spent in taverns and homes across the country were essential to the establishment of a lasting Union.
And yet, even as Washington did everything in its power to bring the American people together, its own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was secretly working to coordinate the political opposition. While Washington was in the final stages of his three-month tour of the south, Jefferson, with fellow Virginian James Madison as a traveling companion, embarked on a tour of New York and the new state of Vermont, during from which they met like-minded people. Anti-federalists who started to organize what would become the Republican Party (not to be confused with the party of the same name today).
As a virtual war began to erupt within his cabinet between Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Washington lamented that “men of ability – zealous patriots – with the same general prominent objects … will not exercise more charity in deciding the opinions and actions of each other. The partisanship genius had been unleashed, and by the end of his second term the venomous and highly personal internal struggles had reached a point that makes today’s political culture quite civil in comparison. If even Washington could not overcome the partisan divide, what hope is there for us now?
In 1815, with the implosion of the Federalist Party during the War of 1812, the fires of political discord had finally begun to die out. Newly-elected Republican President James Monroe, who had once been the fiercest of political supporters and one of Washington’s toughest critics, now presents himself as the ultimate conciliator, saying “the country’s chief magistrate should not be the head of a party. , but of the nation itself. And what did Monroe decide to do? Just as Washington had done 28 years ago, he hit the road.
Once again, huge crowds greeted the arrival of the president in every town and village. In Boston, newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who as a young reporter witnessed President Washington’s arrival in 1789, claimed that Monroe’s own presidential appearance heralded an “era of good feeling” – a phrase that has since defined Monroe’s presidency. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Washington had largely conquered one of its most virulent political enemies. The party that once regarded Washington as its standard bearer was gone, but the republic it had strived so hard to establish was still there. After decades of unarmed political fighting, after another war with Britain, the Union had lasted.
Yes, today there is the Delta variant, the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, the challenges at the southern border and the climate crisis. But perhaps with broad support for an infrastructure bill that touches the lives of just about every American, there is a way to regain even a small measure of the gratitude once felt in this country when the president has come to town.
Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of three books on George Washington, including the upcoming “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy”. His book “In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2000.