Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Era of Good Feelings": A Study in One-Party Rule over Two Terms

Partisan gridlock, hyperpartisan bickering, Congressmen doing nothing to get anything done:

The complaints are louder and shriller than ever -- the party system is a bust, and we the people must reform the process. Let's end the hegemony of a two-party system, some suggest. Let one party have all the control.

We have already seen the results of one-party rule in this country:

While Bush and the Republicans were in power in Congress and the Presidency, from 2001-2007, the spending spree continued freely. Two wars, Medicare expansions, and No Child Left Behind made Bil Clinton look like the more conservative of Chief Executives. From 2009 to 2011, Congressional majorities and a Democratic President pushed through an unfunded mandate using parliamentary gimmicks. A stimulus that was more payout than pay up, with anemic economic recovery still dragging us to bankruptcy.

One party rule is bad. This country has a telling example of the dangers of one-party rule, dressed up as "The Era of Good Feelings." The title alone, taken from federalist bastion Boston, suggests that all was not well. Governing should never be about feelings

"The Era of Good Feelings, from 1817-1825, featured a Democratic-Republican President and like-minded majorities in both chambers of Congress. Even more total than the Bush years and Obama's first term, the opposition party, the Federalists, had become all but discredited following their failed convention pressing for secession. The War of 1812 had crippled the shipping and merchant industries in the Northeast, the last standing ground for the pro-central government faction, which to its limited credit advanced one member into the Presidency -- John Adams -- whose two officious policies helped end the Party's standing, from marginalizing immigrants (Alien Acts) to stifling free speech dissent against the government (Sedition Acts).

Thomas Jefferson, the first Democratic-Republican, advanced a policy of cutting spending, limited the federal government, impounding excessive appropriations back into the treasury. Madison, his successor, hated being President because he could not do all the things that he wanted to, which was a good thing, and a telling declaration since he fathered the Constitution in the midst of heated debate during the Philadelphia convention of 1787.

1816 was a bad year for the dwindling Federalist opposition. Their final Presidential candidate, Rufus King, received a measly 37 electoral votes, with James Monroe sweeping into office. The electors of 1820 with near unanimous consent, reelected him, except for one electoral, who wanted to preserve the unified consent that first President George Washington had receive din 1789.

What happened during this "Era of Good Feelings?"

There is some irony in the name "Era of Good Feelings," for in 1819 the US experienced its first financial panic, due to overspeculation on frontier lands. This caused problems in the Bank of the United States and caused problems for politicians and the lower social classes. This set the stage for the Jacksonian democracy that would emerge with Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828. At the time, however, though things were tough, level-headed and experienced President Monroe was able to keep the nation reasonably happy and confident in the government, as was proven by his victory in the 1820 election.

First financial panic --- a depression, if you will. An economic bubble based on easy credit and suspicious speculation expanded then popped in the frontier region. The unified government under James Monroe furthered an unparalleled spending spree, much like the later spend and debt programs under Bush II and Obama.

During the Monroe Administration, the D-R's incorporated Federalist policies notwithstanding their stern opposition to the party's platforms:

Symbolic of the general feeling of goodwill in the nation, James Monroe ran unopposed for reelection in 1820 and received every electoral vote but one. Although the Federalist Party had disappeared by 1820, some of their nationalist ideas persisted. For example, although Republicans had opposed the national bank in Jefferson’s time, Madison had found it inconvenient to run a war without a national financial institution at his disposal, so the Bank was rechartered in 1816. Madison also felt that a peacetime standing army and a strong Navy were essential safeguards for the country.

 A National Bank screams "Big Government", yet Madison permitted the rechartering of the institution in order to fund defense and maintain a standing army. Madison must have been twisting knots within himself. He had foreseen that wars inevitably justify a larger role for the state in a Republic. "The Father of the Constitution" found himself trampling some of his own principles in order to keep a standing army in place. The British had lost one war with the American colonies; they would not get away with burning down the capitol of the American nation, either.

With no party conflicts in Washington, spending went on a spree. An economic panic swept the country, setting up the division between National Republicans, later the Whigs, and Democratic-Republicans, or the "Democracy" with the loathed or lavished Andrew Jackson as their standard-bearer. While supporting a strong national union, he opposed the National Bank and demanded the decentralization of the country's fiscal policies.

"The Era of Good Feelings" also witnessed the first aggressive foreign policy from the White House. President George Washington discouraged future administrations from entering "foreign entanglements", yet Secretary of State  John Quincy Adams, later one of the leading National Republicans, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, warning European powers to stay out of political matters in the Americas.

The Monroe Doctrine, promulgated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, directed "hands off" to the rest of the Western World. European powers with current colonial holdings had nothing to fear, yet no further exploitation would be permitted. Latin American nations chafed under such paternalism, but the British Empire's widespread naval forces willingly enforced this directive.

The United States took its first step outside of the small "republic" aspirations of limited government advocates like Thomas Jefferson, and the original intentions of the Framers. One-party rule apparently afforded the Monroe Administration an eased sense of preeminence to step into foreign matters, even though barely a decade prior the British had stormed Washington D.C. and burned the White House.

What was "Good Feelings" for the Boston Press and Academic Historians (many of whom by ideological bent favor more government), turned out to set bad precedents and bad faith in the ruling charter of the country. The ante-bellum Monroe Administration should serve as a warning to future generations of the economic and foreign policy dangers which await a nation should they long for "expedient" one party rule in Washington.

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