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November 1st, 2014

The Roots of Party Politics in Vermont

by Sen. Bill Doyle

In the mild spring of 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rode from Philadelphia to New York and then on to New England on what they called a “botanizing excursion.” From Bennington, Jefferson wrote home about speckled trout and black striped red squirrels, and observed silver fir, white pine, “spruce pine” juniper, “paper birch,” wild cherry, and “sugar maple in vast abundance.”

When they arrived in Bennington on June 4, the Vermont Gazette was enthusiastic about their visit: “Examples like these bespeak the gentleman of good breeding… and are worthy of imitation by all ranks and descriptions of men in our republic.” Jefferson wrote that their stay in Bennington was extended because of Vermont’s Blue Laws “not permitting us to travel on Sunday.”

The real purpose of the expedition, however, had very little to do with plants or animals. The expedition was to identify political “specimens” and cultivate support for Jefferson, who was emerging as the leader of an opposition to the policies of President George Washington.

Political parties were not a part of the first years of the United States. Indeed, Washington and other founding fathers warned against them. But dissent is the hallmark of democracy, and soon after the adoption of the Constitution, America’s early leaders were dividing into two groups. The first was the Federalists who believed in a strong national government as advocated by Alexander Hamilton.

But the adoption of the Constitution had not been easy. Many argued the national government would be much too strong, and argued for amendments guaranteeing certain basic rights. Jefferson and Madison came to be identified with this group, and after adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, they found themselves increasingly in the role of the loyal opposition. Their group was called the Jeffersonian-Republicans or Democratic-Republicans.

The Federalist cartoons of the day portrayed the Jeffersonians as “cannibals, drunkards, and pirates.” The Jeffersonians in turn accused the Federalists of “working toward a monarchy and an hereditary privileged class.” The Federalists’ policies generally enhanced commercial and businesses interests, while the Jeffersonians identified more with agrarian concerns. A preponderance of the lawyers, merchants and Congregational clergy were Federalists. As late as 1811 a Jeffersonian noted that Federalists in Vermont included “four-fifths of the lawyers, nine-tenths of the merchants, and 19 out of 20 of the clergy.” In general, the Federalists were stronger on the eastern side of the Green Mountains, and the Jeffersonians stronger on the western side. For example, in the election of 1800, Jefferson carried every county west of the mountains while Adams carried every eastern county.

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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