How the 1791 trip defined us all
While the country was experiencing its first steps under a Republic, there were already divisions. On one side, the Federalists stood with the weight of Washington, Hamilton, Adams and others. Theirs was the party of the United States. The only party. From that party, other ideas began to emerge and the first opposition party in America’s history was born.
Though Madison says the trip was only for “health, recreation and curiosity,” historians point to other primary sources, like Hamilton's thoughts on the trip, and conclude that the trip to the north Madison and Jefferson took in 1791 planted, or at least watered, the seeds for this unprecedented rift in American politics. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison began America’s first opposition party. We think of the creation of an opposition party as somewhat banal today, but what we lose sight of is that something like this had never been done before. Equally, the two men creating a party were the two men at the center of creating the United States: one with the declaratory promise and the other with the constitutional fulfillment. To many Americans, it seemed as if the creators were now turning on their creation. Tearing it asunder from within. A scandal, indeed. This second party was given many names, but the name that stuck was the Democratic-Republicans.
Imagine, if you will …
This texting conversation between Madison, Jefferson, and Washington, though a bit silly, has within it some of the earliest strains of our current political climate today. Today, there are factions within factions. We know their names. We have been witness to their names changing over time. We have seen politicians come and go, parties split, new ideas that emerge and coalesce once-enemies into new bedfellows. Many times, it feels like our country is tearing itself asunder from within, just as it was in this country’s infancy.
We were struggling against ourselves then, and we continue that struggle today. While our politicians’ and parties’ names have changed, the struggle has not; that struggle to be better is perhaps the most central American identity we have. It’s what our founders wanted. Just remember, though we are divided, we are still one.
E pluribus unum.
Kurt Smith, an Arkansas native, has the joy of portraying Thomas Jefferson for Colonial Williamsburg. He has a masters degree in acting and loves digging into the complex life of the man he portrays. He lives with his wife and two dogs, who bring him constant entertainment, love and happiness.
Mr. Jefferson describes his trip with Madison to his daughter, Mary “Maria”.
Mr. Jefferson questions Hamilton’s motives and says he is “honest, as a man, but as a politician…”
“It is greater because in this money there is absolutely no real value. It is more ruinous because by its gradual depreciation during all the time of its existence it produces the effect which would be produced by an infinity of successive deteriorations of the coin.” That is to say an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.”
Jefferson proposed the route and Madison says the trip is for “health, recreation and curiosity.”