The American Revolution of 1800: How Jefferson Rescued Democracy from Tyranny and Faction-and What This Means Today

The American Revolution of 1800: How Jefferson Rescued Democracy from Tyranny and Faction-and What This Means Today

by Dan Sisson

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In this brilliant historical classic, Dan Sisson argues that Thomas Jefferson thought democratic revolutions would be necessary from time to time to break the grip of autocratic factions on the government. That is how Jefferson saw the election of 1800—and the lessons for today couldn’t be more obvious.

Most historians celebrate Jefferson’s

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In this brilliant historical classic, Dan Sisson argues that Thomas Jefferson thought democratic revolutions would be necessary from time to time to break the grip of autocratic factions on the government. That is how Jefferson saw the election of 1800—and the lessons for today couldn’t be more obvious.

Most historians celebrate Jefferson’s victory over Adams in 1800 as the beginning of the two-party system, but Jefferson would have been horrified by this interpretation. Drawing on the understanding of faction, revolution, and conspiracy reflected in the writings of the Founders, Sisson makes it clear that they, like Jefferson, envisioned essentially a nonparty state.

Jefferson believed his election was a peaceful revolution by the American people overturning an elitist faction that was stamping out cherished constitutional rights and trying to transform our young democracy into an authoritarian state. It was a transfer of power back to the people, not a change of parties. Sisson maintains Jefferson would regard our current two-party system as a repudiation of his theory of revolution and his earnest desire that the people as a whole, not any faction or clique, would triumph in government. The ideals of the American Revolution were in danger until this “Revolution of 1800,” to which we owe the preservation of many of our key rights.

With contributions by Thom Hartmann that bring out the book’s contemporary relevance, this fortieth-anniversary edition contains new insights and reflections on how Jefferson’s vision can help us in our own era of polarization, corruption, government overreach, and gridlock.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Practical Thomas Jefferson thought big thoughts about periodic revolutions against tyranny and concentrated power to abuse the people. His relevance now, as Dan Sisson’s book and Thom Hartmann’s commentary inspire, connects with the entrenching deteriorations and deprivations of today’s America. To heed Jefferson’s wisdom is to call for another mindful revolution at the ballot box and in the civil arena, which can come from the determined hands of we the people.”

—Ralph Nader

“Since I grew up in Lexington, the birthplace of the Revolution, it’s always a thrill to hear retold the story of the ideas that animated our forebears. They are ideas that—in the time of the Koch brothers—we need held up for all to see.”

—Bill McKibben, President,, and author of The End of Nature

“Deepening inequalities—economic, political, and cultural—drive growing appetites for systemic change. Thinking turns again toward revolution when piecemeal reforms prove too difficult and rare and when those we do achieve prove vulnerable and temporary. Our rethinking of revolution can learn valuable lessons from Dan Sisson’s classic about the last time revolution was on America’s agenda.”

—Richard D. Wolff, Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Through this deep dive into early US history, Hartmann and Sisson draw our attention to a crucial distinction between a politics of ideas in search of liberty and prosperity for all and one centered on a factional competition for power.”

—David Korten, Board Chair, YES! Magazine, and author of When Corporations Rule the World

“This is a fascinating account of our country’s early history that has clear relevance to the politics of today.”

—Dean Baker, Codirector, Center for Economic and Policy Research, and coauthor of Getting Back to Full Employment

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The American Revolution of 1800

How Jefferson Rescued Democracy from Tyranny and Factionâ?"and What This Means Today

By Dan Sisson, Thom Hartmann

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Daniel Sisson and Thom Hartmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60994-985-3


The Idea of a Non-party State

For it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party.

—Thomas Paine, 1795

So often in the past century, the political history of America reveals a paralysis in the highest levels of our government. Legislation fails to pass, budgets are voted down, compromise seems impossible, and the problems of the nation are neither addressed nor solved. There have been brief periods, of course, when this was not the case: the New Deal is usually held up as an example of a time when American politicians came together to fundamentally transform the nature and the political landscape of our country. But in the generations since then, more often than not we have seen gridlock rather than collaboration.

"That's the way it should be!" says conventional wisdom. "The Founders of our country, the men who wrote the Constitution, wanted there to be a 'loyal opposition' to serve as a 'balance' against excessive power in the hands of any one political party or even a president."

Not only is this not true but this pervasive myth has done considerable harm to our nation—and continues to do so.

The "Loyal Opposition"

The concept of a "loyal party opposition" has grown in the literature of the professional historians until it has assumed the stature of our most fundamental law. Not only historians but political scientists and everyone else who has sought to explain the stability of the American governmental system have looked to the origin of parties for the confirmation of our genius. The two-party system was the dominating idea in history and political science in the twentieth century. Historians and political scientists were so mesmerized by it that they, like English Whig historians, went back and reread all of American history (as well as British history) to demonstrate the continuity of the twentieth-century party system with the past. When they did so, the Revolution of 1800 dissolved. It had to.

This chapter is an attempt to redress that historical perspective and to deal with the political structure of the eighteenth century as a man of the times saw it. I am trying to make a case for using the contemporary lens of faction and of revolution as opposed to emphasizing the later emergence of political parties.

Moreover, by examining the period from a classical revolutionary perspective, it is possible to state several conditions not generally recognized.

* First, the men in power from 1790 to 1801 did not even remotely conceive of a modern two-party system. In fact, the opposite is true. They wished to consolidate and perpetuate a one-party system of politics in America and were successful in their lifetime.

* Second, their view of political administration was a classic political view, necessitating only one faction in power and abhorring the existence of an "opposition."

* Third, because of this view it was necessary for those who were out of power to foment revolution, based on the classical political theory of "electoral Caesarism," simply to have access to or gain power. This last point will be discussed at length in the following chapters.

To develop these themes, it is necessary to realize that the eighteenth century had its own historical perspective. As one historian put it, "The most fruitful point of departure in studying their careers as statesmen is acceptance of the fact that all questions they asked and all the answers they found to them were eighteenth-century questions and answers that their intensive reading had already blocked out into a systematic pattern."

These were not twenty-first-century concepts of political organization. Any attempt, therefore, to understand that "pattern," their political ideology, must examine the assumptions on which their political logic rested.

Nowhere is this truer than where the concepts faction and party are concerned. The former term belongs to the period generally up to Washington's Farewell Address, where the warnings against "factions" are often considered naïve. The latter term (party) is more confusing. It can be synonymous with faction, but it also is a term of opprobrium. It should not be confused with the establishment of political parties as we know them today.

Thus, for clarity's sake, and rather than discuss misconceptions of the terms party and faction by authors of secondary works in American history, it best suits our purpose to establish a working definition of the terms for an eighteenth-century politician.

Common definitions before the nineteenth century treated the terms similarly, beginning in the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a reference to party in 1535 as "inclined to form parties or to act for party purposes; seditious." Faction was described as "violent." Sedition held a connotation of insurrection and treason against the state, both revolutionary kinds of activity. Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St. John) referred to faction as that which "hath no regard to National Interest."

One dictionary used by contemporaries, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, explained that party and faction were synonymous. Samuel Johnson in his dictionary suggested two meanings that essentially merged in the examples he cited. Giving similar descriptions of the two terms, he said faction was "a party in a state" and also "tumult, discord and dissension."

Violence and dissension were common to both terms. It remained for Thomas Hobbes, however, to give the classic revolutionary description to faction, common from Aristotle's time to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. He said faction "is as it were a city within a city."

This was indeed recognition that potential revolutionary activity was associated with the term, for it raised the specter of the "two-city" theory of revolution.

These definitions perhaps sum up, better than any other, the eighteenth century's understanding of both terms. Seditious, revolutionary, "always with an opprobrious sense, conveying the imputation of selfish or mischievous ends or turbulent or unscrupulous methods."

Distinctions between the words party and faction were slight, if made at all. Looking upon party as both a form of political organization and as an idea of violence, "most American writers seemed to have assimilated these two senses of the word to each other."

Noah Webster throws an additional light on the term party if for no other reason than because he was an ardent foe of Jefferson. His original edition defined faction in a way that touched on all that we have discussed—including the importance of revolution.

Webster said faction is: "A party, in political society, combined or acting in union, in opposition to the prince, government or state; usually applied to a minority, but it may be applied to a majority. Sometimes a state is divided into factions nearly equal. Rome was always disturbed by factions. Republics are proverbial for factions, and factions in monarchies have often effected revolutions. "

Separating Out Faction from Party

The terms faction and party, though appearing synonymous to the average eighteenth-century American, were nevertheless partially separable. Not only did they connote violence, turbulence, and a revolutionary threat against the state—its administration and national interest—they also implied a relationship to one another based on the complexity of human nature and its involvement with politics.

Perhaps it is best said by an author read by virtually every educated member of the revolutionary generation. Lord Bolingbroke wrote,

It is far from being an easy matter to state to you, fairly and clearly, what the words party and faction really mean ...

A Party then is, as I take it, a set of men connected together, in virtue of their having, or, which in this case is the same thing, pretending to have the same private opinion with respect to public concerns; and while this is confined to sentiment or discourse, without interfering with the management of affairs, I think it wears properly that denomination; but when it proceeds further, and influences men's conduct, in any considerable degree, it becomes Faction.

In all such cases there are revealed reasons, and a reserved Motive. By revealed reasons, I mean a set of plausible doctrines, which may be stiled the creed of the party; but the reserved motive belongs to Faction only, and is the Thirst of Power.

The creeds of parties vary like those of sects; but all Factions have the same motive, which never implies more or less than a lust of dominion, though they may be, and generally are, covered with the specious pretenses of self-denial, and that vehemence referred to zeal for the public, which flows in fact from Avarice, Self-Interest, Resentment and other private views.

Bolingbroke, who had spent most of his political life opposing the administration of Robert Walpole, knew whereof he spoke. Acquainted with the motives of nearly all who objected to the Walpolean system, he could easily discern his colleagues' thirst for power no matter how they clothed it with patriotic disguises.

His distinction between party and faction looms important in the politics of the early republic if merely for the reason that most American statesmen complained about party and faction on the same grounds.

Two other observations by Bolingbroke about "motives" common to both terms deserve comment.

First, members of parties or factions, despite their "revealed" motives, were men obsessed with power and a "lust for dominion." It follows then that these same men, given and perhaps even creating the opportunity, are capable of reaching for power through seditious means. This would be especially true if the administration in power considered their opposition illegal.

Second, if parties become factions when their behavior affects the public realm, it is important to keep this distinction in mind. For one characteristic of eighteenth-century statesmen, little understood by twenty-first-century writers, is the absolute vehemence with which they denounced party and faction.

The reasons lay in their extreme fear and anxiety of what occurred once parties became factions and began to influence public opinion. The results were almost guaranteed: disruption of the public realm. This distinction is important because it means that historians have misunderstood the terms party and faction by imputing public action only to the former. Nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century historians have brushed this distinction aside; and, in fact, they have reversed the distinction between party and faction.

David Hume's The History of England, widely read in the colonies before, but even more after, the American Revolution, described the idea of faction in this manner: "Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance to each other."

"Founders of ... factions," he wrote, should be "detested and hated."

Edmund Burke, who enjoyed immense popularity among Americans, spoke of party in 1770. His "Thoughts on the cause of the Present Discontents" laid the source of England's troubles at the door of party and its relationship to the court. Burke went beyond theory to include the actual consequences of party practice:

The [party] machinery of this system is perplexed in its movements, and false in its principle. It is formed on a supposition that the King is something external to his government; and that he may be honoured and aggrandized, even by its debility and disgrace. The [court as well as party] plan proceeds expressly on the idea of enfeebling the regular executory power. It proceeds on the idea of weakening the State in order to strengthen the Court. The scheme depending entirely on distrust, on disconnection, on mutability by principle, on systematic weakness in every particular member; it is impossible that the total result should be substantial strength of any kind.

In yet another famous remark, this time on the nature of a representative, Burke indicated a total unwillingness to sacrifice his views to those of any party. Here Burke presents the theory behind his observations on practical instruction from either his district or his party: "His [the representative's] unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not sacrifice to you, to any man, or any set of men living.... But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusions are perhaps three hundred miles from those who hear the arguments?"

A more devastating intellectual critique of the function of party could hardly be made. Refusing to become the creature of party, stating that the very rationale of party—with its willingness to dispense with deliberation and dialectical reason—contradicted the basic reason for government, Burke had made his decision on party.

The terms party and faction had such a long history that they were widely assumed by American statesmen to be part of human nature. This at least was the approach taken by the two men most responsible for establishing the theoretical guidelines of the early republic. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton attempted to analyze the terms in light of their influence on the political system. Their Federalist essays presented an analysis of party and faction that is more than consistent with the history of the terms we have reviewed.

Madison referred to "the violence of faction" as a "dangerous vice" characteristic of free governments.

"By a faction," he says, "I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

He continued, "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere."

Thus party, as Madison understood it, was not something of recent origin. Parties have been around since the beginning of man. And, he noted, "the most numerous party, or in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail."

He ends his analysis on this note: "To secure the public good and provide rights against the danger of such a faction ... is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed."

Thus Madison captured the essence of the terms as they were understood by his contemporaries: that faction and party were inescapably rooted in human nature and produced violence, zeal, animosity, oppression, and danger—all adverse to the interests of the community.

He added: "Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."

His conclusion is that factions must be broken and controlled. They are, at all costs, not to be legitimately recognized or encouraged.

Madison was not alone in his aversion to party and faction.

Hamilton Agrees with Madison: Parties Are Evil

Alexander Hamilton too warns the reader: "Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these" were typical of that "intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties.


Excerpted from The American Revolution of 1800 by Dan Sisson, Thom Hartmann. Copyright © 2014 Daniel Sisson and Thom Hartmann. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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