In this imagined conversation at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, James Madison and Abigail Adams debate freedom, loyalty, and partisanship in a time of national danger. You’ll probably notice that the themes resonate today.
The late 1790s found the two on opposite sides of the emerging two-party system. Abigail’s husband John had succeeded George Washington as president, and he was wrestling with political opposition at home and a brewing conflict with France abroad.
The first lady didn’t even have the right to vote, but she was an acute political observer and very much John’s political partner.
James Madison, meanwhile, was causing more than a little trouble for the Federalists in power. He and Thomas Jefferson were instrumental in the growth of the Democratic-Republicans, who rose to challenge the Federalist Party beginning in the mid-1790s, especially through their quiet support of like-minded newspaper editors.
The Democratic-Republicans were alarming to many because there had been high hopes that no party system would be necessary. Americans would elect virtuous leaders based on their leadership qualities and policy positions.
HA! That didn’t last very long. Even George Washington’s honeymoon finally ended in the last few years of his presidency. In his Farewell Address, he warned of the danger of faction, of political differences undermining our strength as a nation.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
Both parties thought they reflected the will of the American people and the “true” vision of the Revolution. (Sound familiar?)
Could both be right?
John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 in an attempt to make the nation safer in a time of perceived danger. The Sedition Act criminalized criticism of the government, leading to the jailing of several newspaper editors.
The Alien Act gave the president the broad power to expel any foreigner deemed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” Suspicion of the loyalty or good intentions of immigrants precedes current debates.
While those two acts expired at the end of Adams’ presidency, the Alien Enemies Act, which allowed for the arrest or removal of people from nations at war with the United States, is still in force today. It was the basis for the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
At very least, James and Abigail’s conversation shows our struggle to reconcile competing values. What security measures are necessary in a time of national danger? What rights are we willing to sacrifice for safety?
What loyalty do we owe to a leader we oppose? Is trust and compromise possible, or is politics just about winning?
Whom do you side with, Mrs. Adams or Mr. Madison? Or (God forbid!) do you fall somewhere in the middle?