This past week we covered (“covered”) the War of 1812 in my U.S. history survey sections. I told my students right off the bat that I will not be asking them to recall the names of naval officers or the details of particular troop movements on the exam — though it doesn’t get much more memorable than “Oliver Hazard Perry,” or much more of a close call than the British burning Washington and marching toward Baltimore, or much more unambiguously lopsided than the Battle of New Orleans. Instead, I focused on some significant consequences of the war in terms of America’s place in the world (including its relationship to the native peoples in its midst and to its west) and in terms of the nation’s internal affairs and politics.
While I too don’t put much stock in historical precedents (history is not a lab science, or even a science; you cannot control variables that would yield comparable results at two different moments in time; our discipline is ideographic, not nomothetic, damn it!), in our narrative construction of the past, we can return (or, perhaps, often can’t help returning) to some recurring themes – not precedents or even prototypes so much as topoi. Implicit topoi underlie our attempts at historical analogies – that goes for professional historians, I think, but also for the public at large.
In thinking of the consequences of the War of 1812, one particular outcome seems possibly relevant to our current political moment (we will only know what is or is not relevant in retrospect): the end of the First Party system and, more particularly, the accidental and spectacular self-immolation of the Federalists as a viable national party. The underlying topos here might be something like, “when political parties bet it all on one outcome and lose big.”
While Federalist opposition to a war that the United States ended up winning by simply not losing might have doomed that party anyhow, the nail in the coffin of the Federalists’ national political sway was the Hartford Convention, where New England leaders of that political party, sure that the stupid war was going to end in spectacular failure, openly discussed (though did not ultimately approve) the possibility of seceding from the rest of the country and making a separate peace with the British. Off the Convention’s envoys went to Washington to recommend a mixed grill of constitutional amendments that might fix everything wrong about the country, just in time to hear the welcome news of the Treaty of Ghent and the stirring news of the Battle of New Orleans.
Talk about terrible timing – terrible timing that was quickly taken as a sign of terrible (if not treasonous) judgment. So long, Federalist presidential aspirations. (But, as we know, hello – eventually – to the American Whigs.)
To be clear, I’m not saying that the closest or best historical analogy to our current political situation dates from the War of 1812. The “topos” of this election will emerge only in retrospect. Really, it was just what I happened to be teaching this week, and the Hartford Convention struck me as neatly emblematic of “betting so big and betting so wrong that you’re out of the game for decades.”
I think what we’re seeing at present seems to fit more neatly into the theme of “Mugwumps on steroids,” with many members of the Republican establishment (and not a few Republican-leaning newspapers) openly endorsing the Democratic candidate for president. This was not the end of the Republican party, but it was the end of a few Republicans’ careers within the party. Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, stuck with the party’s nominee, proving himself to be a loyal Republican. In retrospect, he made the right bet — not for that election, but for his own future, and for the future of his party. But when he laid his bets again in 1912, strong as a Bull Moose, he made a losing bet, as did the progressive Republicans who rallied to him – losing not only that election but also forfeiting any possibility for a progressive movement within the Republican party.
It seems to me that Republican leaders today who are trying to figure out how to triangulate around their party’s nominee, if they’re thinking about historical precedents or analogies or recurring themes at all, are probably most mindful of the example of Teddy Roosevelt. The moral of the story as they are reading it or telling it to themselves seems to be this: stick with the party and the party’s nominee, for your own sake and for the sake of the political principles you hope to put into practice.
We’ll see what happens, and we’ll figure out later how to frame the narrative as part of a longer history – well, somebody will figure that out. It’s hard to frame the narrative of the soon-to-be historical moment that you are currently living in, even if framing historical narratives is what you do for a living.
But as we are rummaging through the historical lumberyard looking for some handy materials to construct even a makeshift narrative of the present, a plank or two from the end of the First Party system strikes me as something that might prove useful in building the frame for one part of the story. But historical use is not the same as historical precedent. If the story we tell ends up echoing themes from the demise of the Federalist party, it does not at all follow that some Era of Good Feelings, in name or in fact, awaits us around the corner.