Is the Republican Party in its death throes? Donald Trump’s recent victories during the Super Tuesday primaries show the Republican Party in a major identity crisis, according to Christian Science Monitor writer, Linda Feldman, in an article entitled, “Super Tuesday: Trump’s Victories highlight GOP’s Identity Crisis.”
Historically speaking, conservative parties in our nation have fragmented and disappeared. Are we at that juncture again? Trump’s progression to ultimate nominee for the Grand Old Party does not bode well for its continued existence.
Let’s examine some political history. The first conservative pro-business party was the Federalist Party, centered mainly in New England, which ruled the nation from 1789-1800. George Washington was the Federalist’s first president, although he was suspicious of political parties, considering them divisive factions and dangerous to the nation. In his farewell address in 1797, after eight years in office, he warned the nation against political parties.
Washington’s chief concern as president was to set strong precedents of presidential caution and wisdom in decision-making. Rather than support either Britain or France in their war, he chose instead to take a course of neutrality, thus keeping the Napoleonic War from causing divisions in this nation between pro-British and pro-French Americans.
John Adams, also a signer of the Constitution and a Federalist, followed him for a four-year term. Adams, like his predecessor, was deeply concerned for the stability and survival of the young nation more than for individual liberties. From 1798-1800 the United States was fighting an undeclared sea war with the France and the Federalists were very fearful.
That explains why Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Acts increased the time required of immigrants to become U.S. citizens from five to 14 years. Most of these immigrants, upon becoming citizens, would vote for Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, later known as Democrats.
Federalist critics of the Adams administration were fined and imprisoned under the Sedition Act for what they wrote in newspapers. Although freedom of the press rights are part of the First Amendment, Federalists in power operated from a fear perspective, more concerned with survival of the nation than they were with protecting press freedom.
These anti-immigrant and anti-press acts eventually were used by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to drive Adams out of office in the 1800 presidential election in what has been called the “Revolution of 1800.” It was called that because the Democrats replaced the Federalists through an election rather than through the barrel of a gun.
The Federalist Party began a long decline. The War of 1812 and the economic policies of Democrat James Madison had hurt New England merchants who were the major backers of the Federalists. Their primary trading partner was Britain.
New England Federalists gathered in Hartford, Conn., in late 1814 and early 1815 to protest the war in what became known as the Hartford Convention. Some extremists in the party threatened to secede from the union. Additionally, the Massachusetts governor, a Federalist, had sent a secret delegation to Britain to negotiate a separate peace to end the war. Other Federalists wanted to expel the western states from the union.
The Hartford Convention delegation reached Washington D.C., with their demands at the same time as news came of the great victory over the British army by Gen. Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Rumors about and demands from the Federalists did not sit well with most Americans who were exulting in the victory. Nationalism and a rising patriotic spirit caused anger against them. The party eventually died out, leading to what became known as the “Era of Good Feelings” which lasted from 1816 to 1824.
Eventually, the Whig Party rose in the period of 1828-1832, and later, nativist parties like the Know Nothings emerged whose major platform was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. At that time, the hated immigrants were the Irish and the Germans.
In 1854 the modern Republican Party was formed out of the Whigs and the Know Nothings, gaining national support with the platform of abolition of slavery and business expansion.
Now, 162 years later, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the Republican Party, with their leading candidate, Donald Trump, emphasizing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. We have come full circle.