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The Problems With High Broderite History

[ 46 ] January 18, 2013 |

I suppose it may not be sporting of us to pick on Meacham twice.  But I can’t stop staring at the assertion that the key to Jefferson’s political success was that he “managed to forge friendships with even some of his staunchest critics.”  Right.  How important was Jefferson’s legendary reaching across the aisle, exactly?  Let’s look at the margins that the Jeffersonians had in Congress:

House of Representatives: (Democratic-Republican — Federalist)

1800: 68-38

1802: 103-39

1804: 114-28

1806: 116-26


1800: 17-15

1802: 25-9

1804: 27-7

1806: 28-6

Yeah, clearly the only way Jefferson could get any legislation passed was to be extra nice to the tiny rump of Federalists who had no power in Congress after 1802. And even these majorities understate Jefferson’s political authority, which is greater than any president would ever have again. These were, after all, the very first ever Democratic-Republican congressional majorities; unlike every future president and especially unlike a 21st century president, Jefferson wasn’t dealing with experienced legislators with extensive pre-existing agendas. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence and former Secretary of State and vice president dealing with green-as-a-pool-felt congressmen who mostly knew far less about the federal government than he did. Trust me, if Obama took office with massive supermajorities of Democrats who were mostly obscure state legislators with no experience in federal government, he would have passed a much more extensive legislative agenda. And it wouldn’t be because he was really good at bringing the 20 hapless Senate Republicans who mostly needed him more than he needed them over for a nice Madeira. To interpret Jefferson’s presidency as a triumph of Broderite civility that could be easily replicated by a contemporary president is bizarre.


Comments (46)

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  1. j.e.b. says:

    To interpret Jefferson’s presidency as a triumph of Broderite civility that could be easily replicated by a contemporary president is bizarre.

    Fixed that for you.

  2. To be fair to Meachem, most of the guests on THIS WEEK WITH JOHN JAY at the time were saying the same thing.

  3. John says:

    Besides the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase, what was the worthwhile legislation of the Jefferson presidency, anyway?

  4. RedSquareBear says:

    Don’t be silly Scott. This just shows how skilled Jefferson was at using the Bully Pulpit (100-odd years before the term was even coined)!

  5. witless chum says:

    If my memory of Gary Wills’ Negro President: Thomas Jeffereson and the Slave Power is to be believed, federalists were worried that Mr. Jefferson might lead an army on Washington if the house did not choose him for the presidency in 1800.

  6. timb says:

    Personally, after having to see this smug, entitled dick on my TV and Ipod over the last few years, I am for three or more posts on Meacham per day until he goes away

    • ploeg says:

      The punishment will continue until morale improves.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Could be worse. NPR’s Morning Edition today featured an entire segment devoted to Bill Galston’s analysis of the 2nd Obama term. Galston is Bill Kristol-like in his ability to be wrong about absolutely everything. But with Kristol, you sometimes have to pay attention to his drivel, simply because enough powerful people listen to his dumb ideas that they actually get put into practice (Invade Iraq! Nominate the first-term Governor of Alaska for the Vice Presidency!). In contrast, the last time anyone in power listened to Bill Galston was during his brief stint as an advisor to the Clinton White House in the early Nineties. And my sense is that, even then, nobody really paid attention to his advice.

  7. David Hunt says:

    I did not know that about Jefferson’s massive majorities in Congress. I wonder if his meeting with his political opponents was a combination him being a elite Southern aristocrat who wanted to socialize with his peers, leaving a limited pool of available guest, and perhaps him allowing his opponents to court him like Europeans would court a king. The Democratic Republicans were his Party and I expect that his support for something a Federalist wanted would have been a godsend. Also, if you’re dependent on POTUS’s goodwill to get anything done in Congress, I expect that you might make sure that your public statements about him were at least cordial and that you emphasized what a nice guy he was personally even as you regretfully disagreed with his policy preferences.

    • mark f says:

      Slightly OT: I was given Master of the Senate for Christmas and have been reading it. Caro opens with a hundred or so pages on the history of the Senate itself, highlighting a few key battles. The first of them is the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, at the behest of Jefferson. Jefferson and the D-Rs won such a convincing election that the president and his allies figured they could just do whatever the hell they wanted. (In the end several D-R senators ended up siding with the Federalists and Chase was not removed).

      By the way, this story takes up about three pages in the book. Even though I’ve read The Power Broker, I was amazed at (1) the obvious extensiveness of Caro’s research, (2) his ability to choose details so well that you feel like you know everything about it after only three pages, (3) the fact that these three deeply researched & perfectly concise pages are in the midst of what will probably wind up as a 4,000(plus!)-page biography of Lyndon Johnson.

  8. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Slightly OT, but those numbers are also an important reminder of what a party in actual danger of disappearing as a national force looks like. Today’s GOP may have trouble winning popular majorities in national elections for the foreseeable future, but they are in no danger whatsoever of disappearing as the Federalists eventually did. Indeed, Republicans today can win both the House and Senate without popular majorities … and they’re working on playing with the Electoral College so that winning it while losing the popular vote won’t require a Y2K-style perfect storm. Remember that Dems controlled the Senate from 1955-1981 and the House from 1955-1995. It takes an awful lot to kill off a major party.

  9. Daniel says:

    Thomas Jefferson did succeed in getting John Quincy Adams to switch parties, which did have significant long term benefits for the Democratic Republican Party. Without Adams as Secretary of State, Monroe would have been among the worst presidents in history, instead of just a mediocre one.

    So maybe Obama is blowing a chance to convince George P. Bush to become a Democrat and, as a result, twenty years from now he won’t one day serve as Secretary of State for President Julian Castro and broker peace in the Middle East. All because Obama isn’t willing to reach across the aisle.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    I don’t believe that the Meachams of this world are ignorant or stupid. (Their dupes among the general public are both, but that’s another matter.) They know exactly what they are doing and for whom they are shilling.

  11. Sly says:

    To interpret Jefferson’s presidency as a triumph of Broderite civility that could be easily replicated by a contemporary president is bizarre.

    Now, now. We all know that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, after playing a round of golf together and retiring to Katherine Graham’s house for a late afternoon brandy, came to a thoroughly amicable agreement that Aaron Burr should not be President.

    • Warren Terra says:

      So, it’s your hypothesis that in a courageously apolitical display of Sacrifice, the original apostle of Aysterity engineered the termination of Aaron Burr’s political career, to ensure the ong-term fiscal stability we needed?

      (by the way, does anyone else find that they read “Aaron Burr” as “Aawwn Bwwwh” because of the old Got Milk ad?)

    • Jonas says:

      It’s too bad there is so much partisanship today and we can’t have politicians like our founders who could work together, have a drink with each other after work, and shoot each other.

  12. witless chum says:

    I remember Bob Somerby tearing apart some effort of Meacham’s re: the Dems must be nicer to religion sometime in the early 00s and nicknaming him Parson Meachum. I haven’t ever been able to think of him as anything else.

  13. Samuel Knight says:

    The Village Idiots are pretty amazing in coming up with stupid things with which to attack Obama or anyone who advocates any progressive change.

    Jefferson was notorious about being one the nastiest political operators around, a stunning hypocrite and untrustworthy. Adams was no shrinking violet but Jefferson dished it out in the campaign, and of course bad mouthed Washington and threw everything he had at Alexander Hamilton.

    That’s what’s fun – seeing how absurd these idiots are – Jefferson on decorum? Really?

  14. olexicon says:

    Noted Historian Kelly Bundy weighs in

    “PEGGY Oh, hi, kids. I was just checking to see if Daddy’s pants go with this couch. So how’s the
    studying going?

    KELLY Great. We’re on our way to the library. Bud’s really been helping me. If they’d only teach like
    this in school. Did you know when Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence,
    he wrote this song? (SINGING THE THEME FROM “THE JEFFERSONS”)

    BUD So, you see, she has natural intelligence. She just doesn’t use it. Tell us about the
    Jeffersons, Kell.

    KELLY Well, it’s a little known fact, but Thomas Jefferson’s wife was black. He and Weezy were poor
    once, you know. He was a real Renaissance man. He was an architect and a dry cleaner, and he had
    a maid named Florence.”

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