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The Problems With High Broderite History

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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

Senate:

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.

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