United States History: Great Debates

Figure 1.--

There have been a number of critical debates in American history. These great debates in American politics have both been conducted between and within political parties. Political parties are of two kinds. The first kind of political parties are those formed to win elections and obtain politica power. A second kind is organized around key issues and philosophy and fir those parties winning elections is secondary, although nececessary in order to convert ideas into power. American political parties have varied. For some like the Federalists their ideas were more important than power and they disappeared. For other parties political power was the primary goal. The Democrats formed by Jackson and Van Buren to achieve power spent several decades avoiding the central issue in American politics--slavery. Over times parties have shifted back and forth, focusing on ideas or power. At times the dichotomy is very clear. At other times less so. Some parties af\gressively promote their ideology and positions. At other times parties have attempted to conceal their ideology and positions. There have been several such debates. Some have spanned decades. Other have dominated decades or some times an even shorter period. The longest and most signoficant was surely over slavery which morphed into discussions over race. There have been other crucial debates in American politics. Some have been definitively resolved. Others continue to this day. Some of these debates, especially that of isolationism, have a way of recurring in the political discourse of the nation.

1760s-70s: Relationship with Britain

The Revolution was a war that the British could have easily avoided had King George and his advisors been willing to show the some flexibility. In many ways it seems difficult to understand the depth of colonial disatisfaction with the British. The two central issues in the war were: !) the authority of the colonial legislatures and ultimately the power to tax and 2) British restrictions on western movement and colonial land claims beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Had Britain not attempted to dilute the perogatives of the legislatures it seems likely that the colonists would have never been pushed toward common action and instead been more focuded on the individual and in many ways conflicting interests. Futhermore, many in Britain objected to the War and a minority of Americans wanted independence at the time the war began. At the onset probably less than a third of American wanted independence. Surely at least a third, probably more saw themselves as Englishmen living in America and loyal subjects of the King. The World was a dangerous place. Most Colonists were of English stock and many looked on England as home. Many also welcomed the protection of the British Empire and had no desire to leave, as long as they could have local self government. This loyalty to the British Empire was especially strong among the privileged class who were eventually to become the major Patriot leaders, men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, Franklin, and many others. The same was true in the South among the planter class. The question of how men who considered themselves British came in a relatively short period of time to take up arms against Britain is a fascinating question. A good example here is wealthy planter, Landon Carter, of Virginia. We mention him because he kept a diary and one can trace his thought process as he moved slowly from ardent monarchist to reluctant rebel. [Issac] For him and many others, the turning point was thecStamp Act. These were men who not only feared existing in a world without the protection of the Empire, but also facing future challenges to their privileged lives from the poor and uneducated that constituted the bulk of the population. It is no accident that the American Republic resulting from the War was a very undemocratic country. (The result is still with us today in that George Bush became President when more Americans voted for Al Gore.) Only incredibly arrogant policies pursued by the King and his compliant Parliament gradually turned American opinion toward Independence. [Ketchum] In this regard, Lord North's intemperate remarks played an especially important role. [Green, p. 8.]

1790s: The Federal Government

The Constitution was ratified (1789), but only after a great national debate. And important leaders led by Thomas Jefferson were very concerned with the new Federal charter. Jfferson had been in Paris serving as ambassdor when the Constitutional Convention met. Chief among those concerns were the powers given to the president. The creation of a poweful office was only possible because everyone knew who the first president would be -- George Wshington. It was wiely accepted that he was a man who could be trusted. Still there was great concern with the anti-Federalists, soon to be come th Republicans or Democratic Repunlicans abour who would follow Washington. Another major issue was foreign policy. The French Revolution began as the new Federal Government began (1789). The Federalists were horrified. The Anti-Federalists at first though thought the revlutionaries kindred spirits. Washington was set on neutrality which came to be known as islationism. The Anti-Federalists were more willing to aid France. This was the beginning of aecurring nationl devate ovr america;s role in the world. They also diagreed about domestic policy, incluing the role of mercants (commerce) and farmers in America's future. Another issue was the durbility of the Union--a issue which would only be settled by the Civil War. This developing national debate is often seen as a conflict betweem Secrtary of State homas Jefereson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton ad later President Adams. washington who was opposed to political parties is often seen asabove the fray, but in fact a rift developed between him and his former friend, Thonas Jefferson. Jefferson. Given Wshibgton's prestige, Jefferson could not attack him directly. But he did indirectly. After Washinton dimissed James Monroe, the anbsador to France for being too pro-French, Jffrson helped hom bwrite a 400-page book attacking Washingon. And while Washington avoided public criticism of Jfferson, he did not restrain his temper when taling privatly with Marth. Mrs Washington after her husband's death and Jefferson's victory in the 1800 eclection described Mr/ Jefferson 'as one of the most detestable of mankind' and believed his election as president as 'the greatest mosforuneour country has ever exprirnced'. [Fleming]

1820s-60s: Slavery

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 2/3s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. As a result of the cotton gin and the expansion of plantation cotton agriculture, this did not occur. And after the War Of 1812, the great debate over slavery emerged as the most contentious national issue and one which became a largely sectional issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

1900s: Progressivenism

1910s: Isolationism/World War I

1920s: Isolationism

1930s: Governmental Role

1935-41: Isolationism

Despite the strong national consensus for isolationism, President Roosevelt saw the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists. A great national debate began. This is arguably the most important struggle America engaged in during World War II. The two leading figures in the debate were President Roosevelt and popular aviator Charles Lindbergh--the most formidable American Firster. Many Americans today see President Roosevelt as the New Deal leader who brought America out of the Depression. In fact, President Roosevelt and the New Del failed to end the Depression. His place in history which he did not fail at was his formidable war leadership. The Isolatinists protrayed the President as an eneny of free speech. Some in the military were opposed to his pro-British policies, especially sending Britain arms the Army lacked. The President authorized wire taps and authorized a British intelligence and propaganda operation in the United States the beginning of a connction that would lead to the first American secret inteligence and spy operation. [Olson] The President with great determination and political courage managed to, not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the great Arsenal of Democracy. The President as early as 1935 began to resist the public clamour fos a policy of strict neutrality and moved by 1941 to an undecalred, but shooting war in the Atlantic. The President also layed the ground work for producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well in quantities that no one--especially the AXIS believed possible.


Fleming, Thomas. The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson tThat Defined a Nation (2015), 440p

Green, James A. William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (Garrett and Massie: Richmond, Virginia, 1941), 536p.

Ketchum, Richard M. Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York (Henry Holt, 2002), 447p.

Olson, Lynne. Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (2012), 576p.


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Created: 3:23 AM 3/23/2009
Last updated: 10:51 AM 6/6/2015