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Gridlock in Washington

Capture and burning of Washington by the British, in 1814

While many Americans are angry about what our government has done in one or more areas, others are frustrated by the lack of action, or slow progress toward a favored goal.  The approaching election may change control of one or both houses of Congress, but even if the Republicans capture both they will be unable to accomplish their agenda because of a Democratic president.  Gridlock seems likely for the next two years, but it would not be for the first time in our history.

In the American Seminar last week students discussed James S. Young’s The Washington Community, 1800-1828 (1966). Young describes the “rulers” in the new national capital, focusing most of his attention on the legislative branch, and secondarily, the executive. He praises Thomas Jefferson’s skills as the host at intimate congressional dinners, but argues that the President accomplished little through hospitality. For example, some in Congress objected to the Louisiana Purchase but few of their constituents opposed enlarging the nation. Yet when Jefferson tried a major foreign policy initiative, a trade embargo against the European powers, he crippled his administration and wrecked his party’s unity.

His successors were even less successful as chief executives.  James Madison proved a better designer of the government, as the Constitution’s chief author, than a manager of it, allowing himself to be pushed into an ill-advised second war with Great Britain.  An American army fled from the enemy.  Washington was abandoned, sacked, and burned by British invaders.  New Englanders pondered secession at the Hartford Convention.

James Monroe presided over the Era of Good Feeling, marked by the demise of the Federalist party.  But as president he failed to accomplish much because of a splintered Republican party rent by shifting regional and ideological factions that changed with each session, and often during sessions.  When he issued what became known as the Monroe Doctrine he did not ask for congressional approval and would not have gotten it if he had.

His successor, the former Federalist turned Republican John Quincy Adams, lost control of his administration to his own cabinet and like his father served only one term.  None of the presidents from 1801 to 1828 could do much to lead or manage independent and often truculent legislators.  Members of Congress did not identify themselves as party members.  There were no majority whips or floor leaders. While the executive was weak, Congress generally was divided, despite ostensible control by a large Republican majority in both houses.

This fragile edifice collapsed with the end of the congressional presidential nominating caucus after 1824, and the Jacksonian revolution in 1828.  One result in the next generation would be a much stronger second party system, and a far more powerful and effective national government.  Presidents from both parties could push their legislative agendas, and with the newly created committee system, and party leaders, Congress pushed back, leading to a series of accomplishments, albeit compromises, in a variety of areas.

About The Author: Michael Chesson was the Founding Dean of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

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