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When the Right Loses

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Jefferson in Power: The Death Struggle of the Federalists. By Claude G. Bowers. Boston: Houghton Mifllin Company. $3.75.

In the context of modern and contemporary life, nothing is perhaps more natural than that the Right should be anti-democratic. If many of its members pay lip service to political democracy in times of their ascendancy, most of them realize that political democracy is a constant threat to that ascendancy. They need no very highly developed instinct to apprehend that an arrangement in which is implicit ultimate political power for the many cannot be expected always to operate in a manner favorable to the few. This is true in a narrower and in a broader perspective.

The history of the United States, like modern history in general, has witnessed several sporadic populist uprisings. Each case has been a specific threat to the privileged social and economic classes and to their followers. In the narrower perspective, such instances result merely in temporary substitutions of the outs for the ins. The champions of the masses of the people, who are normally the outs, assume office, but not complete power. The. former ins engage in an extremely bitter opposition. The character of this opposition may, in narrow perspective, be regarded as due partly to lack of familiarity with anything but complete power and partly to a vigorous determination to regain lost ground. In broader perspective, however, the bitterness of opposition on the part of the Right is undoubtedly due to a realization, conscious or unconscious, that all ground lost in a specific case can rarely, if ever, be wholly recovered, and that a particular and temporary victory of the many is perhaps symbolic of a possibly inevitable ultimate victory.

The eight years of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency followed the most striking populist revolution in American history. Therefore, the period is full of evidence for a study of the behavior of the Right when it is faced with a threat from political democracy. From this point of view, Mr. Claude G. Bowers’s new book, “Jefferson in Power,” a solid and scholarly work that is confined to the two terms of Jefferson’s Administration, is the best historical volume that can be consulted. Mr. Bowers incisively strikes beyond the “living” Jefferson—beyond liberalism, laissez faire, states’ rights, and the rest of it—right to the heart of the matter. He strongly insists and clearly shows that the fundamental cause of the attitude of the Federalists, who attacked with a bitterness which has been relatively seldom equaled and never exceeded, was a fear and a hatred of democracy.

So far as the wider perspective is concerned, Mr. Bowers undoubtedly implies, though he does not explicitly state, that the convulsions of the Federalists were somewhat more pronounced than in most similar particular cases, since they were the contortions of a death struggle. Further than this he, being an historian, properly does not go. Though the publication of his book at this time is probably not accidental, the author in no instance points a moral in respect of the present political scene. He frequently takes square issue with Federalist historians, who he feels have been extremely unfair to Jefferson; yet he makes no reference to the real parallels between Jefferson’s times and ours, and he does not expressly expose the curiously distorted ways in which Jefferson’s words and deeds are being at present invoked. He leaves these tasks to the individual reader. With Mr. Bowers’s narrative available, the discriminating cannot ask more.

More than a plausible case can probably be made out for the view that both the immediate and the more remote future of American life are in a peculiar degree dependent on the extent to which the business interests of America and persons within the ambit of their influence are capable of real change. More especially, the future of this country appears to be bound up with the question whether members of the Right can become good losers. A great part of the available evidence, it must be admitted, is not highly favorable to an affirmative answer. At the same time, nothing but an affirmative answer seems to hold out any encouragement of an escape from one or the other of the much discussed twin extremes of fascism and communism. The obligation on the part of the Right is commensurate with the importance of avoiding these extremes.


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