All Politics is Local

December 6th, 2010

France of course had been an important ally of the United States during the War for Independence. But in 1794, following the French Revolution and the fall of the French monarchy, the United States and Great Britain agreed to the terms of the Jay Treaty which, though villified by critics as appeasing the British, resolved most of the contentious issues that existed between the two former antagonists. Outraged by American neutrality in the ongoing conflict between Britain and France, French warships began seizing American ships trading with Britain and thus began the so-called Quasi-War between the United States and France. The tensions between the United States and its former ally also had an impact on American politics with the Federalists favoring accord with the British while the Anti-Federalists sided with revolutionary France. The turmoil in internal political affairs continued after the retirement of George Washington and intensified during the administration of President John Adams as the United States began to bolster its army and navy in preparation for armed conflict with France. In a letter from Secretary of War James McHenry to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, dated 10/20/1798, McHenry discusses both the Quasi-War and its political impact. He believes that the “unanimity excercised by the people” and the resolve of Congress to “strengthen the country by fleets and armies” may have convinced France that the United States would not be intimidated and might influence French leaders to adopt a more conciliatory posture toward the Americans. Still McHenry wonders why ‘unanimity” does not translate more directly into votes for Federalist candidates. He asks why the people “have not returned to Congress a greater majority of federal characters,” a situation which he views as “not very flattering.”  He provides a two-part answer to his own question. First, he observes that those seeking power tend to be “the most industrious laborers in the political vineyard” compared to those who already possess power and may tend to be complacent. Secondly, he notes that voters who do support the federal government are “apt to differ in their opinions about the man they wish to be chosen.” Elections are not an accurate measure of public opinion because “it is local subjects in these cases which overrule all others.” In other words, even though voters might support national goals, in a Congressional election their votes will be determined by candidates’ positions on local issues. Or in the immortal words of the late Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, “All politics is local.”