What happens when senators and congressmen go around a controversial president to communicate directly with the enemy? They undermine the stability of their own party — and the integrity of the nation.
That’s what happened to the Federalists, the glorious political party of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Could the same thing happen to today’s Republican Party?
On Monday, 47 Republican senators wrote Iran’s leaders to inform them that the president of the United States is not to be trusted. Anything President Barack Obama promises, they explained, can be undone the moment he is out and their candidate is in.
Organized by freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the Republican Party’s broadside is not a precise parallel to Federalist sedition during the War of 1812. But it’s close.
The American people never forgave the Federalist Party for flirting with treason during that war. Today, Cotton and other Republicans court similar disgust with their disloyalty toward the nation’s sitting president.
The Federalist Party of George Washington and the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson had been at each other’s throats for two decades. Partisan passions rose so high that Adams was burned in effigy while he was president. A few years later, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Hamilton, leader of the Federalists and a perennial opponent.
As John Marshall, the most illustrious chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who held the post from 1801 to 1835, argued (and was later quoted in the United States v. Curtiss-Wright): “The president is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations.”
Partisan restraint began to crumble during the early years of the republic, however. During the 22-year conflict between the European great powers — an era marked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars — Washington and Adams’s party advocated closer ties with Britain. Jefferson and James Madison’s party, the Democratic-Republicans, strongly preferred France.
The Federalists handed the Oval Office to the Democratic-Republicans in 1800, in modern history’s first democratic transfer of executive power from one party to another. But the opposition savagely attacked Jefferson once he entered the White House. The author of the Declaration of Independence received death threats over his foreign policy.
“You infernal villain,” one man wrote from Boston after Jefferson declared a foreign embargo. Another cautioned, “you will be shott … you are one of the greatest tirants in the whole world. You are wurs than Bonaparte.”
Passions escalated further after President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Britain in 1812. Two years into the unpopular conflict, some Federalists were proposing secession from the Union. …
And then things really got rough.
In 1814, 26 delegates from five New England states traveled to a closed meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. The so-called Hartford Convention drew up a list of demands. Their ultimatums were not as important as the implied threat behind them. New England might secede if Madison didn’t come to heel.
The convention appointed three “ambassadors” to present their terms to Madison — as if they were representatives of already separate nations. As if persons other than the U.S. president were empowered to appoint ambassadors and direct foreign relations.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other members of the House Republican leadership invited the head of a foreign nation to address them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Mar. 3 speech violated the protocol spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, as I wrote last week. The founding fathers specified that it is the president’s unique responsibility to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu breached the nation’s basic law.
Cotton’s open letter to Iran also violates the spirit of the Constitution. Whether he and other senators are actually breaking the law is more debatable. Though the Logan Act of 1799 suggests they are:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
It is unlikely, however, that the nation’s chief law enforcer can stop them or even will try. Congress has previously expressed itself to foreign governments against a president’s wishes, such as when 88 members of the House of Representatives sent a cable in 1920 to Prime Minister David Lloyd George protesting British policy toward Ireland.
But Congress has perhaps never so openly disrespected the president on a foreign stage as now. Or intervened more actively to disrupt an international negotiation.
Like the Federalists of 1814, today’s Republican leaders are wading into deep, swift waters.
Whatever happened to the Federalist Party? When Madison’s negotiators forged a peace treaty with Britain, and General Andrew Jackson defeated British troops in the epic Battle of New Orleans a week later, delegates to the Hartford Convention looked like fools and traitors.
The nation’s first political party died swiftly. Reviled by the patriotic electorate, the Federalists never again won the Oval Office. The United States had a one-party system for the next two decades, until the Whig Party arose in 1833.
Modern Republicans have a much longer history than the Federalists. Cotton’s party is made of a sturdier fabric than the party of Washington.
But the junior senator from Arkansas ought to beware. The American people have never cottoned to treason — or the implication of it.