Republic of Wrath

How American Politics Turned Tribal, From George Washington to Donald Trump


By James A. Morone

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A prize-winning political scientist untangles the deep roots of tribalism in America.

American politics seems to be in an unprecedented uproar. But in this revelatory work of political history, James A. Morone shows that today’s rancor isn’t what’s new — the clarity of the battle lines is. Past eras were full of discord, but the most contentious question in American society — Who are we? — never split along party lines.

Instead, each party reached out to different groups on the margins of power: immigrants, African Americans, and women. But, as the United States underwent profound societal transformations from the Civil War to the populist explosion to the Great Migration to civil rights to the latest era of immigration, the party alignment shifted. African Americans conquered the old segregationist party and Democrats slowly evolved into the party of civil rights, immigration, and gender rights. Republicans turned whiter and more nativist. The unprecedented party lineup now injects tribal intensity into every policy difference.

Republic of Wrath tells the story of America as we’ve never heard it before, explaining the origins of our fractious times and suggesting how we might build a more robust republic.






The First Political Campaign (1800)

In 1800, a slave named Gabriel meticulously plotted a rebellion in Richmond, Virginia. He was a skilled blacksmith whose owner rented him out and pocketed most of the wages. Gabriel stood more than six feet tall and could read and write. He had once bitten off a white overseer’s ear but escaped the gallows thanks to a quirky loophole in the legal code—he recited a biblical passage at his trial and was punished, instead, with a brand on his left hand.

Gabriel planned to lead hundreds of slaves into Richmond, waving a flag inscribed “Death or Liberty”—an ironic turn of Patrick Henry’s famous American Revolution oration, “Give me liberty or give me death.” The rebels would spread through the city and seize guns, money, and food. They would take Governor James Monroe as a hostage and burn the bridge over the James River to foil a counterattack. The rebellion, they hoped, would reverberate across Virginia as thousands of slaves rose up and joined them. Gabriel and his colleagues believed they were the latest wave in an inexorable historical tide. The Americans had thrown off English tyrants, the French had rebelled against an oppressive king, and the slaves in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) had cast aside their masters. Now, the bondsmen and women in Virginia would take their turn and redeem America’s promise of liberty.1

But luck turned against the rebels. Torrential storms washed out the roads and bridges on August 30, the appointed day. The uprising was deferred, causing two recruits to panic and spill the secret. Once authorities got wind of the plan, all hell broke loose. Governor Monroe hung some 27 black men, and white Virginia buzzed with anxiety.

THE SLAVE REBELLION LOOMED LARGE BECAUSE IT BROKE just as Americans were conducting their first actively contested two party presidential election in 1800. Although only 62,000 men voted (in a total population of 5.3 million), the first campaign taught Americans something important: how to cast off the founders’ dream of consensus and settle their differences by voting. President John Adams and the Federalists stood for reelection against Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. The campaign sparked all kinds of debates—including a fierce clash over American identity. Gabriel’s rebellion pushed the issue of slavery into the election. The role of refugees in American politics loomed even larger. In multiple ways, the election of 1800 put that enduring question before the protean new republic—Who are we?

The election between Adams and Jefferson was a watershed. It was the first time any nation used an election to change governments, replacing the Federalists with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. How did the nation manage this historical campaign? Not terribly well. States unabashedly rigged the voting rules in order to swing the Electoral College their way. And when the votes were cast, the election ended in a dead tie between Jefferson and his vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. The Constitution had not foreseen political parties with their slate of candidates running nationwide and had simply specified that the presidency would go to the person with the most votes, the vice presidency to the runner up. After the tied election, the Federalists brazenly tried to cling to power by cutting a deal with their erstwhile rival, Aaron Burr. Here is another enduring legacy of the first campaign: rising political parties bent the ambiguous voting rules to their own advantage. That urge grows intense when the debate turns to the fundamental matter of American identity—as it did in 1800. As it does today.

JUNE 1790. ALEXANDER HAMILTON WAS FRANTIC. HIS FINANCIAL plan had gone down in the House by two votes. Northern representatives, who supported the scheme, were so angry that they threatened to lead their states right out of the union. To let tempers cool, the chamber had suspended business. As Hamilton anxiously paced back and forth in front of President Washington’s New York mansion, he bumped into Thomas Jefferson, newly returned from France to take up his role as secretary of state. The suave Jefferson heard Hamilton out and invited him to dinner.

The next night, Hamilton, Jefferson, and James Madison met for what one historian calls “the most celebrated meal in American history.” Hamilton pleaded his case. The federal government must stabilize the republic’s shaky finances by assuming all the debt that states had run up during the Revolution. It would issue federal bonds, which would give people a safe haven for investment (the major alternative, land speculation, was treacherous and had ruined some of the country’s wealthiest men). Madison and Jefferson both hated the idea—Jefferson called it “pabulum to the stock-jobbing herd.” Financial speculators had been buying up the apparently worthless state bonds from impoverished veterans for as little as ten cents to the dollar. Now, if Hamilton got his way, the rogues would make a killing. The swindle, insisted Jefferson and Madison, would corrupt our plain, honest republic.2

Over the course of the dinner, Hamilton persuaded them. Why? Jefferson later said that he and Madison surrendered because they were worried “about the preservation of the union”—the Constitution was just four years old and it was not yet clear if it would hold. Since Hamilton’s “pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States,” the three agreed to sweeten it by compromising on another contentious issue: the question of where to locate the nation’s capital. Hamilton was pushing for New York, others wanted Philadelphia, and the southerners favored northern Virginia. Half the roll call votes in the first Congress had been about the issue. Now the three men made their bargain. The federal government would assume the states’ debts and the national capital would lie just north of Virginia. When the matter came back to the House, two Virginia representatives flipped their votes, and Hamilton’s financial program became a reality along with the new capital on the shores of the Potomac.3

Jefferson later contended that the political parties sprang out of that bargain—which he called the worst of his life. In reality, the parties were springing up anyway. But Hamilton’s financial program helps identify exactly what was at stake as the two parties went public. Their differences stretched beyond economics and touched the definition of friend and foe, how the citizens of a republic ought to behave, and exactly who should count as a voting citizen in the first place. Add it all up and the great debate—out in the open for the first time during the election of 1800—amounted to nothing less than a fight about what kind of nation the United States ought to be.

Hamilton and the Federalists imagined America as a rising mercantile power with a sophisticated financial system, a national bank, and a growing manufacturing sector. The national government would construct roads, dredge rivers, sponsor a national university, and spur American factories with protective tariffs. It was an audacious vision. The new country’s cities were still tiny—New York’s population was roughly thirty-three thousand, while London and Beijing each counted over a million people. American cities had no smokestacks, no mills, few clocks, and no conception of the modern workday. Merchants routinely drank rum all day long. Nevertheless, Hamilton and his allies (mainly in the North) imagined an ambitious national government steering a thriving economy into the nineteenth century.4

Many Federalists also clung to a high Puritan view of leadership. As one of their newspapers explained, the country needed a president “who honestly tells men how wicked they are and that nothing will keep good order but the powerful restraint of a strong government.” Good order and strong government were their watchwords. As the Federalists saw it, the people needed to select superior leaders and then defer to them. They blasted anyone who tried, as George Washington had put it, to “counteract” or “awe” (or influence) elected leaders. The Federalists looked down on, well, politics itself. And yet, here they were, just four years after Washington’s Farewell Address, plunging into the very things they despised—organizing a campaign and scrambling to win over the voters.5

The Jeffersonian party response to the Federalist ideas could be summed up in three words: No! No! No! They pictured an agrarian people who tilled their own land and were therefore reliant on no other person—even when the actual tilling was done by slaves. The Democratic-Republicans countered the Federalist call for a strong central government by insisting on a modest one that deferred to the states and citizens. Where the Federalists called for order and deference, the Democratic-Republicans celebrated the voice of the (white, male) people. Unlike their rivals, the Democratic-Republicans could hear the raucous, rough and tumble politics that was rising in the new century.6

FOREIGN POLICY OFFERED ANOTHER MIRROR OF THE PARTIES’ fears and aspirations for the United States. England and France were at war with one another, and the young republic had to choose which nation to side with. The calculations went deeper than politics and policy. The two nations stood, in the American mind, for opposing principles: English hierarchy and order versus French revolutionary fervor and rights. Which should the young republic respect? Which revile? These were not policy questions so much as existential ones. They reflected the kind of nation the different parties aspired to build.

The Federalists, of course, admired England and feared France. They never tired of pointing out how the bloody mobs of the French Revolution had yielded chaos, blood, and terror. When the Democratic-Republicans talked about equality, liberty, and fraternity, the Federalists denounced them as Jacobins (after the radical French Club) luring America into the same anarchy that roiled the French Revolution.7

On the other side, Jefferson and his party thought the Federalists had been dazzled “by the glare of royalty and nobility.” The Republican newspapers printed affidavits from men who declared they had overheard Hamilton or Adams or other Federalists secretly confessing their love for monarchy. The Federalists had entirely forgotten our own revolutionary ideals, charged the critics, and the fact that the French had fought by our side when we won our freedom.8

AS JOHN ADAMS STEPPED INTO THE PRESIDENCY IN 1787, HE immediately faced a foreign policy crisis. The Federalists had pushed through a treaty with England and, in response, the French began to seize US ships. They took more than three hundred—brazenly grabbing one right outside New York harbor. Whispers of war began to spread. Even former President Washington speculated on whether “the French [would] be so mad as to openly… invade these United States.”9

Adams convened a special session of Congress and rattled the rafters with a fiery speech. The president dispatched a delegation to negotiate peace with France. Some Democratic-Republicans seemed more loyal to their foreign ally than their own Federalist government. Jefferson secretly advised the French counsel how to play Adams and his negotiators (as Hamilton had done earlier, during negotiations with England). This time, the back channeling did not matter because the French foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, coolly humiliated the Americans with his demands. Adams must retract his speech, the Americans must loan the French money, and before any negotiations began, the delegation was strongly encouraged to offer Talleyrand himself a little doucer—a bribe. For the cynical Talleyrand, this was business as usual, but the stunned American negotiators rejected his ultimatums and sent an outraged dispatch describing the details back to the president.10

Worrying that his own Federalist Party would rush the country into war, Adams buried the report. “There is not more prospect of seeing a French army here as there is in heaven,” he grumbled to his secretary of war, James McHenry. When the Republicans discovered that Adams had squelched the report, they assumed he was trying to poison relations with France and blasted him. Adams backed down, published the document, and basked in the uproar that followed.11

The details were sensational, and the newspapers reprinted all the craven, money-grubbing details. The Federalist press jeered the Democratic-Republicans for admiring the French. “The recent exposure of the corruption and rapacity of the infernal republic [France],” crowed the Federalist Gazette of the United States, “has proved to [be] like the shock of some vast explosion.” The Jeffersonians were indeed shocked by the revelations. Before releasing the damning report, Adams had delicately suppressed the names of the French negotiators and simply referred to them as X, Y, and Z, and that gave the episode its rather mysterious name, the XYZ Affair.12

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Adams and his party became heroes. The roly-poly president had never been a soldier, but now he marched about the capital wearing military regalia. The Federalists swept the midterm election in 1798 and won the largest margins they would ever enjoy in both the House and the Senate. Riding high, the party overreached.

The Federalist Congress established a Navy and authorized “a provisional army” of up to twenty-two thousand soldiers. Their rivals protested. Republics like the United States were supposed to rely on citizen militias—standing armies were for emperors and kings. A foreign visitor described how, suddenly, the cities were full of soldiers “dressed in splendor.” Democratic-Republicans saw this as confirmation of the monarchial disease metastasizing in American government.13

In short, the disagreement over England and France bluntly reflected the emerging choice that Americans faced. Would the nation emulate England with its stability and harmony or France and Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité! Each alternative alarmed one of America’s factions and pushed them to organize like-minded citizens. Americans slowly began to understand that parties and politics enabled the nation to debate questions and resolve disagreements.

Future generations would dream of a bipartisan foreign policy, fearful that the nation could not afford division in the face of its enemies. The young republic was under no such illusion. Far from it—when Americans looked abroad in 1800, they projected their hopes and fears onto other nations. We will run into this theme again and again. Forget about unity at the water’s edge. Looking across the seas constantly raised partisan storms back home, stirring dreams about who we could be—or nightmares about what we were becoming.

THE ADMINISTRATION’S NEXT MOVE CAUSED A LOT MORE trouble than the soldiers dressed in splendor. In the years leading up to the election, revolutionary upheaval in Europe sent thousands of émigrés fleeing to the United States. In 1798, for example, Irish revolutionaries who escaped the gallows arrived holding deeply republican (and ferociously anti-English) views.

Federalists saw danger striding down the gangplanks. They believed the French fomented strife in a nation before striking with their military. According to the Federalist Porcupine’s Gazette, these seemingly desperate refugees entering the young republic were plotting “to excite a rebellion supported by France.” Even George Washington fretted from his retirement. “A Certain description of men in our Country… are sent among us… for the express purpose of poisoning the minds of our people and to sow dissensions among them, in order to alienate their affections from the Government.”14

President Adams was dubious about any French invasion, but he worried about the newcomers. “The continual accession of foreigners,” he wrote, “will endanger and destroy our peace, if we know not how to govern them. They will moreover corrupt our elections and tear us to pieces.” Examples of those corrupt election practices filled the Federalist press.15

For example, the Federalist Gazette of the United States reported that “a Jewish tavern owner with a very Jewish name [Israel Israel]” had been elected to the Pennsylvania Senate because “his violent attachment to French principles” appealed to Philadelphia’s radical refugees. Mr. Israel was actually an active Methodist but, no matter, the newspaper charged that this Democratic-Republican had swept into office on a wave of illegal refugee votes. Federalist authorities threw out the results and repeated the election in February 1798. This time, announced the Gazette, foreign voters would be required “to take out their certificates” and prove they had paid their taxes and were eligible to vote. Mr. Israel narrowly lost the rematch. Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans were fighting about who should vote, what values were dangerous, and—always the deepest question—who was a proper American in the first place.16

The English gave the Federalists, who so admired them, a model law to emulate. In 1793, the British Parliament passed the Aliens Act, empowering the crown’s authorities to deport French refugees at the first sign of radical politics. In 1798, the Federalist Congress came up with its own version of the policy. Three laws, known collectively as the Alien Acts, were the first controversial effort to regulate newcomers in what would prove to be an immigrant nation.17

The first of the new acts required immigrants to wait fourteen years before applying for citizenship—originally, the wait had been two years, and the Washington administration had raised it to five. Some Federalists pushed for “never”—they wanted to forbid foreigners from ever becoming Americans. Their proposal lost out, but it marks the anxiety that would repeatedly burst out from the ranks of the Federalists and their successors, the Whigs and the Republicans.

The second act—the notorious Alien Friend Act—gave the executive branch the power to hunt down aliens it considered dangerous and deport them without any judicial process. Democratic-Republican Congressman Albert Gallatin led the opposition—and for him it was personal. Pennsylvania had elected the Swiss-born Gallatin to the US Senate. Federalists had promptly removed him (on a party line vote, 14–12) because he did not meet the nine-year residency requirement for Senators specified in the Constitution. Two years later, he won election to the House, where he argued vehemently that the Constitution prevented the federal government from exercising any authority over naturalization at all. The Alien Acts, he said, were unfair, unwise, and unconstitutional.

Others offered stronger criticisms. “No man can tell what conduct will avoid suspicion,” argued congressman Edward Livingston, a Democratic-Republican from New York, in a speech to his fellow lawmakers. “No indictment; no jury; no trial; no public procedure; no statement of the accusation… no counsel for the defense; all is dark, dark, dark.” Livingston ended with his most powerful blast: if the executive branch was granted the power to deport aliens, slavers would be able to “hold… [their] species of property… [only] at the will and pleasure of the president.” The act posed a threat, not just to aliens but to the institution of slavery itself. Livingston’s argument would be repeated in countless ways. For the Democratic-Republicans and their heirs, every whiff of federal power would be scrutinized for its potential threat to the racial order.18

The focus, in 1800, was not on shutting down immigration but protecting republican institutions from the foreign born. The fear of strangers evolves from one generation to the next, and yet the essential political fact remains the same more than two centuries after the Alien Acts. Some Americans embrace immigrants and celebrate the strength and diversity they add to the nation, while others fret along with President John Adams that the strangers “will corrupt our elections and tear us to pieces.” More than two centuries after the Alien Acts, a newly elected president would barge onto the national scene and, in his very first act, ban people from Muslim nations for the alleged danger they posed to the homeland and its democratic institutions. While each era was very different, the underlying anxieties alert us to the hard, nativist streak breaking to the surface from generation to generation across American history.

THE FEDERALISTS ALSO TRIED TO QUIET THE PARTISAN din that, they were sure, encouraged the enemy. Former President Washington predicted that if the French invaded, “their operations will commence in the southern quarter,” since “they will expect, from the tenor of the debates in Congress to find more friends there.” Translation: the South is the regional base of Democratic-Republicans, who endanger the nation with their brash talk.19

The Adams administration tried to calm the turbulent politics with the ill-advised Sedition Act of 1789, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish… any false, scandalous, and malicious writing… against the government of the United States… with intent to… bring them into contempt or disrepute or to excite people against them.”

What really got under the Federalists’ skin was the rising media of the day… coruscating partisan newspapers that cheered one party and attacked the other. Newspapers like the Aurora (in Philadelphia) and the New York Argus took the Democratic-Republican side (and were targeted by the administration), while a larger network of newspapers, led by the Gazette of the United States, answered for the Federalists. The inexpensive four-page weeklies freely borrowed from one another—reprinting and embellishing, hooting and refuting. Here’s how one editor, secretly funded by Thomas Jefferson, sized up President Adams: “Judge the prattle of a president [who compounds] ignorance and ferocity, deceit and weakness.… He has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” The newspapers published charges, countercharges, rumors, insults, leaked letters, silly ballads, and official documents like the French Constitution or the XYZ dispatches. George Washington himself subscribed to ten.20

The Sedition Act only turned the carping editors into heroes—and right in time for the presidential election. But the Alien and Sedition Acts reflected something deeper than partisan calculations. Conservatives were trying to shore up a waning vision. Republics, they believed, ought to put aside self-interest and operate by consensus, honor, and deference. Today, political scientists often condemn the Federalists for violating the First Amendment and maliciously squashing their opponents’ free speech. But, from a purely political point of view, they were guilty of a graver sin. They were clinging to ideas that had grown out of date in the vibrant republic.21

In the end, the Federalists’ effort to suppress dissent backfired—editors who had been indicted under the Sedition Act reported on the proceedings with wicked glee. “The editor can steadfastly assure his reader,” wrote the Aurora’s William Duane, scribbling dispatches from his own trial, “that neither persecution nor any other peril to which bad men may expose him, can make him swerve from the cause of republicanism.”22 The entire Democratic-Republican press celebrated each brave writer who “stood… in the defense of his countrymen and his neighbors.” In all, there were seventeen trials, each pictured heroically in the opposition papers.23

If the Federalists looked back to a fading ideal, the Democrats looked forward to politics, confrontation, and an aggressive interpretation of states’ rights. Two states in particular challenged the government’s restrictions on speech. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, secretly written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively, declared the Alien and Sedition Acts in violation of the Constitution and, in the words of the Kentucky Resolution, “unauthoritative, void, and of no force.” Madison’s language in Virginia was more cautious—he merely opposed the federal act rather than declaring it void. When the House of Burgesses debated the Virginia Resolution, it quickly became clear that the delegates were primarily concerned with safeguarding the institution of slavery. They decided that an overreaching national government posed the gravest threat of all. It was up to the states, they agreed, to protect slavery against federal power. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions enacted a model for standing up to the feds that guided the states’ rights position during the slavery debate that rose in the decades ahead.24

The Sedition Act seemed, until recently, like the dusty past. But, rising attacks on the media—culminating in yelps of “fake news”—blew the dust right off that history. Adams and the Federalists, riding their brief thermal of wartime popularity, enacted their violations of free speech and due process. They were only the first in a long line. Their blundering efforts at what we would call censorship sends a warning message, blinking down the years to the perilous present.25

PERHAPS NO EVENT IN THE 1790S SHOOK THE UNITED States quite like the revolution in Haiti—the only successful slave uprising that ended in the founding of a new state ruled by former slaves. The Haitian Revolution landed directly in the 1800 presidential campaign because, a year before the vote, the Adams administration did something unusually bold. It recognized the rebels.

Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was called at the time, was a lucrative French colony where slavery had been exceptionally cruel—and very profitable. Africans routinely ran for freedom, collecting into small bands in the brush. Owners staged slave hunts and punished runaways by castrating them or burning them alive—violent spectacles designed to terrify the rest of the population into submission. Officials back in France occasionally tried to restrain the vicious excesses, but they were largely ignored on the island.


  • "James A. Morone's Republic of Wrath offers a fresh theory to an already sizable pile of explanations for the dismal state of our politics."—New York Times
  • "Morone marshals a vast amount of information into a brisk, accessible narrative, and draws illuminating contrasts between past and present.... This nuanced and richly detailed account offers essential perspective ahead of the 2020 election."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A brilliant exposé of the uglier undercurrents of American political history."—Kirkus
  • "With deep learning, uncommon historical range, and a vibrant analytical voice, James Morone displays how contentious party divisions in the United States have long been charged by outrage about race, immigration, and gender. What is new, his Republic of Wrath persuasively explains, is how political barriers that divide configurations of passion about identity presently have become ever more absolute."—Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
  • "James Morone has written a grand, eloquent, and consistently insightful narrative of the conflicts over race and immigration that have always been central to politics and governance in the United States. Republic of Wrath is an essential book for anyone who wants to understand the deepest and darkest sources of our partisan discontents."—Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History
  • "Republic of Wrath is both a valuable historical survey and an important intervention at a pregnant political moment. Both our historical memories and our current debates will benefit from the lessons it teaches."—Eric Alterman, author of Lying in State
  • "I am among many who rely on Jim Morone to offer insightful and provocative perspectives on our politics and history by way of pushing us to be better -- more open to each other, more democratic in our practice, more honest about our problems. In Republic of Wrath, he does it again with great candor about our enduring struggles over racial injustice and immigration. And his solution to the problems of democracy is real democracy in which everyone can vote without obstruction under fair rules -- and in which partisans who don't pretend to be anti-partisan but rather embrace their principles and 'take them to the voters.' A refreshing take on the way forward."—E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country
  • "Want to know why partisan tribalism has gotten so bad, and why the Republican Party, in particular, has embraced division and attacked democracy? Read Republic of Wrath. Combining history and political science within a gripping narrative, James Morone shows how enduring cleavages -- black vs. white, native vs. immigrant -- have become dangerously revivified in the present era."—Jacob S. Hacker, coauthor of Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality

On Sale
Sep 8, 2020
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

James A. Morone

About the Author

James A. Morone is the John Hazen White professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. He is author of two New York Times notable books and the award-winning Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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