“The ruling President, acting for what he supposed to be the best interests of the country, by one of his last acts of power, deliberately intended to perpetuate the principles of his administration, placed at the head of the judiciary, for life, a man as obnoxious to Jefferson as the bitterest New England Calvinist could have been; for he belonged to that class of conservative Virginians whose devotion to President Washington, and whose education in the common law, caused them to hold Jefferson and his theories in antipathy. The new President and his two Secretaries were political philanthropists, bent on restricting the power of the national government in the interests of human liberty. The Chief Justice, a man who in grasp of mind and steadiness of purpose had no superior, perhaps no equal, was bent on enlarging the powers of government in the interests of justice and nationality. As they stood face to face on this threshold of their power, each could foresee that the context between them would end only with life.”

- Henry Adams, A History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson

In his brilliant history, Adams here recounts his great grandfather John Adams’ final act of either defiance or service to his country – depending on how you want to look at it. He also recalls perhaps one of the most significant images in the history of the United States: Thomas Jefferson being sworn in as President by his arch nemesis John Marshall. It’s important today for a number of reasons.

People now often think of the founding generation as a united group of enlightened thinkers who, like God himself, created a country in their own likeness. While the revolutionary period cemented an extraordinary bond of unity and common purpose amongst that generation, the Constitutional era and the early governance of the country embedded deep and lasting differences. Jefferson taking the oath before Marshall is as good a snapshot as any of the early tradition of what politicians today love to call partisanship.

Every time they don’t get their way, modern politicians on both sides of the aisle say the same thing: “Stop the partisan bickering, the people are being hurt because of toxic politics, the great work of this country is being undermined by petty politics…” The founders said the same thing once they actually started governing. Jefferson suggested Washington was losing his mind late in his presidency, Adams completely ceased talking to Jefferson for many years over criticism of his presidency, the federalists threw Republicans (Jeffersonian) in jail for writing negative opinions of the Adams administration, Madison accused Hamilton and the Federalists of wanting to put a king in the place of the presidency, and hell nobody liked Aaron Burr. His partisan operating to promote his own personal career was most distasteful to most of the founders who preferred to pretend they weren’t acting in their own self interest. Burr was like a harbinger of the future political class of America.

All of them were actually acting in their own self interest. The reality has been that our system of Constitutional government has worked well for so long precisely because of those politics. I’ve repeated it a thousand times in this space: efficient government is tyranny. Give me petty politics, stalled legislation, local grandstanding and partisan roadblocks all day. All this arguing and infighting is what keeps us from living completely under the yoke of a vigorous federal tyranny. Here’s hoping November brings us a divided Congress even weaker and less capable of action than the fools in office now.