The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The More Things Change....

Today’s media commentators like to decry political polarization and incivility in the United States. It’s become a well-worn cliché: Why can’t we all just get along? Some will even claim that this polarization is worse now than ever before. (Of course, we only have to go back 150 years to find Americans literally at war with other Americans, but let’s put that aside for the moment.) I’d like to present, as evidence for the defense, a letter written in 1813, when this nation was still in its infancy. The letter forms part of the Henry P. Binney family papers at the MHS.

In mid-1813, Benjamin Homans (1765-1823) worked as chief clerk of the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. His friend and colleague Amos Binney (1778-1833) was the Navy Agent at Boston. The United States was a year into the War of 1812, and Boston was a hotbed of dissent. New England Federalists and merchants vehemently opposed “Mr. Madison's War, largely because of their reliance on trade with England. Binney lived and worked in the belly of the beast as an agent for the federal government, and Homans sympathized. He wrote to Binney on 23 June 1813:

You may be very sure, that I am no stranger to the active operation of evil spirits in Boston, party spirit, selfish spirit, envious spirit, proud spirit, family spirit, mean dirty spirit, assassin spirit, infernal spirit, tory spirit, royal english spirit, pseudo patriot spirit, hypocritical sanctity spirit, professional spirit, Jew spirit & Turk spirit. […] I conceive that every good quality, every moral virtue, and every social principle to be rapidly depreciating in Boston, and that it is at this day the vilest and most profligate spot on Earth, and for myself, my heirs & successors, I would prefer a residence in Algiers, Siberia or Botany Bay, than to live within one hundred miles of the atmosphere tainted by the noxious breath of Ben Russell and the Junto and their satellites.

Wow! Homans certainly didn’t mince words. A little bit of context: Benjamin Russell (1761-1845) was the editor of Boston’s hugely popular and staunchly Federalist Columbian Centinel. He had editorialized against Thomas Jefferson and now regularly attacked his successor James Madison. The “Essex Junto” was a group of hardline New England Federalists, so-called because many of its original members hailed from Essex County, Mass.

It would be difficult to overstate the Junto’s opposition to the Madison administration and the Democratic-Republicans. Governors of Federalist states refused to send their militias to join the war effort. There was even talk of secession. Just before Homans wrote this letter, John Lowell (1769-1840), a prominent member of the movement, published a pamphlet entitled Thoughts in a Series of Letters, in Answer to a Question Respecting the Division of the States. In this pamphlet, Lowell argued that the Louisiana Purchase had been an unconstitutional overreach by Jefferson and a violation of the original compact of the thirteen colonies. In truth, the annexation of all that new territory meant a shift in the balance of power and a dilution of the political and economic influence of the North. Lowell thought the original colonies should expel the western territories from the Union. Russell at the Columbian Centinel agreed.

In his letter, Homans advised Binney to stay strong and ignore the haters:

There is but one course a man can take, and that is to fix the pole star in his mind and steer by his own Compass, without attraction deviation or variation; the privilege of finding fault gives employment to the idle and food to the envious and vicious, and Saint John or Angel Gabriel could not go from the Town House to the head of Long Wharf without having some fault found with them, and even some would be self-righteous enough to cast a stone; in my opinion, no event in the progress of human affairs will ever restore Boston, to a state of social happiness civil liberty & personal independence. Since the Essex Junto took possession of it, every unclean Beast has found an asylum there. 

Homans also referred to the capture of the U.S.S. Chesapeake just three weeks before and took one more swipe at Madison’s domestic adversaries: “We have a desperate, enraged and brutal Enemy to deal with. And their friends & advocates are ten times worse and deserve ten times greater damnation.” Though he didn’t use the word, there’s little doubt that he considered these men traitors. In fact, some people called them “Blue Light Federalists” because they were alleged to use blue signal lights to communicate with British ships from the harbor.

 For better or worse, bitter partisanship and vitriolic attacks have been a part of our political landscape from the beginning. When Homans’ letter was written, the United States was just 37 years old, and acrimonious debates were already raging about vital issues: territorial expansion, states’ rights, international alliances, and regional conflicts between the mercantile North and the agrarian South.

 With only superficial changes, Homans’ words might have been spoken by any number of today’s political commentators. And if Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel were an online publication, it’s easy to imagine what the comments sections would look like!


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 8:00 AM