All Classical Radio James Depreist

Hatfield Lecture: H.W. Brands on the ‘brawling birth of American politics’

Speaking on his new book "Founding Partisans" and the long history of a sharply divided American politics, the historian gives a spirited wrapup to this year's Hatfield series.


Historian H.W. Brands and his book, “Founding Partisans.”

In a spirited presentation on Tuesday, May 7, H.W. Brands presented his new book Founding Partisans in the final address of the Oregon Historical Society‘s 2024 Mark O. Hatfield Lecture Series at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Brands is the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at Austin and gave the audience a good understanding of the founding of the Constitution through the letters of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

According to Brands, Hamilton and Madison wanted to overthrow the Articles of Confederation and write a new Constitution. They decided the only way they could do it was by stealth. As the structure for a form of government, the Articles of Confederation began in 1777 and was ratified in 1781. For Hamilton and Madison, the problem with this form of central government was that it was weak and the states, not Congress, had the power to tax; Congress could not draft soldiers or regulate trade, and did not have an executive or judicial branch.

The biggest problem in their minds, though, was that the Articles of Confederation could not be amended. Hamilton and Madison decided to call a meeting of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Once the delegates arrived at the statehouse in May 1787, Hamilton and Madison announced they would tear up the Articles of Confederation and replace it with something new.

Their objective was to write a completely new constitution. They locked the doors to the statehouse and swore everyone to secrecy. At the beginning, no one knew exactly what to expect at the convention. Brands said that what was occurring was the overthrow of the government of the United States. He notes that the Articles of Confederation did not have much legitimacy in the eyes of many. 

In addition, Brands noted that Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate at the Philadelphia convention, gave Hamilton and Madison some advice. Franklin advised them to understand that the new American government needed to operate from the bottom up rather than the top down. He added that many European countries which had kings or czars operated from the top down. 

As Brands mentioned, the United States needed to be a font of political authority and reflect the character and behavior of its people. He stated that Franklin told Hamilton and Madison the government had everything to do with the civic virtue of the people. They needed to have the willingness to place the community’s interests above their own personal interests.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Franklin and the other members of the convention believed that if the American people were not virtuous, the system would descend into a dictatorship and anarchy. Hamilton and Madison were successful in overthrowing the existing government of the United States, and, according to Brands, both wrote the new constitution and are now recognized as the “Framers of the Constitution.” Both Hamilton and Madison were in favor of more government rather than less government.

Brands noted that the new constitution gave the federal government a lot more power than the Articles of Confederation. The Federalists were in favor of more government (and the new constitution) and the Anti-Federalists were in favor of less government.

Brands holds that partisanship has always been with us. He mentioned that the rise of the two-party system is good because Americans enjoy finding like-minded people to be in the same political party. Speaking of the history of partisanship in the United States, he noted: “We are bitterly divided today because we are evenly divided on the important issues. In the 1930s, Americans argued over Social Security, and in the 1960s we argued over health care and Medicare.”

Brands spent a lot of time applying the themes in Founding Partisans to modern political and social conditions. He believes the creation of political parties was a slow evolution for the United States. Both Hamilton and Madison came to the same conclusion within two years of the convention, that the rise of political parties was inevitable and needed to be supported. He believes that the advent of two political parties has always been in our history and always will. 

In addition, Brands drew a parallel to the South, which was associated with the Democratic Party from 1860 to the 1970s. Over time the Democratic Party became associated with the Civil Rights movement ,which resulted in Southerners migrating to the Republican Party. Prior to that, Brands noted that bi-partisan support resulted in the passage of Medicare and Social Security. He stated that beginning in the 1970s the most liberal Republicans became more conservative than the most conservative Democrats today.

Brands’ presentation discussed the idea of nullification, which means that states will not enforce laws they do not like. He noted that just as nullification was an important issue during colonial times, it is with us today as well, citing the federal governments’ laws against marijuana even though many states have legalized the drug.

Brands believes that the Supreme Court is partisan and has changed since the 1980s with the rejection of President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. According to Brands, the Supreme Court should have eighteen-year staggered terms for the justices.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

Brands’ presentation could have been enhanced with an in-depth discussion of some key topics that are mentioned in his book, such as Jefferson’s role as president, Adams’ and Jefferson’s professional relationship, and the roots of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Founding Partisans is a very fine book that portrays the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution and the issues confronting them, and is a timely read for anyone interested in American history and civics.

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history:Historical Photos of Oregon(2010),John Adams(2011),George Flavel(2012) andGlenn Jackson(2014).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

PCS Clyde’s
MYS Oregon to Iberia
Profile Theatre Orange Sky
Mt Tabor Art Walk
OCCA Monthly
PNCA MFA Exhibition
Kalakendra May 18
NW Dance Project
Bonnie Bronson Fellow Wendy Red Star
Maryhill Museum of Art
PAM 12 Month
Pacific Maritime HC Prosperity
PSU College of the Arts
Oregon Cultural Trust
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.