Sunday, January 15, 2012
The Gratz Family: Federalists
Rebecca Gratz, born in 1781, grew up with the American political system. However, she much preferred the Constitution and its ideals to the party politics which developed in its wake.
By the time Rebecca was twelve (in 1793), the first American political parties were taking shape around two founding fathers with conflicting visions of the new nation. Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, saw an America which could and should take its place beside the European powers. To that end, he supported a national bank to help regulate credit, a navy to protect American shipping and a strong central government to oversee the country's development into a great nation. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, envisioned America as a wholly new entity, a nation made up of farmers and townsmen, without the large cities, banks, military and centralized government which he saw as sources of corruption. The Gratz family, like the rest of the American mercantile class, most large landowners throughout the country and virtually all of New England, was squarely in the ranks of Hamilton's Federalists. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (whom I refer to as Democrats because that is what the Gratz's called them and because theirs was a forerunner of the modern Democratic Party) included the Virginia planters as well as farmers and much of the urban population outside New England.
During the presidential election of 1800, the Gratz's supported Federalist John Adams. The only family member who did not was Rebecca's brother-in-law Reuben Etting in Baltimore. His support for Jefferson was rewarded after the election when the new president made him United States marshal for Maryland, the first federal appointment for an American Jew.
The rest of the family was not happy. Sarah, Rebecca's older sister who was visiting with her sister and brother-in-law in Baltimore during the campaign season, spent evenings in "argumentation" with Reuben, a pastime they both seemed to enjoy. But once the results were in, Sarah expressed her dejection to 19-year-old Rebecca: "Really the triumph of the Democrats makes me feel sad. In this State as well as in ours, they are successful. Shame. Shame. I would not show Reuben your letters for the world" [my italics].
It seems clear from Sarah's comment that Rebecca was quite a partisan herself. Yet her youthful enthusiasm did not last. A few months later, her friend Maria Fenno, railing against Thomas Jefferson (probably because of his heterodox religious views), wrote, "I cannot get reconciled, little as I am a politician, to such a president....You will laugh at me [my italics], I suppose, but I know your feelings are something like mine." Whatever party fervor Rebecca had evinced during the campaign, Maria suspected that her friend had already grown skeptical of the partisan stance.
What might have caused Rebecca to have turned away from party fervor? Perhaps the change had something to do with the political press of the time.
To be continued.
(Sarah's letter about "argumentation" and Maria's letter are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Sarah's post-election comments are from a letter in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society.)