That Time Town-Hall Revolts Helped Drive Two-Thirds of Congress Out of Office

Looking for lessons in an earlier explosion


Charles M. Schulz

Once there was an election when about two-thirds of Congress either retired or were defeated. This massive turnover was preceded by a wave of raucous town-hall meetings where hundreds of angry constituents "gathered to draft denunciatory resolutions, deliver angry speeches and, in some cases, stage mock court proceedings against their local House members."

The year was 1816. And if you'd like to hear more about what happened, you're in luck: Joshua Zeitz has written an engaging account of that ballot-box rebellion over at Politico, with a eye trained on how those old town-hall revolts resemble the Tea Party protests of the early Obama years and their anti-Trump counterparts of today. If you grew up thinking of the years after the War of 1812 as a sedate "era of good feelings," Zeitz's story may come as a surprise.

The immediate impetus for the protests of 1816 was the Compensation Act, a bipartisan bill to increase congressional pay. But the broader force at work, Zeitz argues, was a gradual shift away from the idea of explicit elite rule. More Americans were getting the right to vote, in part because new states were competing with old states for citizens. The ruling class was increasingly seen as a faction with its own interests, rather than as the disinterested defenders of the public good. And upstream from politics, a spirit of cultural leveling was overturning the old spirit of deference:

If elites were not the guardians of a fictitious public good, equally, they had no lock on truth or fact. In parallel with the democratization of politics and government, over the first half of the 19th century, professions like the law, medicine and ministry underwent a similar, dramatic democratization, with states loosening educational and licensing requirements. Not everyone approved of these developments. A college president in Pennsylvania anticipated with worry book titles like, "Every Man his own Lawyer," "Every Man his own Clergyman and Confessor," or "Every Man his own physician."

"Truth," grumbled a concerned Federalist, "has but one side and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth."…Another opponent of this new hyper-democratic, relativist spirit warned against a world in which "the unalienable right of private judgment involves the liberty of thinking as we please on every subject."

Two centuries later, we're hearing the same elite anxieties.

Zeitz notes that the Jeffersonians tended to stoke that spirit of revolt. He also notes that the losses of 1816 hit Jeffersonian as well as Federalist incumbents. With that in mind, and with the Tea Party rebellion in the rear-view mirror, he ends his essay with this thought:

Now [the Republican Party] controls every branch of government. They are the elite. And they may soon find, like members of Congress 201 years ago, that the forces of democratic populism are hard to contain, indiscriminate in whom they target and unforgiving of powerful people when they believe that those powerful people have betrayed them.

Read the whole thing here. Related: "Trump Now Faces the Same Public Distrust That Propelled Him Into Office." Also related: "A Short History of Libertarian Moments."