From the WSJ Jason Willick interviews historian Gordon Wood, Polarization Is an Old American Story;
Jefferson’s view was partly self-serving. “The leadership of the Republican Party, which is the popular party, is Southern slaveholders,” Mr. Wood says. “They don’t fear the people,” because the gentry-aristocracy effectively controlled electoral outcomes. Jefferson was akin to today’s “limousine liberal” in that he was insulated from the policies he promoted. (Eventually, his ideas would prove potent in arguing against slavery.) Meanwhile, Adams’s Federalists “are coming from New England, where you have far more egalitarian societies, far more democratic societies,” he says. “But for that very reason, the leaders are more scared of populism, of democracy.”
That may make Adams sound like a member of today’s “establishment.” Yet some of his other ideas would be more amenable to populists like Donald Trump. Adams said to Jefferson, in Mr. Wood’s paraphrase: “You fear the ‘one’ of monarch, I fear the ‘few,’ meaning the aristocrats.” Adams argued that domination by oligarchs was a grave threat to liberty. “It’s his way of justifying the strong executive who will act as a check on the few,” Mr. Wood says. Adams wanted the executive to have some of the powers of the Crown.
That was anathema to Jefferson, whose life mission was “the elimination of monarchy, and all that it implies, which is hereditary rule, hierarchy and corruption.” He saw around him “a world of privilege in which ordinary people are abused. . . . From our point of view, he’s very sympathetic because he’s destroying that world,” Mr. Wood says.
The Federalists feared that Jefferson’s leveling vision would prove destructive to mediating institutions. Mr. Wood cites a recent book by political scientist Patrick Deneen, “Why Liberalism Failed,” which argues that the West’s commitment to individual autonomy—in both markets and culture—has undermined communal connections, leaving people lonely and isolated. That’s what the Federalists feared—“this awful kind of world, where the individual is alone and without any kind of connections with anyone.”
Adams feared the aristocrats (the elite). Jefferson feared the monarchs. Each thought the other an existential threat. Evan after the constitution was signed we were unclear what kind of government we had and what kind we wanted. We have been trying to complete the job every since.