The ratification of a new Constitution in 1788 appeared to resolve the most daunting political controversies facing the young nation. Such conjecture proved short-lived, however, as members of Congress soon battled with the Washington administration over banking and financial proposals put forward by the secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
The intensity of this political conflict alarmed George Washington, who cautioned in his Farewell Address against the establishment of political parties. "It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection."
But James Madison, perhaps the most thoughtful of the Founding Fathers, argued that political "parties are unavoidable" in a democratic society. "A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them," he wrote. "The great object should be to combat the evil: By establishing a political equality among all" and "By making one party a check on the other."
It is hard to disagree with Madison on the importance of parties, but they have not always functioned as Madison might have wished.
This was particularly true in Florida and the South in the aftermath of Reconstruction, when both took a path that neither Madison nor the other Founding Fathers anticipated.
As today's debate over the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments reminds us, the South's veneration of its antebellum culture and racial separation propelled the region in a different direction politically from the rest of the nation.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Florida and the South fumed over the policies imposed on them by the Republican-dominated Congress and carpetbag state governments. As soon as the South felt it no longer had to fear military retaliation by the North, the region embraced a states-rights Democratic Party.
That party would dominate the region well into the 20th century, and to such an extent that very few Southern politicians identified themselves as Republicans.
By contrast, Democratic contests were often inundated with candidates, who saw the party as the only viable path to political office. The Florida governor's race in 1936, for example, had 14 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, and 10 Democrats sought the party's gubernatorial nomination as recently as 1960.
One-party politics profoundly limited political debate in the state and region for much of the 90-year period from 1877 to 1967. Discussion about segregation was off limits and so were proposals that sought to modernize the region, especially if they threatened to change the South in any fundamental way.
In the post-World War II era, as Florida's population soared, rural legislators steadfastly blocked any reapportionment of the state Legislature for fear it would lose political control of the state. They worried particularly about a state government that might turn its back on their culture and racial heritage.
An equitable reapportionment only occurred in Florida and the South when the U.S. Supreme Court mandated it. And racial reform ensued only after massive civil rights protests and the actions of the federal government and federal courts.
These changes led initially to a robust two-party system in Florida in the 1970s and 1980s, with Republicans vying against Democrats for state offices at all levels and offering voters a conservative platform that differed significantly from that proposed by such progressive Democratic governors as Reubin Askew and Bob Graham.
This era did not last long, however. By the 1990s, Republicans had taken firm control of state politics and utilized their control of the Legislature to apportion the Senate and House in their favor. Although Democrats had a majority of registered voters (and continue to do so), Republicans were able to isolate them into defined districts to limit their numbers.
The result has led to a political environment that is remarkably similar to that which occurred before World War II when Democrats dominated the state and were able to restrict public discourse to issues that interested the party.
Today, Republicans control the political agenda and the dialogue, effectively denying voters the opportunity to hear the full expression of ideas and proposals for addressing state needs. This has been particularly damaging in Florida, where so many residents are from somewhere else and where information and debate are essential to ensure an informed and empowered electorate.
Madison's friend and ally Thomas Jefferson counseled Americans that we must "educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
David R. Colburn, an historian at the University of Florida and author of "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans," can be reached at email@example.com. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.