Oh my, all that yelling and venom and gloating and ridicule, last week from the Republican convention, soon to be emulated, no doubt, when the Demos convene in Philadelphia starting today. (Though we can only pray their denunciations of the opposing candidate will stop short of calling for his execution or banishment to the gulag or, worse yet, to an everlasting intimate relationship with Lucifer, the very Devil himself, in the fires of Hell. That latter image begs the continuing question that served as a subtext throughout the presidential primary season: Is Ben Carson even a little bit sane?)
I tell you, never have we endured such invective, such boiling anger, such a deep and divisive partisan split between opposing factions of our nation.
Except for that nasty business that began at Ft. Sumter 165 years ago, that is. Turned out to be quite a bit more than the kerfuffle that various political leading lights and society matrons expected it to be when they traipsed over the hills with their picnic baskets and parasols to get front row seats on the early Battle of Bull Run.
Behind it lies a serious question: Is the tone and basic civility level of our contemporary politics as troubling and ominous for our democracy as many of us have been fearful that it is?
That was a highly divisive era indeed, but thankfully, we can recall the peace and brotherhood reflected by our Founding Fathers, whom we see bathed in soft light and inspired by soaring rhetoric, singing eloquent harmonies while arm-in-arm with their visionary comrades whom they so enjoyed having over for tea and crumpets and elevated conversation in the waning afternoon, all God-fearing and humble and caring for one another down to their very bones.
Except for the fact that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, the sitting vice president and former treasury secretary, hated each other so much over so many years that they finally decided to settle matters in 1804 with a gentlemanly duel, at which Burr shot Hamilton dead.
Bad as that was for Hamilton, it should not go unnoted that Burr lived another 32 years in relative ignominy, accused of murder in New York and having to flee to the immunity of Washington, D.C. to serve out his remaining term.
The history books do not mention whether his rival Federalists, the party of Hamilton, ever launched into merry chants of “Lock him up!” at their next convention, but we do know that he was largely shunned by a good part of the political establishment, and just three years after killing Hamilton he was suspected and put on trial for the treasonous activity of trying to steal New Orleans from the United States with the help of a few cronies. (He got off on a technicality.)
Hamilton, meanwhile, got himself on the $10 bill and into a best-selling musical two centuries later. Who says losers don’t prosper?
And then there was the revered John Adams, our second president, whip-smart, internationalist, cultured, but who said of his equally accomplished Revolutionary War compatriot Thomas Jefferson:
“His soul is poisoned with ambition.”
Adams had an even lower opinion of Hamilton:
“That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler! His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions, which he couldn’t find enough whores to absorb!”
Well! That makes Donald Trump’s derisive comments about “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” sound rather tame and unliterary in comparison, doesn’t it?
Trump did make a crude reference to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and “blood coming out of her wherever” after she saw fit to pose a few hard questions to him in the first Republican debate, but can you even begin to imagine him using the phrase “superabundance of secretions?”
In between the Founders’ various enmities and the tragedy of an actual civil war, there was President Andrew Jackson going toe-to-toe in the 1824 presidential election (at least rhetorically; no fight-to-the-death duels) with two longtime nemeses: John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Jackson had bested Adams, Clay, and Treasury Secretary William Crawford in both the electoral and popular vote, but his 99 electoral votes were 32 short of a majority, so the 12th Amendment kicked in for the first and only time in American history, with the vote thrown to the House of Representatives.
That’s when Adams and Clay allegedly teamed up in what Jackson supporters called the “Corrupt Bargain” to elect Adams in exchange for him naming Clay secretary of state, an office that was considered at the time an almost sure route to the presidency.
Though never proven to be a quid pro quo historically, the situation had an odor that didn’t sit well with Jackson and his supporters, who stewed in their resentments and bided their time until they got their revenge in 1828, when Jackson easily beat Adams in a two-way race to become the first president not from either Massachusetts or Virginia.
Later, the always pugnacious war hero Jackson said:
“I have only two regrets: I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.”
(Calhoun was Jackson’s own vice president, but he had anonymously penned “The South Carolina Exposition,” which suggested that the Tariff of 1828, which had benefitted northern states at the expense of the south, was unconstitutional and fit to be” nullified,” with the specter of South Carolina secession over the matter looming large and active. Jackson was incensed and sent an army to South Carolina as a kind of warning shot, before the matter was settled in a compromise Tariff of 1832. But it only added to his loathing of Clay, who had worked with Calhoun and others in the whole complicated plot.)
Behind the pure fun of the Founders’ rhetoric and the Jacksonian-Adams-Clay shenanigans—at least when viewed in the rearview mirror of history—lies a serious question: Is the tone and basic civility level of our contemporary politics as troubling and ominous for our democracy as many of us have been fearful that it is?
It is almost an article of faith these days that we are at each other’s throats in the body politic as never before, that no one listens, no one cooperates, every small matter is a life-and-death struggle for the true soul of democracy. Compromise is a bad word and both sides across the ideological divide claim the other is impossible to deal with and out of step with our history and the needs and desires of our people.
But exactly when hasn’t that been the case? When was this kumbaya period in American history when opposing sides refrained from overheated invective and dire warnings of civilization’s demise if the opposition party assumes power?
Even on as seemingly cut-and-dried a matter as the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, there was significant opposition not only from the usual extreme pacifists and fascist ideologues on the country’s fringe, but from Congress, too, which pushed through a series of “Neutrality Acts” that effectively prevented U.S. response to the growing menace of Germany and Japan, tying an increasingly concerned Franklin Roosevelt’s hands. Critics from the right called him a “warmonger,” while he was accused from the left of being a “fascist dictator.” It took Pearl Harbor for this powerful isolationist tendency to finally give way.
The truth is that there has never been less than nearly full-on jousts and seething, personally inflected arguments through the course of American political history. We are a nation founded upon revolution, when strong and highly opinionated personalities emerged from among the colonists, got a whiff of power, and decided not only that they wanted more, but that they would fight to the death, if need be, to secure it. And they were not about to be cowed by opposition to their opinions from within their own ranks, which was substantial, rancorous, and often full of personal invective and agendas.
Conservatives in particular tend to see the Founders in a rosy, sentimental glow, bathed in light from a Golden Age of Wisdom, selfless statesmanship, and God-fearing innocence. But if the Founders were wise about anything, it was about the depth and endurance of human weakness, their own very much included.
These were highly flawed and many times venal men (and only men, we should not fail to mention), driven partly by lofty ideals and partly by personal neuroses, resentments, jealousies, and raw animal desire, all of which they struggled (if they struggled at all) to keep in check, just like every other human being who lived before or has come along since.
Our revered Thomas Jefferson, eloquent writer, lofty philosopher and amateur theologian: also slaveholder and very likely father to six children of his slave concubine, Sally Hemings. Assertions of his paternity were circulated widely in the press by opposition Federalists during his presidency, and sixth president John Quincy Adams called him “a slur upon the moral government of the world.”
And today we have to settle for insults like “Crooked Hillary?”
How fun is that compared to the barbs cited above from both John and his son John Quincy Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt observing that President William McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”?
Among Donald Trump’s many failings would appear to be a profound lack of imagination and literary flair. I’m not sure that’s a forgivable sin in the historically colorful, rough-and-tumble world of American politics.
A bit of background from the author/creator and some performance clips from “Hamilton,” courtesy of the PBS News Hour…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Alexander Hamilton photo near top of page taken from a $10 bill by Kentucky resident Don Sniegowski, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sniegowski/
U.S. Capitol Building photo by Kevin Burkett, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinwburkett/
Sketch of black and white figures across table by Adam Sporka, Prague, Czech Republic,some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_sporka/
Great Smoky Mountains photo by John Britt, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/coloneljohnbritt/