Got your attention? Here's what set me off on this beautiful 4th of July holiday...everybody trying to appropriate our founding fathers and mothers for their own purposes...Prove your point with logic, facts, and reason or get off the stage. (See my special offer at the end.)
What folks say: Politics are more divisive than ever...there was a time when we used to disagree without being disagreeable...viciousness in opposing parties is something new...let's bring back civility...
Folks, here's the fact...we have never been a country of sedate, soothing debate. Our founding fathers and mothers were brilliant and courageous but when it came to politics, it was no holds barred. The point was (as it still is) to prevail. They didn't cuss as much, but they were not above sexual innuendo, lying, or character assassination when it came to political opponents.
Ron Chernow (author of the excellent biography, Alexander Hamilton) wrote a delightful article in the Wall Street Journal. It starts,
Americans lament the partisan venom of today's politics, but for sheer verbal savagery, the country's founders were in a league of their own.
Chernow points out, "Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the founders were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence." They didn't stop at criticizing one another’s politics; their barbs were often personal.
John Adams called Hamilton the "bastard son of a Scotch peddler," while James Callender exposed Hamilton's affair with his friend’s wife. Newspaper man Samuel Adams, seen as a great patriot in his own day and ours, was not above the fray. "Truth was his first victim...To radicalize the populace Adams had adopted a total disregard for it. In his writings he employed slanderous lies, unvarnished propaganda, and rabble-rousing rhetoric. He whipped the people of Massachusetts and many other colonies into an anti-British fury."
The favored form of political trash talk was the pamphlet and newspaper column, written under classical Roman pseudonyms or derived from clever puns. They hammered away at one another with great relish and no restraints. They would have embraced Tweeting and Blogging as great inventions and set out with glee to rip one another apart.
Thomas Jefferson, whose stirring prose in the Declaration of Independence animates this 4th of July and embodies our most noble ideals, shrunk from doing his own dirty work. As the formation of our first parties heated up, (Hamilton headed the Federalists and Jefferson, the Republicans) he called on his buddy, Jemmy Madison, "'For God's sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him (Hamilton) to pieces in the face of the public.' When Madison rose to the challenge, he sneered in print that the only people who could read Hamilton's essays with pleasure were 'foreigners and degenerate citizens among us.'" Jefferson who applauded Callender's attacks on Hamilton was not so enthusiastic when Callender turned on him exposing his affair with "dusky Sally," his slave and half-sister of his deceased wife. (quote from Chernow)
In the records of debates in the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying conventions, the rhetoric escalates, with wild accusations flying that might make some of our media mavens of mayhem blush. Remember, this was an era when people would be called to the "field of honor" (challenged to a duel) for an implied slight. Calling someone a liar to his face was such a justification. Listen to this exchange during the debate over the power of large states and small. Gunning Bedford, a "fat, tempestuous delegated from Delaware" drags his bulk in front of the delegates and in a frenzied harangue spits out, "I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?...Is it come to this, then, that the sword must decide this controversy, and the horrors of war must be added to the rest of our misfortunes?..Sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand."
Madison, one of the most brilliant debaters and politicians of the era, summed it up, "If men were angles, no government would be necessary." The debates roiling the late 18th and early 19th century were fierce. Federalists and Republicans accused one another of treason. They could turn on former allies over night. Madison and Hamilton engineered the Constitution Convention and co-authored the Federalist Papers (with contributions from John Jay) in its defense. Madison pushed Hamilton's financial reforms through Congress. (He twisted enough arms behind the scenes to secure passage so he could argue and vote against it in public to maintain his constituents back home. Sound familiar yet?) After the new parties formed, Madison assailed his former ally, never missing a chance to paint him in ignoble terms.
I don't like the partisan bickering, shouting, and backbiting. AND I admire Hamilton, Jefferson, Adam, Madison, and the framers and founders. My gripe is about our lack of historical knowledge, our tendency to make stuff up, and the habit of partisans of every stripe to lie to defend their cause. Let's face the brutal facts -- ones we like and ones we don't -- and debate with a goal of coming to consensus or close to it.
That was Washington's great desire. He truly hated the partisan wrangling, the unbridled press, and the inability of people to rise above their passions. Though he occasionally fell victim to his own monumental temper, mostly he was that wise, impartial leader we all admire. So on this wonderful 4th of July, while we're barbecuing, watching fireworks, or hitting the mall, let’s ask ourselves this: Am I following along in our country's long tradition of bashing and demonizing those with whom I disagree, or am I trying to follow Washington's advice and have "restraint in tongue and pen?" If you are going to evoke the founders and framers, read some real history and get it right!
Want to know more about the founders and framers and how we can apply their positive and negative lessons today? CLICK HERE: Half off – 4th of July sale – Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Available ONLY on this HIDDEN web page. This is a limited offer so get your copy today. Rather buy it on Amazon (and miss out on this offer?)
® Rebecca Staton-Reinstein (all quotes fully cited in Conventional Wisdom except one about Sam Adams from Eric Burn’s Infamous Scribblers.