Monday, July 7, 2008

Who is closer to Jefferson, Obama or McCain?

A friend asked me this question: Who is closer to Thomas Jefferson, Obama or McCain?
A loaded question because I didn't want to favor one candidate or the other publicly.

But the question set me thinking.
Obama certainly has Jefferson's gift of language and eloquence. He shares his cool demeanor and laid-back elegance.

McCain has many positions that are closer to Jefferson such as smaller government and lower taxes. Jefferson hated to give speeches and preferred more intimate settings for discourse much like McCain.

On the other hand, if Jefferson were able to overcome his prejudices, he might enjoy sitting with Obama on his mountain top at Montecello discussing philosophy and ideas. If McCain were at that dinner party, they might swap war stories and Jefferson would recount his narrow escape from the British when they were in hot pursuit.

Of course ahistorical speculation is always fun...
But thinking about Jefferson and his ideas on government got me to thinking about the election of 1800. If you watched the HBO series on John Adams you may remember it was bitter and brutal. In fact, it ranks up there as one of the dirtiest campaigns in our history. We seem to think that we invented dirty tricks in more modern times but human nature being what it is, nasty elections are nothing new.

During George Washington's second term, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, began to form a faction that he called the Republicans. (Now before you get too confused, this party morphed into the Democratic Republicans and then into the Democratic Party. Today's Republican Party formed in the 1850s to oppose slavery and preserve the union, but that's another story.)

As Jefferson began organizing his party to take on John Adams and his Federalist Party he did it behind the scenes. He paid a journalist to start a newspaper to attack the Federalists (and put him on the State department payroll!) He fired up his buddy James Madison to go after his hated rival Alexander Hamilton and implored him to take out his pen and cut him to shreds.

So the election of 1800 was an unremitting mudslinging bar fight. If we think the media are biased today, go back and read the dueling broadsides, pamphlets and newspapers of 1800. When the dust settled Jefferson and Adams were tied and the whole thing was thrown into the House of Representatives. The House went through many, many ballots when one representative finally threw his vote to Jefferson.

Adams tried to pack the Supreme Court and make other midnight appointments before he lit out for home in the wee hours of the morning rather than have to see the power of the presidency pass to Jefferson.

They remained alienated for many years until a mutual friend got them to make up. For the years they had remaining, they renewed what had been a close friendship during the Revolution. They wrote a wonderful set of letters discussing everything from crop rotation to the fate of the nation. On July 4, exactly 50 years after the Continental Congress passed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, they both died.

You just can't make this stuff up. History is so much bolder than fiction.

So the answer is a toss up...Both Obama and McCain are Jefferson's heirs because they both share his vision of a republic where everyone is equal and free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. So choose a candidate that fits your notion of what that means and vote...after all, it's citizen involvement that sustains a republic and that's what Jefferson and the rest of the founders wanted for us.