Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Political Discourse

Much has been made in recent years of the rancor and bitterness between the two political parties in America. 

George W. Bush promised to reach across the aisle and unite the parties as he had done in Texas while he was governor.  It was much more difficult than he imagined, though some unity was achieved as a result of the country uniting in dramatic fashion for a season following 9/11.  How sad that the precipitating event was the only thing that seemed to drive us together into common ground.  Absent war, attacks from foreign powers on our soil, and a complete economic meltdown, can it ever be achieved again?

Barack Obama also pledged to do the same when he went to Washington in 2009.  Instead of unity, Obama has cast aside every single attempt at uniting and healing the political divide.  He has shoved a political agenda down the throats of unwilling and seemingly unwitting Americans at every turn for eighteen months of total legislative domination.  Neither succeeded in uniting anything except the bitter forces of opposition against themselves.

In point of fact, the political discourse from its founding has always been filled with vitriol and accusations, whether with or without merit.

Don't be too alarmed when people say they wish there weren't so much hatred.  We are polarized as a country, and there is little doubt about it.  Just imagine what the discourse must have been over the slavery issues before, during and after the Civil War. 

Abraham Lincoln, icon that he is today, was villified and publicly attacked again and again during his presidency.  It was merciless and unrelenting.  It seemed he could do nothing right back then.  Today he sits enshrined forevermore in a monument in Washington D.C. befitting the enormity of his transformative powers to bridge the political divide.  It was no small feat. 

Will we ever see it again?  We came close in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Now we are bitterly divided again.  The miracle was short-lived to be sure.

All of this has reminded me of the conditions I've read about in the election of 1800, when John Adams, the sitting President was opposed by his Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.  The spirit of party that Jefferson had warned against had taken root and was entrenched in the runup to that election battle.  It was different in those days because the discourse was waged primarily by proxies, and rarely by the candidates themselves.

In Federalist pamphlets and newspapers, Jefferson was decried as a hopeless visionary, a weakling, an intriguer intoxicated with French philosophy, more a Frenchman than an American, and therefore a bad man.  He was accused of favoring states' rights over the Union, charged with infidelity to the Constitution, called a spendthrift and libertine.  In truth, he kept careful notes of his expenditures, but always throughout his life spent more than he brought in, eventually at death owing $100,000 more than the value of his assets. 

In contrast, at death the ever-frugal Adams and his wife Abigail had amassed an estate valued at $100,000.  No one ever faulted Adams as a spendthrift.  Instead, he was seen as a penny-pinching miser and skinflint.

One New York newspaper assured its readers that a Jefferson election would mean civil war.  It was said "the refuse of Europe" would flood the country and threaten the life of "all who love order, peace, virtue, and religion."  Does that sound remotely familiar in today's headlines?

Most amplified of all the charges against Jefferson were the assertions that he was an atheist.  Not only was Jefferson a godless man, the assertions went, he mocked the Christian faith.  The rumors in New England were so absurd that people were hiding family Bibles until the election was over, fearing they would be summarily rounded up and burned if he were elected.  Even Martha Washington was persuaded all this was true, when she told a visiting clergyman she thought Jefferson "one of the most detestable of mankind."

Stories were spread about Jefferson's personal immorality.  The whisper campaign included lumping Jefferson with all southern slave masters who were known to cohabit with their slave women.

Conversely, John Adams didn't fare much better in the campaigning of personal destruction, indicating these smears we witness today are not a modern invention.  Adams was excoriated as a monarchist, more British than American, and therefore a bad man just like Jefferson.  Remember, these were the two diligent and valiant servants of freedom's cause who were dispatched as diplomats to Europe at the same time as Benjamin Franklin.  Neither received much gratitude at the time for their prodigious efforts.

Adams was routinely ridiculed in public as old, addled and toothless.  Truth was that by the time he died at age 91, Adams really had lost nearly all his teeth, but the image was useful to his critics who called him a pacifist.

Timothy Pickering spread the rumor that to secure his reelection Adams had struck a corrupt bargain with the Republicans.  Another story affirmed the bargain had been struck with Jefferson himself.  The kernel of the story was that Adams would throw the election Jefferson's way and then serve as the Vice President.

Adams was also accused of consorting with four mistresses in London.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  When the "news" reached Adams that he had ordered General Pinckney to London to procure the services of the four pretty mistresses, two for Pinckney and two for himself, Adams was amused.  "I do declare upon my honor," he wrote to William Tudor, "if this is true General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."

That wasn't the worst of it.  Many charges against Adams included that he was insane.  It went on and on -- if Jefferson was a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a "howling" atheist, Adams was a Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, "quite mad."

It's almost hysterical looking back through the lens of history.  By the Republicans Adams was accused as a warmonger, and berated by the High Federalists as fainthearted in the face of the French.

Jefferson had so distanced himself from Adams as the Vice President that he could be held accountable for nothing in the Adams administration that disappointed, displeased, or infuriated anyone.  Adams got blamed for everything as a result -- new taxes, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the standing army, and a host of other "menaces," or so said Philadelphia's leading newspaper, the Aurora.

The unfair contrasts didn't end there.  Jefferson, the Virginia aristocrat and slave master who lived in a style fit for a prince, as removed from his fellow citizens and their lives as it was possible to be, was hailed as the apostle of liberty, the "Man of the People."  Adams, the former farmer's son who despised slavery and practiced the kind of personal economy and plain living commonly upheld as the American way, was scorned as an aristocrat who, if he could, would enslave the common people just like King George III had done.  Amazing!

It was an old story for Adams in that 1800 election.  He had suffered abuse before from the Jefferson Republicans, but more painful to him personally were the highly personal attacks from the Hamilton Federalists.  Alexander Hamilton threw his political weight into the contest in open opposition to Adams.

In the flurry of scathing criticism, innuendo, slander and falsehoods, with war with the French looming as Adams and his peace commission to France were hard at work to avert another war, there was one gleaming tribute to Adams in the Washington Federalist that more closely typified his life's work:

"Bred in the old school of politics, his principles are founded on the experience of ages, and bid defiance to French flippancies and modern crudities. . . Always great, and though sometimes alone, all weak and personal motives were forgotten in public energy and the security of the sacred liberties of his country. . .  Deeply versed in legal lore, profoundly skilled in political science; joined to the advantage of forty years' unceasing engagement in the turbulent and triumphant scenes, both at home and in Europe, which have marked our history; learned in the language and arts of diplomacy; more conversant with the views, jealousies, resources, and intrigues of Great Britain, France and Holland than any other American; alike aloof to flattery and vulgar ambition, as above all undue control [he has as]. . . his sole object. . . the present freedom and independence of his country and its future glory.  On this solid basis he has attempted to raise a monument of his honest fame."

On Saturday, November 22, 1800, Congress convened for the first time in a joint session in the unfinished Capitol building, and John Adams delivered what he surely knew would be his last speech as President.  He said in part,

"It would be unbecoming the representatives of this nation to assemble for the first time in this solemn temple without looking up to the Supreme Ruler of the universe, and imploring his blessing.
"May this territory be the residence of virtue and happiness!  In this city may that piety and virtue, that wisdom and magnanimity, that constancy and self-government, which adorned the great character whose name it bears, be forever held in veneration!  Here, and throughout our country, may simple manners, pure morals, and true religion flourish forever!"

Despite the bitter political divide of his day, despite the withering criticism and rancor, bitterness and vitriol directed at him personally, John Adams found a way to rise above it all and to speak those conciliatory words before a joint session of a bitterly divided Congress.  What we need today are more noble patriots like John Adams. 

The ensuing years would see Jefferson and Adams reunited in abundant correspondence on a host of history-preserving topics, a happy consequence of noble statesmen rising above the political divide that had separated them earlier.

Adams was sixty-five when he stepped down after that 1800 election, Jefferson a comparatively youthful fifty-seven years old when he assumed the presidency. 

Fate would unite them again in death.  Both died on the same day, July 4th, 1826, true patriots each, a fitting end to a lifetime of devotion to honor, country and freedom.  Their legacy is ours if we will claim it for our own.  Like all politicians, neither was perfect, both had flaws, but neither retreated in their duty.

I know this will come off as idealistic and overly optimistic, but it won't sound unlike the conciliatory note sounded by John Adams in his farewell speech.  If men in public life endowed with the public trust could rise above political differences and bitter discourse then, surely they can do it again in our day.

Let us pray for that happy result without another 9/11.

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