Well, its campaign season and the primaries are heating up. We’ve already had a couple of toss ups by the front runners on both sides. It’s always funny to see (Check this out). And as usual, Candidate B who, according to Candidate A, is sure to ruin the country will eventually become the running mate of Candidate A and so forth. It’s also the time when the media, candidates and everyone else talks about how vitriolic the rhetoric has become and how polarized our politics have become.
Recently, I have been reading a lot of books about the Revolution and the Founding Fathers. Every time I hear someone mention how bad our politicians have become, I want to direct them to the nearest library. Because the Founding Fathers, while being the brightest and best generation of political thinkers of the modern era, also, for the most part hated each others’ guts. They didn’t just spew a torrent of partisan rhetoric, they genuinely believed that the opposition was either: a) going to ruin the country through it’s own stupidity, negligence and/or incompetence. b) was conspiring with merchants, banks, royalists and other evil-doers to ruin the revolutionary ideals the country was founded on. or c) Satan (or one of his closest advisers).
One of my favorite Jefferson quotes involves a letter to James Madison about Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame. Jefferson intensely disliked Henry, mostly because, using his highly effective rhetorical style, Henry had helped to crush the religious freedom bill that Jefferson had supported in the Virginia legislature. In a letter to Madison, Jefferson bemoaned that Henry’s whirlwind oratories always seemed to overwhelm Jefferson’s own studious and eloquent prose, and concluded that the only thing that they could do was “…to devoutly pray for his death.”
My other two favorite quotes involve the Jay Treaty with Britain signed in 1794. The treaty, although masterminded by Alexander Hamilton behind the scenes, was hammered out by British Diplomats and John Jay, the Supreme Court Chief Justice. Most Federalists admitted that it was only a small success, but the opposition, with Jefferson and Madison in the forefront, HATED it. One new yorker painted this lovely sentiment on the side of a building he owned: “Damn John Jay. Damn anyone who won’t damn John Jay. Damn anyone who won’t sit up all night with a candle in his window, damning John Jay.” Even Jay himself said of the weeks after his return that he could travel from Boston to Philadelphia using only the light from his burning effigies to guide his way.
John Adams and Jefferson had been fast friends since their Continental Congress days. Adams had chaired the committee that was tapped to write the Declaration of Independence and had deferred to Jefferson allowing him to write it. They had served during the war, with Benjamin Franklin, in the diplomatic triumvirate that eventually hammered out the details bringing France into the War on the American side. And even though they were of different parties (although back in the day, all of the politicians considered themselves above belonging to a party and only used words like party, faction and partisan as insults), Adams, after being elected President with Jefferson as Vice President, offered Jefferson a prominent position in his administration; almost a co-presidency if you will. And yet during the next four years Jefferson schemed, plotted and maneuvered to frustrate most of Adams policies. The divide became so great that they stopped talking or corresponding with each other for 12 years until a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, convinced them to rekindle their friendship.
Of course the main bout on the political card for the founding generation would of course be the “Controversy in Jersey”, the “Tiff on the Cliff”, the “Duel for the Jewel”, Aaron Burr versus Alexander HAM-il-tooooooooon! Yes, these guys hated each other so much that, despited the fact that Burr was the sitting Vice President, their differences could only be solved by pistols a ten paces. This episode of course ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s political career.
So there you have it. At least our current political leaders aren’t shooting at each other…um, except Cheney…oh well.