On this day before the 4th of July, I find it instructive whenever stinging comments issue from one candidate or another in politics — that people today bemoan the lack of civility. I can only assume that people don’t know how bad it USED to be!
Discourse has actually gotten a lot more civil compared to the first 50 years of our republic.
The hatred between the Founders was intense. And they would write about each other in newspapers using pen names. They could hide behind the anonymity — though friends and opponents alike usually could guess who was writing the article. In those days, it was fair game to accuse somebody of adultery (like Hamilton) or (in Jefferson’s case) of getting a slave repeatedly pregnant.
Madison and Jefferson hated Alexander Hamilton. They thought Hamilton was too friendly with the British. They thought Hamilton wanted the United States to function like the British — with a monarch and parliament.
That was not the case. Hamilton simply copied some of the banking organization from the British, so that America could function with a government having revenue and credit rather than merely the deep debt the government found itself in after the Revolutionary War.
Didn’t matter to Madison and Jefferson. They hated Alexander Hamilton to such an extent, they ridiculed George Washington for listening to him so much. (Hamilton was Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and his most trusted advisor.) Washington was aging rapidly by the end of his 8 years in office. Madison portrayed him as a dolt. “He couldn’t write a sentence without misspelling a word.”
Everybody hated John Adams (except his base of support in New England). Adams was short, paunchy, quick-tempered — an unattractive figure. As the incumbent Vice President, he nearly lost the election for President when Washington retired after 8 years. Adams won by a mere three votes. (In those days, the voting was done only by the electoral college, not by the population).
Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison were all campaigning to defeat Adams. Adams felt so besieged by unpopularity at one point, he arranged to have weapons brought into his house in the nation’s capital in Philadelphia in case his family would be attacked.
The Governor of New York — previously the first Chief Justice of the United States — John Jay worked out a treaty with the British — the Jay Treaty — which so angered the anti-British, pro-French figures like Jefferson and Madison that they led efforts to destroy John Jay’s reputation. Effigies of Jay were burned in cities all over the United States.
The next generation of leaders picked right up where the Founders left off. Hatred arose between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.
I suppose it’s encouraging — in a way — that these most intense of political enemies could still set up a government that has endured longer than any republic in modern history.
The struggle back then is the struggle today — those who want the central, national government to be supreme (the federalists) vs. those who agitate for states’ rights (in those days, they were called the republicans/democrats).
Happy birthday, America! With no illusions about how we got to Year No. 239, with all of the fighting and back-stabbing and plotting even among our most honored patriots — the republic still is going strong. It’s strong enough even for human nature.