TCS Daily

Stop Whining About Partisanship

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - February 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Americans feel alienated from politics because of the constant and childish bickering that goes on between opposing politicians. The negative personal attacks, the thirty second sound bites, the culture of investigative journalism and politics cause political observers to believe that politics has fully devolved into a nasty and irredeemable business. Why, ask these observers, can't members of the political class be more like the august and statesmanlike Founding Fathers?

Emulation of the Founders is fine and good as it goes. Who wouldn't want a national leader with the statute and selflessness of George Washington, the idealism of Thomas Jefferson, the legislative and political genius of James Madison, or the peripatetic brilliance of the indomitable Alexander Hamilton? One cannot help but conclude that those who established our nation in war and in peace were the most gifted leaders ever to occupy the American political stage at one time, and perhaps the most gifted leaders ever to occupy any political stage in the history of the human race.

But if you crave the giftedness of the Founders, you had better be prepared to accept their faults as well. And one of the chief faults of the Founders was that when they fought amongst themselves, the could turn so bitter, so nasty, so personal in their attacks that they would put modern day practitioners in the black arts of politics to shame. Think that Karl Rove has been portrayed as the Devil Incarnate? Think that Hillary Clinton has been painted as the Antichrist of American politics? Well then, obviously you don't appreciate the venom behind a Federalist pamphlet, or the bile contained in the insults levied by Jeffersonian Republicans during the infancy of our country.

In the past few years, there has been a revival of interest in the lives and political careers of the Founders -- a revival that is helped by the many books that have come out on the lives of the Founders. Two of the most recent books are Joseph Ellis's biography of George Washington and Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. Both books are instructive when considering the state of partisanship in America.

Ellis's biography of Washington expertly captures the reasons why upon his death, Washington was eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washington was no intellectual but he was possessed of superb judgment, tact and discretion. He was also undeniably courageous and his feats of valor on the battlefield justified the respect and adoration he was given. Washington was the natural choice to chair the Constitutional Convention, and was considered indispensable as the first President of the United States. His near decision to quit after his first term raised alarm bells, and his decision not to stand for a third term -- which he surely would have won -- laid down the example of selflessness we expect of American politicians.

And yet, Washington was oftentimes subject to some of the most vicious calumny imaginable -- calumny that almost caused Washington's retirement from politics after his first term, and impelled him to gladly quit the Presidency after a second term. The Father of his country was accused of being senile, a puppet in the hands of Alexander Hamilton, a closet monarchist who sought to become an American Caesar, and so on. These were not just occasional jibes but part and parcel of a concerted campaign in the Jeffersonian Republican press that sought to demystify the first President so as to make it easier to campaign against initiatives like the Jay Treaty, or the financial reforms implemented by Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Indeed, one of the newspapers most responsible for seeking to trash Washington's public standing was the Aurora, a Republican newspaper headed by Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin (the bitterness between the Founders apparently extended to their descendants). So rancid was the campaign against Washington that he ended up breaking off relations with two fellow Virginians -- Jefferson and Madison -- because of the part they played in seeking to ruin Washington's reputation. When the first President of the United States finally passed away during the Administration of John Adams, his funeral was mostly peopled by Federalists. Thomas Jefferson -- then the Vice President -- actually boycotted the funeral.

Chernow's biography of Hamilton reveals just how cutting and wounding the political debate became during the age of the Founders. With Hamilton as the de facto head of the Federalists, and with Jefferson and Madison commanding the Republican political machine, political vitriol reached nearly frightening levels. Federalists accused Republicans of being "Jacobins" who were all too willing to excuse the bloody excesses of the French Revolution and the diplomatic depredations of Citizen Genet and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand -- who prompted the XYZ Affair. Republicans on the other hand gleefully portrayed Hamilton and the Federalists of being "monarchists," "Anglomen" who were too easily seduced by Great Britain (and probably wanted to return America to Britain's political orbit), rapacious swindlers who wanted to use banks to oppress the agrarian population (creating a central bank was, of course, one of Alexander Hamilton's chief projects). It did not help that the angry political debate between Hamilton and Jefferson was colored by accusations of personal scandal. In one of his many pseudonymous writings, Hamilton -- who was an astonishingly prodigious writer and who probably would have celebrated the advent of the Blogosphere had he lived to see its development -- made what now appears to be clear and insulting reference regarding liaisons between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings.

In revenge, Republican pamphleteers -- also writing pseudonymously and often -- gleefully harped on Hamilton's involvement in an adulterous affair with one Maria Reynolds, who collaborated with her husband James to garner hush money from Hamilton to keep the affair secret. Initially, Republicans believed that Hamilton paid the hush money because James Reynolds possessed information relating to Hamilton's abuse of his position as Secretary of the Treasury for pecuniary gain. In order to clear his name, Hamilton was forced to make a public and humiliating admission that the hush money was to cover up the affair -- which naturally led to more vitriol directed at Hamilton. Needless to say, all of this anonymous pamphleteering caused political opposition to spill over into blind hatred between the Founders. Hamilton and Madison -- once collaborators on The Federalist -- eventually became bitter enemies. Because of his illegitimate birth, Hamilton felt that he had to be especially protective of his reputation, meaning that anytime that anyone attacked him, instead of ignoring the attacks, Hamilton fired back with even greater literary and oratorical pyrotechnics. Sometimes these pyrotechnics ended up leading to challenges to duels -- one of which, of course, ended Hamilton's life at the hands of Aaron Burr. Consider that: a former Secretary of the Treasury and the head of the Federalist Party ended up dueling with the sitting Vice President of the United States. And to think that we got excited when Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy to perform anatomical impossibilities upon himself.

None of this is meant to excuse partisan excesses in the present time. We should continue to demand that our elected officials behave with a semblance of decorum and decency. No political dispute should be enough to encourage the spread of bitterness and enmity in the American democratic republic. But if you find yourself from time to time bemoaning the state of partisanship in America, cheer up. It could have been worse. And indeed, once upon a time, it was.

The author is a lawyer and frequent TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


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