Take a moment to ponder professor Alan Taylor's discussion of partisan politics in our early national history and now. Taylor takes no sides, but points to the hazards of misuse of hallowed myths: Founding Fathers, yada yada yada. Vituperative speech was as common in political discourse of the post-colonial era as it is amplified by the lamestream media today. If this is a (fair & balanced) example of good historical practice, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Our Feuding Founding Fathers
By Alan Taylor
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Politicians praise America’s founders for having set guiding and enduring principles. Donald J. Trump declares that global free trade “is a direct affront to our founding fathers, who wanted America to be strong, independent and free.” Hillary Clinton counters, “Our founders embraced the enduring truth that we are stronger together.”
But that raises questions: Which founders, and which principles? For in history, unlike in mythic memory, they fought like cats and dogs over every major issue, foreign and domestic.
Thomas Jefferson’s followers called themselves Republicans, but their enemies called them Democrats — just to confuse us today. They battled the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, of later musical fame. Where Jefferson wanted to construct the Constitution narrowly and favored a decentralized country with a weak federal government, Hamilton and his allies favored a broad interpretation, with a powerful, centralized state that promoted economic development and exercised global power.
Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering us an antidote to our divisions, those clashing founders created them.
Our early politics were so edgy and shrill because the stakes involved were so high, as leaders and their followers struggled to define the revolution and Constitution. The union of states and the republican form of government were new, tenuous, vulnerable and open to debate. It was easy to imagine one’s political rivals as ominous threats to free government. When Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State, he echoes the recklessness with which Hamilton associated Jefferson with the bloody Jacobins of the French Revolution.
We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”
Political partisans and journalists shot one another in duels over insults. A South Carolinian noted, “Three-fourths of the duels which have been fought in the United States were produced by political disputes.”
Hamilton’s death from Aaron Burr’s pistol shot in a duel in Weehawken, NJ, was unusual only in its mortality. It was considered better form to shoot a rival in a leg rather than through the heart. The early Congress was full of limping gentlemen.
When not dueling, the political rivals brawled. In 1807 in Albany, a Federalist confronted an insulting Republican in the street, beating him bloody with a heavy cane. The fight attracted dozens of angry partisans from both sides. A witness recalled that they turned the street into “a tumultuous sea of heads, over which clattered a forest of canes; the vast body, now surging this way, now that, as the tide of combat ebbed or flowed.”
The harmonious and united founders are our myth rather than their history. But myths have their purpose. More than mere lies, myths simplify the past, smoothing away contradictions to offer reassurance to the present. Every nation seeks guiding principles from an imagined set of wiser and nobler ancestors. At their best, mythic heroes can, as Abraham Lincoln put it, help us seek “the better angels of our nature.”
But myths become dysfunctional when they cripple instead of inspire. The cult of the founding fathers has become masochistic, as we invoke them to rebuke ourselves for having such petty politicians. We put the founders on an imaginary pedestal to look down on our own politics as beneath their contempt. It is all too easy to pick on Mrs. Clinton as no Jefferson or to denigrate Mr. Trump as a sad declension from Hamilton’s lofty heights. We castigate ourselves for not risking our lives, or property, for some higher ideal.
And that’s a good thing. We don’t have to make the sacrifices demanded by a bloody revolutionary war waged against our loyalist neighbors and a mighty overseas empire. We need to preserve our free institutions and values rather than create them in the first place. We have to manage a superpower rather than struggle to endure as a third-rate country in the midst of rival empires. We cannot repeat the founders’ showy performances, for we must play less heroic political roles far downstream in the flow of time and events.
Our politics are not always worse than theirs were. The revolutionary era was no golden age. To preserve the union, the founding fathers felt compelled to preserve slavery. Today, women can vote and lead. In the founders’ era, a husband could beat his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb. And despite the multiplying insults of modern politics, we have not yet resumed shooting one another in duels. We distort the past and discredit the present by inflating the founders’ virtues and denying our own.
While the mythic founders can inspire us to do better, we should be wary of inviting them to make us feel small. We are not to blame for clashing over the diverse principles that the founders invented. No generation will resolve our revolution and define our Constitution once and for all. We honor the founders best by sustaining their debates over core principles of government, rather than by pretending that they resolved everything for us. ###
[Alan Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Chair in American History at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (2016) and he also has written American Colonies (2001). Taylor received a BA (history) from Colby College and a PhD (history) from Brandeis University.]
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