If you think political fighting is bad now, you don’t know your history.
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As members of the 21st century, we tend to believe the political discourse of this country has reached new heights. The sad reality though is we pale in comparison to our predecessors. For example, the parallels between the Obama era and that of Jefferson is actually quite remarkable. To illustrate, I recently completed Jon Meachum’s book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” (2012) and read about the presidential election of 1800 pitting Jefferson against his old friend, John Adams (the second President). Like Washington before him, Adams had been a Federalist. Jefferson, on the other hand was a Democrat-Republican (the origin of the Democratic Party as we know it today).
By 1800 there were already sharp ideological differences between the parties. Whereas the Federalists sought a strong federal government patterned after the British monarchy, Jeffersonian Democrats were more in favor of states rights and upholding the rights of the common man. The Federalists controlled New England, while the Democrats controlled the South. The disparity between the two parties is essentially no different than the Democrats and Republicans of today. Interestingly, Jefferson won New York which ultimately broke the log-jam (and edging out Aaron Burr).
Both parties controlled different newspapers, thereby providing a vehicle to attack each other and communicate their positions to the public. This was long an accepted form of communication until 1798; as the country approached the election of 1800 where it became apparent the Democrat-Republicans were gaining momentum, the Alien & Sedition Acts were passed by the Federalist controlled Congress, and signed into law by Federalist John Adams. The Sedition Act prohibited criticisms of the government and was viewed as a serious threat to the First Amendment by Jefferson and Madison who fought to overturn it.
The Federalists also tried to pack the courts. There is no clearer example of this than Adams picking his Secretary of State, John Marshall, to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Interestingly, even though Marshall didn’t share Jefferson’s views, he was a cousin and administered the oath of office to Jefferson. The Federalists also passed the Midnight Judges Act which made sweeping changes to the judiciary before the Democrat-Republicans took control of both the executive and legislative branches.
The discourse in Congress was much louder and violent than what we are familiar with today. To illustrate, in a Congressional debate in 1798, Democratic-Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon implied that Connecticut Federalists, including Roger Griswold, were corrupt. Hearing this, Griswold called Lyon a coward on the Senate floor. Lyon responded by spitting in Griswold’s face. Following this, a motion to expel Lyon from the Senate failed. Two weeks later, Griswold charged across the Senate floor and began striking Lyon with a heavy wooden cane about his head. Lyon retrieved hot tongs from a nearby fire pit and defended himself. However, Griswold was able to disarm him. The two exchanged blows briefly until they were finally broken up. This was not the first or last time, Congressmen would physically fight on the floor of the Capitol, but it gives you an idea of the heated passion of the day. Despite today’s political hyperbole, I am not aware of an incident in recent memory involving fisticuffs on the floor of the House or Senate.
Such incendiary oratory has actually been with us for a long time. For example, consider the debates over issues such as the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Jackson’s dismantling of the National Bank, and just about every other argument leading up to the Civil War. All were just as inflammatory as the discourse of today, maybe more so.
I just wonder what effect television has had on Congressional arguments. I cannot help but believe it has somehow calmed the passions of the speakers. Without it, I can well imagine some rather loud and visceral arguments, with maybe some canes and tongs thrown in for good measure. Hmm…sounds like a good angle for reality TV doesn’t it?
Keep the Faith!