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Feudin’ Fighin’ and Fussin’ on the 4th of July

I'm sick of it! Right Wingers, Left Wingers, and No Wingers...Get your facts straight...or I'll call down the wrath of Founding Fathers Past!

Got your attention? Here's what set me off on this beautiful 4th of July holiday - everybody trying to appropriate our founding fathers and mothers for their own purposes. Prove your point with logic, facts, and reason or get off the stage.

What folks say: Politics are more divisive than ever...there was a time when we used to disagree without being disagreeable...viciousness in opposing parties is something new...let's bring back civility...

Folks, here's the fact...we have never been a country of sedate, polite debate. Our founding fathers and mothers were brilliant and courageous but when it came to politics, it was no holds barred. The point was (as it still is) to prevail. Politics is about power. The founders didn't cuss as much in public, but they were not above explicit sexual language, innuendo, lying, and character assassination when it came to political opponents.

Ron Chernow (author of the excellent biography, Alexander Hamilton) authored a must-read article in the Wall Street Journal (updated June 26, 2010.) It starts, Americans lament the partisan venom of today's politics, but for sheer verbal savagery, the country's founders were in a league of their own. Chernow points out, Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the founders were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence. They didn't stop at criticizing one another’s politics; their barbs were often personal.

John Adams wrote to his son, John Quincy Adams, about Alexander Hamilton: When a barbarous Noise Surrounded Us Such as had Surrounded me for more than twenty Years before of Owls and Cuckoos, Asses Apes and Dogs; When Perfidy and Treachery, Imbecility, Ignorance Fanaticism and Fury Surrounded Us; all, Puppets danced upon the Wires of a Bastard Bratt of a Scotch Pedlar. That Period never will or can be explained to Mankind.

James Callender, pamphleteer and scandal monger, exposed Hamilton's affair with his friend James Reynolds’ wife, Maria, and his hush money payment to keep it secret. When Callender fell out with Jefferson, he exposed his relationship with Sally Hemings and their children. Hemings was the enslaved half-sister of his deceased wife. Newspaper man, Samuel Adams, seen as a great patriot in his own day and ours, was not above the fray. Truth was his first victim...To radicalize the populace Adams had adopted a total disregard for it. In his writings he employed slanderous lies, unvarnished propaganda, and rabble-rousing rhetoric. He whipped the people of Massachusetts and many other colonies into an anti-British fury.

The favored form of political trash talk was the pamphlet and newspaper column, written under classical Roman pseudonyms or derived from clever puns. They hammered away at one another with great relish and no restraints. They would have embraced Tweeting, Blogging, biased TV channels, and Facebook memes and deceptions as great inventions and set out with glee to rip one another apart.

Thomas Jefferson, whose stirring prose in the Declaration of Independence animates this 4th of July and embodies our most noble ideals, shrunk from doing his own dirty work. As the formation of our first parties heated up, (Hamilton headed the Federalists and Jefferson, the Republicans – no relation to today’s Republican Party) he called on his buddy, Jemmy Madison, For God's sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him (Hamilton) to pieces in the face of the public. When Madison rose to the challenge, he sneered in print that the only people who could read Hamilton's essays with pleasure were foreigners and degenerate citizens among us.

In the records of debates in the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying conventions, the rhetoric escalated, with wild accusations flying that might make some of our modern media mavens of mayhem blush. Remember, this was an era when people would be called to the "field of honor" (challenged to a duel) for an implied slight. Calling someone a liar to his face was such a justification. Listen to this exchange during the debate over the power of large states and small. Gunning Bedford, a fat, tempestuous delegated from Delaware drags his bulk in front of the delegates and in a frenzied harangue spits out, I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?...Is it come to this, then, that the sword must decide this controversy, and the horrors of war must be added to the rest of our misfortunes?...Sooner than be ruined, there are foreign powers who will take us by the hand.

Madison, one of the most brilliant debaters and politicians of the era, summed it up, If men were angles, no government would be necessary. The debates roiling the late 18th and early 19th century were fierce. Federalists and Republicans accused one another of treason. They could turn on former allies overnight. Madison and Hamilton engineered the Constitution Convention and co-authored the Federalist Papers with John Jay, in the Constitution’s defense. Madison pushed Hamilton's financial agenda through Congress. He twisted enough arms behind the scenes to secure passage so he could argue and vote against it in public to satisfy his constituents back home. Sound familiar? After the new parties formed, Madison assailed his former ally, never missing a chance to paint him in ignoble terms.

I don't like the partisan bickering, shouting, and backbiting. AND I admire Hamilton, Jefferson, Adam, Madison, and the framers and founders for their contributions, while taking a clear-eyed view and condemning their failings. My gripe is about our lack of historical knowledge, our tendency to make stuff up, and the habit of partisans of every stripe to lie to defend their cause. Let's face the brutal facts -- ones we like and ones we don't -- and debate with a goal of coming to consensus or close to it.

That was Washington's desire. He hated the partisan wrangling, the unbridled press, and the inability of people to rise above their passions. But he wanted diverse views before he made his final decisions. He occasionally fell victim to his own monumental temper but was mostly an impartial leader. Of course, he was attacked in the press of the day as being a secret monarchist, fraud, hypocrite, and poor military leader.

On this wonderful 4th of July, while we're barbecuing, watching fireworks, or hitting the sales, let’s ask ourselves this: Am I following along in our country's long tradition of bashing and demonizing those with whom I disagree, or am I trying to follow Washington's advice and have restraint in tongue and pen?

John Adams wrote to Abigale, just after the signing the Declaration of Independence: [July 4] 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

A news anchor remarked she was astonished to hear this “factoid!” If you are going to evoke the founders, read some real history and get it right!


Want to know more about the founders and framers and how we can apply their positive lessons and learn from their negative lessons today? Visit our Success Store for Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers.

® Rebecca Staton-Reinstein (Most quotes fully cited in Conventional Wisdom; exceptions: Sam Adams quoted in Eric Burn’s Infamous Scribblers and John Adam on 4th of July celebrations, Massachusetts Historical Society.)


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