Electile Dysfunction – Part II
Wikipedia states: Serendipity means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise”. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Dictonary.com defines the word serendipity as “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.”
On several past occasions I’ve mentioned the serendipitous incident that directly affected the writings in this column, and as a result of the frequency of these occurrences, perhaps this aptitude has descended on me. What is really paradoxical about these events is the timing of them, usually just before the deadline for the column in question. Well, it happened again.
The Founding Fathers
Last month in this current series, I wrote, “the founding fathers of our nation [are considered] as almost biblical figures, noble, dignified, transcendent.” I then commented, “Perhaps that was true in the very early days of the Republic. However, in a very short time, politics, in the form of political parties reared its ugly head, and at the same time created the contentious, sometimes ugly election.”
Is it just coincidental that this serendipitous editorial appeared In the New York Times under the headline, “Our Feuding Founding Fathers”? The sub headline in the Times read, “Why do we cling to the myth of a golden age of American politics?” Referring to that same revered group, the Times article wrote, “For in history, unlike in mythic memory, they fought like cats and dogs over every major issue, foreign and domestic,” Therein lies the birth of the contentious, sometimes ugly election.
Is it possible that any presidential election prior to the one that just ended was uglier? And is “uglier” a strong enough adjective to describe it? Here are a few other words for you to select to better describe the election that just happened: dreadful, distressing, disastrous, despicable, discreditable, degraded, disgusting, and the original “d” word, deplorable. But was this election really worse than several others that historians had previously considered to be the worst? (Since this column was submitted for publication 18 days before the November 8th election, I can’t be positive, but right now I doubt it.)
The Times article pointed out, “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.”
It is easy to understand why the first of the political war-like elections occurred as early as it did, in 1796. By then the two major political parties had crystalized into demonstrable enemies, and the American “politician” was born.
The Election of 1796
As described in Wikipedia, “With incumbent President George Washington having refused a third term in office, incumbent Vice President John Adams from Massachusetts became a candidate for the presidency on the Federalist Party ticket with former Governor Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina as the next most popular Federalist. Their opponents were former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson from Virginia along with Senator Aaron Burr of New York of the Democratic-Republicans. At this point, each man from any party ran alone, as the formal position of ‘running mate’ had not yet been established.
“Unlike the 1792 George Washington election, where the outcome was a foregone conclusion, Republicans campaigned heavily for Jefferson, and Federalists campaigned heavily for Adams. The campaign was an acrimonious one, with Federalists attempting to identify the Republicans with the violence of the French Revolution and the Republicans accusing the Federalists of favoring monarchism and aristocracy. Republicans sought to identify Adams with the policies developed by fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton during the Washington administration, which they declaimed were too much in favor of Great Britain and a centralized national government. Paradoxically, Hamilton himself opposed Adams and worked to undermine his election. In foreign policy, Republicans denounced the Federalists over Jay's Treaty. Federalists attacked Jefferson's moral character, alleging he was an atheist, and a coward during the War of Independence. Adams supporters also accused Jefferson of being too pro-France; the accusation was underscored when the French ambassador embarrassed the Republicans by publicly backing Jefferson and attacking the Federalists right before the election.
“Federalist John Adams defeated Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Despite the vituperation between their respective camps, neither Adams nor Jefferson actively campaigned for the presidency.
“Jefferson received the second highest number of electoral votes and was elected vice president according to the prevailing rules of Electoral College voting. This election marked the formation of the First Party System, and established a permanent rivalry between Federalist New England and Democratic-Republican South, with the middle states holding the balance of power.”
The Election of 1800
As described by Forbes magazine, “It was the election of 1800 where President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson—the two highest elected officials in the land and each a pivotal player in the creation of our nation—squared off in a race for the White House and established a tradition of negative campaigning that would cause our current candidates to blush with embarrassment. [This was written before the current election so I would rate that comment questionable.]
“Not unlike much of the mud slinging we experience in modern elections, the dirty work, back in the earliest days of the nation, was often left to surrogates. One such surrogate was the influential President of Yale University, a John Adams supporter, who publically suggested that were Jefferson to become the president, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”
The concern was amplified by an influential—and highly partisan—Connecticut newspaper’s warning that electing Jefferson would create a nation where ‘murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.’
And that was the soft stuff.
Not to be outdone by the Federalist president’s attacks, Jefferson had a few negative narratives of his own to pitch.
One particularly stinging attack came via one James Callender—an influential journalist of the time whose incendiary pamphlets had been secretly funded by Thomas Jefferson and who had an axe to grind for having been prosecuted and imprisoned by the Adams Administration for violating The Sedition Act.
Callender wrote that Adams was a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”
However there is much more to this story as expounded in his new book, “Whistlestop,” by “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson writing about some of the more fractious presidential campaigns in history.
He writes, “The one that caught my eye was the election of 1800 between Vice President Thomas Jefferson and President John Adams, which some historians call the ugliest in U.S. history. Jefferson was gearing up for the election and was looking to throw some mud on the opposition party. In those days, presidents and vice presidents could be in opposite parties.
“This story begins in 1798 and has at its center a scandal-mongering Scottish journalist named James Thomson Callender. At the time, there was intense party rivalry between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson.
“Hamilton (riding high in pop culture now because of the hip-hop Broadway hit "Hamilton") was a Federalist and Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, which would eventually become the Democratic Party.
“So T.J. hired Callender to dig up some dirt. He found some on the high-ranking Hamilton.
“Callender got wind of the fact that Hamilton had had an affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds while his wife and children were off traveling somewhere. He got the information from Reynolds' husband, Jim, who was in prison for defrauding Revolutionary War veterans out of pay they were owed for their service.
“Jim Reynolds was blackmailing Hamilton to the tune of $1,000 ($24,000 in today's money) to keep the story of the affair under wraps. Incidentally, Maria Reynolds' lawyer was Aaron Burr, who would later kill Hamilton in a duel.
“When the story started making the rounds of Congress and the Senate, Hamilton decided to get out in front of it and wrote a 95-page pamphlet admitting to the affair but not to any financial shenanigans. It was the country's first official sex scandal, and it was forced into the public eye by Callender.
“Adams threw Callender in jail for nine months and fined him $200 for sedition, claiming he had defamed the government.
“After Callender got out of jail, he wanted Jefferson to pay him back the $200. But Jefferson, who had won the election against Adams and was now president, didn't want anything to do with the journalist. He didn't want to get his hands dirty.
“Callender wasn't going to be ignored. That's when he began writing stories about Jefferson's house slave and mistress, one Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson had fathered two children.
“That was our nation's second sex scandal. Not long after, Callender's body was found floating in three feet of water on the bank of a river. It was presumed that the hard-drinking Scotsman had ‘drowned while drunk.’ Sure he did. Author Dickerson put the moral of the story in the chapter's title. ‘Keep Your Attack Dog Fed.’”
Ironically, prior to this election, both men were the closest of friends. The enmity began while Jefferson was Adam’s vice president in his term following Washington. It wasn’t until 1812 that their friendship re-blossomed, and in the irony of ironies, both men died within hours of each other on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the republic they helped form.
So it seems that our illustrious founding fathers were not really the virtuous, righteous, and honorable of men. Was it the formation of the political parties that turned the “Fathers” into what now seems to be run of the mill politicians? Or was it just human nature that has embedded mankind with a political gene that accelerated the formation of political parties?
Perhaps you have the answer.