What wouldn’t we give to have civility in our political campaigns, mutual respect between competitors, and an end to the bitterness and polarization that afflicts our society (wherever it is)? Just like it was in the good old days.
It doesn’t take much examination or research to reveal the terrible shortcomings and personal malice involved in politics and the shabby treatment of leaders. But imagine having a president ridiculed for being “superficially read in the history of any age, nation or country” and who “could not write a sentence without misspelling some word.” Erstwhile supporters wished him a “speedy death” and attacked him for “monopolizing the glories” of past successes.” He was excoriated for profiting from the presidency and even selling his soul to a foreign country for material gain and colluding with a foreign government to the detriment of the United States. He was accused of acting as if he considered himself the “Emperor from Rome.”Horrible.
Imagine having a president who is routinely lambasted by the media, lied about with wanton recklessness in the most personal ways, characterized as a “tyrant” and an “enemy of his country.” He, in turn, denounces them as “infamous scribblers” who did little but heap “abuse” upon him. These same relentless media attacks were instrumental in the president declining to seek re-election, seeking to avoid the “arrows of malevolence” they daily shot his way.
Moreover, to maintain diplomatic discretion, this president refused to release documents to a Congressional investigation and dared Congress to impeach him. (Congress declined, perhaps because the presidential term was soon expiring.)
Cabinet members turned on him. One was accused of taking bribes to aid a foreign country, and he in turn threatened to expose the president’s dirty secrets – a president, he claimed, who possessed a “small mind” that was filled with “prejudice.” The political class was so divided, angrily so, that the Vice-President foresaw that both sides would “bite like savages and tear like lions.” And when this Vice-President ascended to the presidency, his own Vice-President secretly urged a foreign country not to negotiate a treaty. He informed them that they would receive better terms when the incumbent was gone and he became president.
Who would want to live through such exhausting, vitriolic times? We would all prefer the good old days, right?
Well, those were the good old days. The president referred to above was none other than George Washington. (All the quotes are drawn from Michael Beschloss’s “Presidential Courage.”) There was always animosity towards Washington but what precipitated this particularly venomous episode towards the end of his second term was the negotiation and ratification of “Jay’s Treaty” with Britain.Washington was accused of selling out his country – much like, the indictment ran, he had conspired with George III during the Revolutionary War. He was seen as easily manipulated and suffered through warring cabinet secretaries who soon devolved into the leaders of rival political parties that Washington abhorred.
The allegedly crooked cabinet secretary was Edmund Randolph, the Attorney-General and then Secretary of State, accused of asking a French minister for a bribe in exchange for which he would tilt US foreign policy towards France and away from Britain, France’s arch-rival. He resigned, the allegations were never proven – but Randolph did need the money. His cabinet secretaries – especially Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton – clashed frequently, publicly and vehemently. Hamilton, popular today with Broadway theater goers, was reviled by his peers of all stripes as an immoral schemer, and worse. But he had Washington’s ear, long after he left his formal government position.
The most antagonistic media entity, the Aurora, was published by Benjamin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who despised GW absolutely and, it would seem, irrationally. But his publication was not the only one. Washington decried the “malicious falsehoods” and “vitriolic abuse” that hastened his departure from public life (he declined to run for a third term) and, his wife Martha later asserted, led him to an early grave. As often happens, history treated Washington much better than did his contemporaries.
GW’s Vice-President, John Adams, had both a grudging respect and a terminal case of resentment towards Washington, knowing that he, Adams, would never achieve a modicum of the acclaim that Washington had. But Adams did garner the same level of hostility from the press, and their relationship was amicable and good-natured compared to Adams’ relationship with his own Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, who routinely plotted against Adams, conspired with France, and then defeated Adams for the presidency in 1800.
These were rough times. Hamilton loathed Adams (and others) and the feelings were mutual. Hamilton would vent his spleen anonymously in newspapers, and then draft letters to the editor under another pseudonym supporting his anti- Adams screeds. Adams, as President, was limited to fulminating against Hamilton to his wife and his diary.
In one of the most bizarre incidents in this tumultuous era, Frederick Muhlenberg, a pastor and Congressman from Pennsylvania (a college in Allentown is named for him) surprised and enraged people by supporting Washington and endorsing Jay’s Treaty. He maintained his support even after his son’s fiancée’s father threatened to break off the shidduch. He voted for the treaty anyway; reacting a bit aggressively, his own brother-in-law stabbed him.
And we complain?
“You shall surely place a king over you” (Devarim 17:15) that is, you should fear him, even dread his power and authority (Masechet Sanhedrin 19b). The king of Israel was revered, partly because he had absolute power and would not respond kindly to being disrespected but mostly because he was the embodiment on earth of G-d’s kingship. Human beings who do not possess that divine mandate (meaning, everyone else) are at the mercy of other people’s printing presses, social media accounts, ridicule, obloquy, agendas and poor character. The successful ones ignore it and focus less on personal popularity and more on getting the job done.
It is hard to say whether we should be encouraged or discouraged that today’s rancorous and crude electoral politics are rather tepid by historical American standards. But the next time someone laments the venomous modern campaigns and personalities, and longs for the good old days, just admonish them that they should be careful what they wish for. Even George Washington had his fair share of detractors, and still does. The good old days were not that good – and probably a lot worse. Politics tends to attract some unsavory characters. It always was and always will be – until the coming of the righteous Messiah when honor for the human king will reflect the honor of the true King.
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