Perhaps the most quintessential American theme throughout its history has been the role politicians have played in creating it—we call them our Founding Fathers—and the endless role of those who have wanted to take us in the wrong direction or at least tried to.
I have known a few politicians and some were very good men and others reflected the very human goal of gaining wealth and power. The fact that voters have often made some very good choices says much about democracy and we need to be a bit more optimistic about it.
What differs today from the past is the enormous, indeed obscene, amount of money required to get elected and reelected. In general, it has always helped to have a bankroll to serve in public office and our first President was not only the most highly regarded man of his times, but a very wealthy plantation owner from Virginia.
I love reading history because, as the Chinese philosopher Confucius advised, “Study the past if you would define the future.” One of America’s finest historians, Thomas Fleming, has had a new book published, “The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation.” It is very entertaining and, over all, very astonishing. Most of the things we learned in school about them and their era are, generally speaking, wrong.
These two great figures of our Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and their terms in office ended their lives disliking one another. As Fleming notes, “Most Americans are unaware that such discord ever existed.”
“A series of political clashes had gradually destroyed their friendship and mutual respect the two men had enjoyed at the start of Washington’s presidency. Ultimately, they became enemies. Small, slight James Madison, whose brilliant political theorizing won the admiration of both men, was forced to choose between these two tall antagonists.” America owes Madison an eternal debt of gratitude, but it was Washington and Jefferson who tend to dominate the teaching of our early history.
How different are history would have been had there not been a George Washington. Eleven years older than Jefferson, he had no formal education but read voluminously to prepare himself for the leadership that was a natural part of his character. He relentlessly pursued the Revolutionary War for seven years against the greatest power of his time and he won it.
Jefferson, by contrast, never put his life on the line. He studied law and became a passionate revolutionist most famed for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As Governor of Virginia, he was a failure.
“Washington,” says Fleming was “first, last, and always a realist…but he combined this realism with a surprisingly strong faith that America was destined to become a beacon of freedom for men and women everywhere.” By contrast, “Jefferson tended to see men and events through the lens of a pervasive idealism.”
It may be an over-simplification to say that Washington was politically conservative while Jefferson was a liberal. Washington had a long relationship with the Continental Congress that gave him a thorough understanding of its failures, not the least of which was to not pay the soldiers putting their lives on the line for a new nation, nor providing pensions. He understood how necessary it was to have a strong central government that could and would pay its bills.
The need for a Constitution to replace the generally useless Articles of Confederation was evident to men like Washington. His ex-aide, Col. Alexander Hamilton, quit Congress in disgust. A rebellion led by a former Continental Army captain, Daniel Shays, needed to be put down and twelve of the thirteen semi-independent legislatures ignored his demands for payment. Disaster was averted when “wealthy men in Massachusetts raised enough case to hire a local army.”
Washington was delighted that many of the delegates to the convention to revise the Articles agreed that they needed a major overhaul. Many were former Continental Army officers. They would adopt Madison’s outline of our current government called “The Virginia Plan” and “its most innovative feature was a president to serve as head of the new government, with powers coequal to Congress.”
While we are inclined to believe that the Constitution was easily achieved by the members of the convention who came together to forge it, as Fleming tells us, “With both sides weighing each word, the compromise was hammered out. “The final vote was 89-79. A shift of six votes would have condemned the Constitution to oblivion,” notes Fleming. What this tells us is that the politicians of those times were often sharply divided in ways that reflect the divisions and debates that fill our newspapers and news programs today.
Congress sent the Constitution to the states by a unanimous vote, with neither criticism nor praise.” What followed was a campaign to secure its ratification.
It was the promise of a Bill of Rights, ten Amendments submitted to the first Congress by Madison, that encouraged its acceptance and ratification in 1788. They were approved in 1789 and sent to the states. It was not until Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791 that they became part of the Constitution.
This early history is worth knowing as we debate today’s issues and as we look to today’s politicians to resolve them.
We may not like our politicians, but the early ones were not that different. We may want to say a pox on them all, but we need them and, given the right leadership, they will continue to protect and preserve our young republic.
Today’s headlines are about a Congress, elected to resist a President who has demonstrated his ignorance and indifference to the Constitution. He will be gone in two years and America will still be here to resume its leadership of the free world and spread its message of freedom and liberty.