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Archive for June, 2013

Founding Rivalries: More Like Squabbling Brothers Than Fathers

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Intrigue, duplicity, back-stabbing, and character assassination. Think it sounds like American politics today?

Try the 1790s, a decade that saw Thomas Paine–famous pamphleteer for the revolutionary cause–denounce President George Washington as a “hypocrite in public life” for signing a treaty with England. And earlier in the same decade, you’ll find the recently retired secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, telling his crony James Madison to get busy destroying the good name of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the same Hamilton whom Madison had collaborated with only a few years before in writing the famous articles in support of the Constitution.

And back-stabbing? Well, there’s the fine case of Ben Franklin penning a secret missive to Congress accusing fellow emissary John Adams of behavior “improper and unbecoming” for refusing to truckle to ally France’s every whim. Not nasty enough? Try Vice President Jefferson telling a French diplomat that President Adams is “a vain, irritable, stubborn” man. Given such a climate of slander and treachery, should we be surprised at the 1804 duel between the vice president of the United States and the former secretary of the Treasury, a duel in which the latter was killed?

Americans who think they live in politically divisive times might do well to look back at the first decades of their republic’s history.