Cast deep into the mind’s eye of most of my generation, as school youngsters, was the rosy picture of the founding of our United States of America. We have been given, I think, this idea that all the great men of the time pretty much agreed on everything and that the country pretty much enjoyed smooth sailing up to the Civil War, with the exception of that small skirmish of 1812 with the British that we easily won.
Closer scrutiny of the founding times, however, reveals that it was not until the Civil War, perhaps, that the USA actually started to coalesce as a nation. In fact, the first citizen’s rebellion to be put down occurred while George Washington was President! The election Adams and Jefferson so polarized the country that both nearly led to secessionist moves. Foreign policy succeeded more by the grace of God than by the actions of the players. If not for Napoleon’s caprice in granting the Louisiana Purchase, the young country might have had to face a war it couldn’t win or lose a war of attrition that would have seen half it’s territory ceded to the French.
Certainly I have been scathingly critical of Abe Lincoln, whom most feel is in the top three of all presidents. I did so because he had to suspend habeus corpus and resort to suppression of the press and goading the South into starting a skirmish to give him justification and the ability to execute the war to prevent the country splitting in half. Based upon further readings, I wonder to myself what I would have done in the same circumstances. You see, Lincoln’s perspective was not the same as someone from today looking back on his choices. His immediate precedents were all indicating that any kind of fraction of the country would be the demise of all.
As one looks through American history, especially the early history of the USA, time and time again one hears the major players uttering the same line — that the country must be preserved even at the cost of principle. Certainly Jefferson did not want to go to war, since it flew in the face of his republican principles of not taxing in order to pay for military buildup. But he had to hope against hope that all his posturing and sword rattling would be enough to prevent war, or he would have had to forsake principle to do what must be done. Even though he famously said that states should secede in the government became tyrannical, in an even more famous letter he emphasized that all restraint of such an idea must be exercised, because hardly a greater evil existed than breaking the union.
Neither should it ever be said that the wonderful fathers never had to do a collective about face when the idealistic application of ideals didn’t go so well. Otherwise we would still be under the Articles of Confederation. But the rampant abuse of states’ rights lead to the emergency sessions which created what we know today as our Constitution. Seems it was discovered that Libertarianism didn’t always work so well in practice.
So, here we stand, in modern day America, beset by political chaos such as this country has never seen. Or do we? Certainly there have been more peaceful times and more productive times. But no time is ever without struggle and strife. This is the human condition. We will never all see eye to eye and we will always fail to appreciated the perspective of others. That is why our founders gave us this wonderful system of checks and balances. We can disagree, vehemently, as they did, and yet we can move forward without revolution. We can go through regime change without coup d’etat. We have the system in place to peacefully oust our leaders when they get too full of themselves.
America was looked upon with admiration from everyone because it represented a change from the reason of state. According to the reason of state, might makes right. War was the answer to getting what you wanted. America changed that. First, when Washington stepped down, we have the first bloodless transfer of power between two unrelated people. Then, even more impressively, when Adams, the Federalist, was succeeded by Jefferson, the Republican, we saw an entirely new ideology take power in the USA without shedding a drop of blood. Sure, many Federalists thought that the country was now doomed. And Jefferson did run some great risks with some of his policies. But, there were enough cool heads around him to keep the country on course.
The next time you despair about American politics, consider that the floor is not very low. One doesn’t have to be much less contentious than the present to return to the “good old days, when politics was civil.” It’s pretty much just as civil as it ever was. And compared to most countries, a lot more civil.