Like many journalists, Kathleen Parker’s syndicated guest opinion (Jan.5) refers twice to our Founding Fathers to vaguely support her partisan views. In this case it is to justify growing wealth disparity. She blames our “weak economies and moral decay” on envy of the wealthy but does not implicate greed among the wealthy. In so doing she undermines her own call for more “agreement.” For this issue we might do better to examine how some of our Founders looked at political partisanship.
Thomas Jefferson is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but he was also a major figure in what evolved in the next four decades. He received a classical education at William and Mary College, and before 1776 he was a legislator and governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He served as ambassador to France and secretary of state in President Washington’s cabinet. This was followed by a term as vice president to John Adams before he served two terms as president of the United States.
Jefferson, along with many other leaders, expressed hope that the level of unity experienced in gaining independence would continue into the early years of self-government. But this was not to be. Jefferson was a rural Virginian and early on found himself at odds with Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker and Columbia graduate who was secretary of the treasury for Washington at the same time as Jefferson was secretary of state. Although oversimplified, there is considerable truth in stating that the differences between these two men represent the major political divide in our history down to the present.
The political party of Jefferson was called Republican, although it has no historical connection with the present Republican Party, which had its origins in Abraham Lincoln. At that time the word “republican” meant broad voting rights with relatively short office terms between elections. Hamilton’s Party was called “Federalist,” after the Federalist Papers he helped write to persuade the colonies to ratify the Constitution. He was from New York, married into a wealthy family. The difference thus became a rural farming southerner vs. an urban northerner who was focused more on production, marketing, and financial institutions.
Jefferson’s political ideas came mostly from the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, whose basic principle was equal rights of all people. Citizens ideally were to be governed by a “consent” or social contract constitution in which they agree to give up some lesser freedoms and wealth to secure important equal rights through accepting the majority vote decisions of elected representatives. Hamilton’s stance came mostly from another British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who saw mostly the selfish and confrontational nature of most humans who need a federal government run by those most gifted to govern this human reality. He was skeptical that enough good governing candidates could come from broad voting rights. Therefore Hamilton favored long terms for the executive and one legislative branch of government. He even suggested that the English monarchical system with a king might be considered. Jefferson had a strong distrust in such ideas, especially when they were linked with financial interests exerted as political power.
The Jefferson vs. Hamilton differences still exist in the current Democratic and Republican parties respectively, but with some differences that will not be enumerated here. The main reason for noting these differences is described in the following quotation from Jefferson at the start of his first term as President: “Nothing shall be spared on my part to obliterate traces of party and consolidate the nation.” (Jon Meacham, “Jefferson,” 2012). Three years later he said this attempt “was honorably pursued for a year or two and spurned by them.” The best he could hope for “was a truce between himself and his opponents, not a permanent peace.” He decided political divisions were intrinsic – what mattered most was how they were managed effectively. He considered opposing parties a check on one another.
While he was President, Washington spoke to this issue in a letter to Jefferson: “How unfortunate it is that internal dissensions should be harrowing ... I believe it will be difficult, if not impossible to manage the reins of government or to keep the parts of it together; for if, instead of laying our shoulders to the machine after measures are decided upon, one pulls this way and another a different way before utility of the thing is fully tried, it must inevitably be torn asunder ... lost, perhaps forever.”
During their entire political careers Jefferson and Hamilton stood staunchly against each other’s political philosophy. But they respected each other and worked out compromise stances. Jefferson did not try to make Federalist Adam’s presidency fail and Hamilton did not attempt to make Jefferson’s presidency fail. Jefferson even kept a bust of Hamilton in his home in retirement.
One can see relevance of this history to our national politics of negativism today. Parties seemingly cannot find anything positive in one another and will resort by whatever means possible to stop legislation or appointments, including government shutdown and defaulting on the nation’s debt. Legislation by one body that has no chance of being approved by the other is meaninglessly passed, and attempts to kill a bill or repeal a law are not accompanied by credible alternatives. A constant drumbeat of negative criticism echoed by the media erodes confidence and trust in our federal government. A suspicion develops that today’s politics are more personal than for the common good.
My view is that when any administration fails, we all suffer no matter what the reason or party in power. Such “victories” for one side end up an exercise of shooting ourselves in the foot — or worse. We would do well to look to the political practices of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton to get ourselves out of the partisan gridlock we are in. These men would likely admonish us that partisanship is a permanent reality, we should accept this fact, and get on with it together. Otherwise we could permanently harm the Republic.
DICK PETERSON is a Nisswa resident and a former member of the Brainerd Dispatch Editorial Board.