Once More: The Value of History and Context

Last week, Mitt Romney directed that Obama “take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago.”

For good and bad, ‘division and anger’ have always been part of American politics. Take the case of Alexander Hamilton. He was called “Tom S**t” in one New York paper, was accused of having African ancestry (shades of ‘born in Kenya’), and was accused both of being a bastard and a foreigner. He could give as well as receive (one of the reasons for the anger against him), but could also move into something more substantial… including the Federalist Papers.

With ratification of the Constitution came no diminution of rancorous and mean debate. In The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, Gerald Baldasty writes about the editors of the early Republic, men who were also, for the most part, directly involved in politics:

Editors did not debate in some idealistic desire to create a vast marketplace of ideas. Rather, they argued with one another because they wanted power. They were highly opinionated and interpreted events within their partisan ideology.

They, too, Baldasty goes on to say, “produced fervent and wide-ranging debate about political issues.”

We remember the positive from the past but tend to forget that it was accompanied by much that was, by any definition, unseemly. We also forget that one has never existed without the other. Scratch our most saintly politicians (even our Founding Fathers) and you will find a gutsy and nasty street-fighter within.

This is not to say that ‘everybody does it, so it’s OK.’ It is only to provide a historical context for what is happening now, showing that what we are experiencing, politically, is not cataclysmic or even unusual. Our democracy has survived the low blows of its politicians for over two centuries. If it is ever brought down, it won’t be because of these.

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