An American Myth: Not Always a Peaceful Transition of Power

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Editor’s Note: For sometime now I have asked (begged) Tim to write for the blog. The following is his Epiphany gift to me. Tim holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Oregon State University and a Masters in History from Washington State University. He is a James Madison Fellow and has taught public school for going on 34 years now. He is highly regarded among students as the hardest teacher they ever had but the most lenient, which means he’s tough but takes late work up, something I, a journalist/writer, rarely do.  We are polar opposites in many ways, which brings me to the title of this blog. Tim wanted it to be This Ship of State is Not Safe. I told him it needed to be less literary and more direct. We argued. Then we compromised. I am the editor after all, so that’s how it should be. All that to say, this is worthy read. Tim has been telling me for months that Jackson was a scoundrel worse than Trump. I have been telling him for months, who cares? I didn’t know Jackson. Trump is the one I’m worried about. Our household is a lot of fun.  Dinner conversations always enlightening. 

 

Contemporary Americans often spout out the word ‘democracy’ as a sacred word of American founding, while equally spewing out the word ‘liberal’ as a pejorative handed down from the Founders. These folks are wrong on both accounts. It was ‘democracy’ that was spat out of the mouths of the Founders as an evil to be avoided, while that which promoted liberty was sacred. Of course, liberty did not mean a freedom to just pursue one’s self-interest but, rather, demanded a consideration for the common good; hence, it was the word republican – from res publica – that was preferred by our founding generation.

Democracy was feared for its historical tendency to resort to propaganda and to pit major blocs of society against each other in struggles that too frequently produced cycles of civil war and collapses into dictatorships.

The Founders settled on a blend of republican and democratic elements to which they also added a new form of federalism – regional autonomous governments sharing power with a single supreme national authority; an experiment that had never been tried in human history.

Within a generation, the democratic portion of the Founder’s recipe supplanted republican liberalism as our democratic preferences took offense at the republican choice of John Q. Adams over the majoritarian selection of Andrew Jackson.

Rejecting Adams, who dedicated a lifetime of public service and experience and commitment for the progressive values of equal protection of the laws, sanctity of civil and human rights, and the realization that equality is more than legal protections, but must also recognize educational and economic opportunities as legitimate public policy concerns, the people chose Jackson,  a governmentally and economically inexperienced, strong-willed, ill-tempered, self-centered, sycophant-seeking brawler and murderer to lead the United States of America. (Sound familiar?)

Interesting for our time, Jackson also relied upon slogans of propaganda that involved making America great and dominate on its continent. An historic era of ‘Good Feeling,’ national consensus and unanimity, was shattered by a bank war that led to financial collapse, forced removal of those of differing color and creed, and growing regional divergence of values and goals that would culminate in an official civil war of four years’ duration and an unofficial war of Reconstruction that would last for 100 more.

Ironically, Jackson’s elevation to the presidency coincided with the birth of the Democratic Party. A party whose name has endured but shares little with its modern descendent.

The American people have became so used to peaceful elections and transitions of power. It has caused us to forget that the first century – excepting the Era of Good Feeling (that lucky Monroe) – was often extremely violent and contentious. The normal election in those days involved picnicking and a good deal of adult beverage drinking, a good portion of which was intended to sway votes, as James Madison discovered in a delegate race he lost.

Those were also the days where you not only had to show up in person but had to man up by declaring aloud your choice for all gathered to hear. Mix that tension with alcohol, taverns often doubling as the polling location, brawls, shootings and full scale riots were a frequent result.

Intimidation and murder were very much a part of the ‘war by other means’ brand of American politics that commenced in the Jacksonian Democratic era. Consider the Kyle brothers of Baltimore in 1859, on their way to the polling location one was killed while the other suffered a gunshot wound to his arm and a blow from a brick off his head before he managed to escape homeward sans casting his vote.

It is estimated that nearly 100 men were killed attempting to cast votes in US elections during the 1840s and 1850s. Running for office began to be labeled ‘campaigns’ by the early 1860s when the nation was clearly engaged in settling a policy dispute by military operations that possessed the same nomenclature.

In the 19th-century especially, it was men with military experience and renown that attracted popular appeal as viable candidates for our highest office: 13 of them left the military at the rank of Major or higher. Indeed, it must be remembered that it was force of arms that created the United States. Militiamen who sacrificed for the nation’s independence, expanded its internal empire, and protected it from foreign intervention were not the wealthy merchants or large land holders and so the reward for service increasingly became enfranchisement in the commonwealth – suffrage.

This right was earned by marshal means and a military mentality permeated how that right should be wield against policy opponents. Additionally, affront to one’s honor meant a great deal more in the early 1800s than it does today and one’s honor had much to do with what values they held. An attack on a man’s policy values was not just a difference of opinion but a slur against his personal identity that demanded an equitable response of self-defense.

Burr, who tied with Jefferson with the most electoral votes in 1800, eventually as Vice-president shot Hamilton, while our previously mentioned Jackson endured several duels and served as president with a slug from one of them resting near his heart.

Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech on the floor of the US Senate in 1856 that attacked the hypocrisy and miscegenation of southern slavery that resulted in his being physically ambushed in his office shortly thereafter by Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks; a beating from which Sumner would need a year to mentally and physically recover.

The Republican party had, in fact, just recently been reborn in that decade under a growing movement that held slavery incompatible with the founding republican liberal values embodied in its Declaration of Independence. This, too, is the namesake of the current party bearing that name, though currently reflecting little of the values, honor, or courage of its ancestors.

Southerners were, of course, equally committed to a literal reading of Constitutional language that had been born of pragmatic compromise necessary to create one nation and to local democratic processes that insured those majorities got their way. This disregarded the warning of the Constitution’s Father that it was local majorities that represented the gravest danger to the principles of the Declaration and long-term successful government.

It appears the contemporary election cycle has brought us full circle, fulfilling the ‘again’ of recent campaign propaganda.

While the parties of today are radically unlike their origins, it is very clear that we are back to a fundamental contest about keeping that republic of which Franklin feared we might lose. The experiment has required sacrifices, many of the ultimate variety, to ensure that such a republic long endure. At the millennium, too many us, as was the case 200 years ago, became lulled into a false era of good feeling that humans naturally promote the common good and are willing to sacrifice for the missions of self- and community-improvement. The system will not work on autopilot or turn out right of itself; our experiment requires engagement (more than 50 percent not even voting?) and fighting (yes, peaceful kneeling during in the anthem included!) with and for first – and all other –  amendment rights 24/7. We must never again allow those ‘checks’ notarized by the spirit of the Declaration and Constitution – “the letter of the law kills but the spirit giveth life”– come back marked ‘insufficient funds’ for any of our fellow citizens, permitting inequity and vast differences in opportunity, resource ownership, medical access, or wealth. No vain bully, special economic interest or other kind, or fraudulent con should guide the rudder of this republican vessel – so, all hands, on deck!

Tim Zacharias is an unaffiliated voter, a thinker, a reader, an educator, a coach and a Beaver Believer. He is also a tender-hearted father and the kind of husband & man that Donald Trump will never be – honorable.

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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