With July 4th approaching, we will see our nation’s founding recalled fondly. The Founding Fathers are perhaps the greatest collection of thinkers, philosophers, and statesmen ever assembled in one place and at one time. The ones who served as early presidents - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison - were all geniuses who set our nation’s course.
Even those who never rose to the top ranks - Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams - are a collection of minds unparalleled in history. Though they came from widely different backgrounds, the foresight of that group assembled in one place, the American colonies, and at one point in history, 1770s-1790s, is simply unimaginable.
Critics of modern politics are quick to point out how far we have fallen and they are largely correct; Gone are the vision and lofty ideals.
But like most everything else, the founding fathers’ political infights were also bigger, tougher and more vibrant than the modern equivalents.
Those who say that the founding fathers would not engage in the same political rhetoric and divisiveness we see with the parties today simply don’t know their history.
Reading the recent biographies of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton one quickly realizes political infighting and partisanship dates back to our nation’s founding – or at least to Washington’s second term. Though they didn’t have organized political parties, the key players then were either Federalists or Republicans and these groups truly thought the other was out to destroy the country in a much more robust manner than Clinton and Trump lob allegations back and forth.
Secretary of State Jefferson and Madison (in Congress) openly speculated about whether Treasury Secretary Hamilton had hidden aims to restore a monarchy.
Hamilton faced an investigation by congress on charges of personal profiteering and giving insider information from the treasury. He was never found guilty, but the tradition of constant calls for scrutiny as a political tool was established early.
The rhetoric was just as nasty as anything today. When Hamilton and his wife both came down with yellow fever, Jefferson, among others, questioned whether he might be faking it and also that he was of weak constitution so it was no surprise he claimed an illness.
Washington, possibly the greatest of the founders, did his best to keep the lid on his cabinet, but infighting during his second term ran amuck. Eventually, Jefferson resigned over the split between his Republican allies and Hamilton’s Federalists.
The goal in pointing out the unseemly side of early politics is not to tarnish the founders, but rather to correct the Disney Prince notion that our Founding Fathers were all on the same page and worked together. They didn’t. The brawls in that day were bare knuckle and at least one involved a shooting.
The reason for their fighting then is the same as it is today – smart people have different views of how something as large and complex as our nation should be run and when they collide, it’s no holds barred. When fighting for deeply held beliefs, politicians in all eras justify a lot of means to achieve their ends.
Recall that it was the conflict and the compromises that forged the nation -- not unanimous belief among founders. The Bill of Rights was added as a political concession to get the Constitution passed and it took closed-door sessions, back room deals and all kinds of promises get the colonies to move from the loose alliance under the Articles of Confederation to a United States.
So, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, bear in mind the political brawls today are meek compared to the days when Aaron Burr (a one-time Vice President) shot and killed Alexander Hamilton (the founding treasury secretary). Now that was a political divide.