Sunday, October 26, 2014

"We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord"

The quotation in the heading is, of course, from the speech Theodore Roosevelt delivered accepting the Presidential nomination of the Progressive Party in 1912. It is in the interest of political candidates to persuade us that our votes may have apocalyptic consequences. That is sometimes, but seldom, the case. Usually the losers can count on being able to fight another day and few causes are actually lost causes.

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Russell Saltzman has been reading about the Presidential election in 1800 and is reminded that the aspects of politics from which many of us recoil are far from new:
Everything that makes American politics the best outdoor sport ever shows up in the presidential election of 1800 and has been replicated, to greater or lesser degree, in every election since.

Here we have hyper-partisanship, personal rancor, attack ads, slanted media coverage, over-the-top accusations against one candidate and ferocious counter-attacks from the other. There is backroom political intrigue, shameless machinations, political betrayal, slander, party campaign committees, and prison terms for anti-administration newspaper editors (okay, we don’t do that anymore).

We owe all this to Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Aaron Burr (a cipher in American history). The era of “disinterested” citizen service to the nation, largely a wistful fantasy of George Washington, formally ended with the great man’s death in 1799. ....

Jefferson represented Enlightenment reasoning. This meant, suggested his more extreme opponents (including Abigail Adams), he was a godless Jacobin deist who endorsed the French Terrors. Adams was solidly Protestant, but his “thinking leaned too much toward monarchism for Jefferson to stomach.” The campaign framed itself as a battle for the nation’s religious and political soul.

The question hanging on the election was whether the nation would descend into godlessness and social chaos like France under Republican Jefferson, or reassert the solid Federalist virtues of Adams grounded in God and order. It was all gross caricature, of course. .... [more]