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Standing at the precipice…

November 6th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


…every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans [democrats]: we are all federalists [republicans]. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” – Jefferson first inaugural address 1801

Revolutions generally bring together coalitions of groups who don’t share the same vision of what the desired outcome will look like. And, revolutions often change direction once they are begun. That was the case for our revolution, which began as a tax revolt and ended as a struggle for the rule of the common man.

Students of history know that seemingly incompatible differences in vision between the various founders became evident at the very beginning during the administration of George Washington, in the conflict between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, the idealist, saw the revolution as the beginning of a new age of the emancipation of the human spirit. Hamilton saw independence as a means of harnessing the vast resources of America to compete economically with Britain.

Those whose vision aligned with Hamilton controlled the Federal government through the Washington and Adams administrations, but their hold on power was challenged by the Jeffersonians in the election of 1800. It is important to recall that the United States did not then have a history of party politics, and most believed that party spirit (factionalism) was antithetical to democracy. Nevertheless the differences between these two groups were so severe that both sides warned of the end of the republic if their opponents were left in control of government. There was no tradition of peaceful transfer of power from one faction to another. The dire warnings the two sides hurled at each other were not hyperbole.

When the electoral college was not able to elect a president in 1800 the election went to the House of Representatives as specified in the constitution. The House was controlled by Federalists (Hamiltonians), but the Federalist candidate John Adams did not have enough votes to prevail. The election split between two Republicans (Jeffersonians): Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and after 35 tie votes and the threat of military intervention by the Governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania elected Jefferson. In fact, there had been a backroom deal between Jefferson and Hamilton, where Jefferson promised to leave Hamilton’s financial measures intact in return for Hamilton swaying the vote in his favor. Jefferson would for the rest of his life deny that he had made a deal, but the evidence is clear. Which tells us that the very survival of American democracy was made possible by a reluctant willingness to compromise on fundamental issues.

After the contest was decided, Jefferson delivered the quote above in his inaugural address. He displays a hopeful vision, that the people, whatever their political persuasion, have a common love of liberty. And he allows for the most radical opposition, even to the point of threatening to destroy the republic, “as long as reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson believed that an informed electorate could be trusted to act in the best interests of the country.

As a student of history, I have devoted a great deal of thought to the current election. It seems to me not to be an overstatement to say that this election is marked by political polarization our nation has not seen since the election of 1800, with the exception of the election of 1860. In 1800, the antagonists called upon a common love of freedom to save the republic. In 1860, they failed to do so, and the result was civil war.

The key to the survival of democracy, Jefferson believed, was that citizens would take seriously their obligation to carefully weigh what was at stake using the best information available. Looking at my Facebook feed and watching the National Enquirer-esque “breaking news” nonsense articles scrolling past, that those who post must apparently believe, I wonder if Jefferson should have been so optimistic.

Some scholars have referred to the intellectual atmosphere we live in as the “post-truth era.” Many will argue that what we call truth can be subjective, and that is true. But there are facts, and there are things that are demonstrably false, and there are ways to tell them apart. I fear that by abandoning truth as a basis for managing our shared community, we are also abandoning the ability for self government. Rather than leaving reason free to combat untruth, large portions of our electorate are engaged in all out combat against truth. We stand at the edge.

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