“We have called by different names brethren of the same principle.”

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We have called by different names brethren of the same principle.

Interesting historical tidbit. During the American Revolution Thomas Jefferson and John Adams became close friends. Their friendship lasted through the revolution but their relations became strained during the first years of the Republic. During the Washington administration two very distinct visions of the country emerged. The disagreement played out in the form of an intense political contest between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton saw the potential for a powerful commercial empire that would rival Britain, while Jefferson envisioned a landscape of personal liberty enjoyed by an agrarian middle class. Hamilton’s view called for a strong central government like the British monarchy, while Jefferson’s called for the least possible governmental intrusion into people’s lives by the smallest workable government.

Both Jefferson and Hamilton attracted like-minded followers. Included among those who adhered to Hamilton’s view was John Adams, Vice President to George Washington and the nation’s second President. The first contested election occurred in 1796 between Jefferson and Adams. The mechanics of Presidential elections were different than today, but what was similar was the deep polarization between the two parties. The campaign was marked by vicious personal attacks, fake news, and foreign intervention. Jefferson and his followers saw the Hamiltonians as monarchists out to betray the revolution. Hamilton’s adherents saw Jefferson as a dangerous, godless radical. Both sides were convinced that if the other took the reins of power, the country was doomed.

Adams won that election and Jefferson became Vice President. But the partisan ferver that had roiled Washington’s administration continued. Jefferson resigned and retreated to Monticello to foment a new revolution. The election of 1800, again pitting Adams vs. Jefferson, was equally vicious as the previous, but the country survived a stalemate in the House of Representatives when the Electoral College couldn’t decide the election, and a peaceful transfer of power from the Hamiltonians to the Jeffersonians laid the foundation for political stability that has characterized almost every election since (the exception was 1860). Jefferson observed what has for the most part guided American politics: “…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: we are all federalists.”[1]

By this time Adams and Jefferson despised each other. The pressures of the political arena championing different causes destroyed the amity they had previously enjoyed, and the two did not speak or correspond for many years, long after their active years in politics had ended. In 1812, at the urging of Benjamin Rush, Adams opened a dialog by letters, and the two began a correspondence. Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”[2]

Their exchange of letters is a national treasure, and a testament to mutual respect between two patriots who had once vehemently disagreed.[3] Despite their intense rivalry, Rush observed, “I rejoice in the correspondence which has taken place between you and your Old friend Mr Jefferson. I consider you and him, as the North and South poles of the American Revolution.”[4] There was something right about each of them that others could see, even though they could only see error in each other.

There is no shortage in American history of similar rapprochement. There seems to have once been an ability to recognize and honor sincere service to the nation despite political difference. So, for example, when Barack Obama was elected every living President gathered with him in the Oval Office for a photograph, a show of solidarity: two Republicans and three Democrats. This past weekend we heard Bill Clinton, who defeated George H. W. Bush for the Presidency, offer warm remembrances of the man who became his friend after the Presidency.

Our national life seems now to be choked by a crude and unforgiving air. You can hear it loud in our public discourse. But we sense it most profoundly at times like the present, when we mark the passing of a man who dedicated his life to the service of the nation in both war and peace. It seems many of us cannot see past our partisan noses and choose rather to denigrate and criticize as if the politics of the past were not past, rather than take the full measure of a full life. George Herbert Walker Bush was a great public servant and a great patriot. He was flawed as we all are flawed. He was complicit in policies and actions that we might still condemn. His politics were not beyond criticism. But the trajectory of his life was to serve, not to self-aggrandize.

We must stop being so unforgiving of each other. When we remember George Herbert Walker Bush, we ought to celebrate the kinder and gentler America of his vision, the one we all share, not the smudged image we are left with as flawed humanity. If we can acknowledge and celebrate what binds us, instead of sulking over what divides us, we might leave for those who come after a legacy worth remembering.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address” (Speech, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1801), quoted in “Founders Online,” National Archives, accessed December 4, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-33-02-0116-0004.

[2] John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1813, quoted in “Founders Online,” National Archives, accessed December 4, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0247.

[3] The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams

[4] Benjamin Rush, Letter to John Adams, February 17, 1812, quoted in “Founders Online,” National Archives, accessed December 4, 2018, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5758.