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History Continues To Repeat Itself

I know that most believe that we are living through one of the most contentious periods in American history. Yet, after recently re-reading David McCullough’s biography on John Adams, I was again reminded of how acrimonious politics has been throughout our nation’s history.

Adams, as we know, was one of the founding fathers and was elected as our second President in 1796. Though a rather “low-key” kind of guy, he was constantly vilified by his opponents, and was actively opposed even by his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. On his last day in office, one newspaper reveled in his departure, hoping that once he returned to his home in Braintree, Massachusetts “Mrs. Adams may wash his befuddled brain clear.”

The acrimony in our politics had begun even earlier during George Washington’s second term. The revered Washington had come to be referred by some as the “American Caesar,” and Thomas Paine had called him a “hypocrite in public life.” Washington, tired of criticism and wearied of politics, decided not to seek a third term. In his view, the developing “party system” of politics was not good for the country.

After becoming President, Adams, a Federalist, soon faced opponents even within his own party from men like Alexander Hamilton who wanted him to be tougher, support Britain and go to war with France. Adams, however, believed the young nation needed to stay out of war, and so he eventually concluded a treaty of peace with France. Old “friends” like Jefferson even accused him wanting to make the Presidency into a monarchy akin to that of the English King. Adams wanted no such thing.

And then there were political “upstarts” at the time who came out of nowhere and who had little philosophy of government other than self-promotion. They were especially despised by Adams. One was Aaron Burr, described by Adams as “seeing this dexterous gentleman rise like a balloon, filled with uninflammable air….”(Does that not remind you of some present-day politicians?)

At least, in the early days of the country, most political differences were couched in arguments alleging noble ideas. The Federalists were pushing for a strong central government in order to bolster the prospects for the new United States. Almost immediately, there emerged the “Anti-Federalists” (eventually referred to as democratic “republicans,”) who believed in strong government at the state level but wanted a weaker form at the federal level. Much of that feeling was founded on the fear that the commercial north would try to dominate the rural (and slave-owning) south through the power of the federal government.

Interestingly, these old political breakdowns still sound familiar today. Fear still prevails in the south and in rural America, that the nasty federalists (now Democrats) from the north will try to impose their “big-government” will on the “freedom-loving people” of the south (now primarily Republican) and “never the twain shall meet.”

I suppose that we could argue all day about the intrigue and bitterness that characterized politics in the early days of our county. But, that is the point. Contentious politics has always been with us and, probably, always will be.

What the American people have done in the past and still have to do, is sift through the accusations and acrimony of politics and find the nuggets of unity underlying our system. Underneath the veneer is that love of country and freedom under law which, despite our differences, has made our democracy work.

Ours is a history that continues to repeat itself, and there is no way we can duck our obligations as citizens today to ensure that the system, as imperfect as it is, keeps working.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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