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History helps us understand the body politic

Editor’s note. This is the first in a two-part series. The second can be found here..

In the beginning they were immigrants or pilgrims, fleeing an old world that no longer suited and seeking a new one. In time they became colonists, developing neighborhoods of the New World. As the complexity of shaping their new world grew, involvement with the Old World became more and more difficult to endure. And so, they became patriots, determined to have a life that suited their philosophy of independence, willing to fight for rights they considered natural. Finally, fitfully, with fragile steps, they became Americans, free of the encumbrances imposed by a foreign power which neither understood nor cared to understand what they considered of penultimate value: individual freedom.

Oh, that it had ended there, the pilgrim-colonist-patriot standing proud and strong as an American. Sadly, the drama had one more act to be played, transforming what would have been a magnificent battle of heroes into a quagmire of antagonists interested not in the great good of America but dedicated to the special, petty goals of a party .

Almost before the grass had grown back at Lexington, Saratoga, Breed’s Hill, bickering and dissent erupted as to the prize that had been won in the revolt: a sovereign union organized to help the greater body of citizens or a loose confederation whose members could overrule the United States when they so chose. In that latter spirit Thomas Jefferson even wrote and provided laws for the legislature of Kentucky to enact; these laws (never passed) would have authorized the State of Kentucky to withdraw from the United States. Thomas Paine was often quoted: “That government is best which governs least.” (Not long after Henry David Thoreau would amend Paine’s sentiment: “That government is best which governs not at all.” Thoreau, Paine, and Jefferson apparently had no fear of chaos.) In a letter to a friend, Jefferson insisted that it was for the good of the nation that blood be spilled every few years. The last great convulsion of the Revolution, perhaps the spilling of blood Jefferson had alluded to, would wait until the 1860s. As representatives from the northern, middle, and southern states set about defining the relation of State to Union, there emerged two parties, Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

Although many in government, such as John Adams, the second holder of our highest office, foresaw the dangers of such division, nevertheless party loyalty coupled with party weight quickly became the arbiter of law and custom. Adams wrote, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other.” And later he wrote, “How few aim at the good of the whole, without aiming too much at the prosperity of parts!”

The last year has offered a blight of smear campaigns, enough to turn one’s stomach. Long ago, John Adams, warned: “Our electioneering racers have started for the prize. Such a whipping and spurring and huzzaing! Through thick and thin, through mire and dirt, through bogs and fens and sloughs, dashing and splashing and crying out, the devil take the hindmost! How long will it be possible that honor, truth or virtue should be respected among a people who are engaged in such a quick and perpetual succession of such profligate collisions and conflicts?” How long indeed.

Unfortunately, and all too quickly, the new nation saw the passing of its only two non-party presidents, George Washington and John Adams. Is it possible that Washington refused a third term because he saw this dark shadow rising? Is it also possible that Adams might have had a second term had he but allied himself to a party? In any event, Thomas Jefferson, the third man to sit in the highest elected seat in the land was completely committed to party machinations. From that time to the present, the holder of the office of President is at once the head of the nation and the head of his party.

And during much of that time it has been difficult if not impossible to discern which set of interests concerned him the most – nation or party. Even before the echo of cannons at the inauguration has died down, that individual is busy staffing the government with “his” people, who are not necessarily the best candidates for any position. And long before the four years have fled by, that individual has begun to spend more and more time working to preserve his tenure for four more years. His personal prominence and power carry more weight than the good of the country. Only Lyndon Johnson chose to look at the world and admit that he was not the man to govern it.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor from the University of Mississippi and a community columnist.