By Grady Hawkins
The tragic events in Tucson, Arizona last week have ignited a national bonfire of vanities across our political landscape. Commentators on the left and right are lamenting the hostility between the ideologies, each accusing the other of poisoning the atmosphere.
Indeed, each political opponent drawing a bead on the other, their cross hairs targeting the opposition with accusations of inciting violence. And the ignorant and innocent electorate is aghast, wondering how these violent vendettas came to pass.
The fact is that violence in American politics has always been the norm. The founding fathers knew the quill was mightier than the sword, but the sword could also come in handy.
In the House of Representatives in 1798, Roger Griswold of Connecticut insulted Vermont’s Matthew Lyon’s Revolutionary War credentials. Representative Lyons proved his martial mettle by crossing the floor and spitting in Griswold’s face. Two weeks later, Griswold hit Lyons with a cane, who then grabbed a fire tong and attacked Griswold. The brawl was quickly broken up, but it was just a taste of what was to come.
That same year, Vice president Thomas Jefferson hired renegade writer James Callender to slander his President John Adams. Callender published, calling Adams “a hoary headed incendiary” who wanted to set himself up as president for life and starting a war with France. When confronted with the evidence of his disloyalty, Jefferson denied it all. Later, when Callender was serving a sentence in a Richmond jail for libel, he heard that Jefferson was conducting an affair with his mulatto slave Sally Hemings. After his release from custody he broke the story, neatly double-crossing his former patron.
Newspapers in the young Republic attacked viciously. The campaign of 1800 was brutal. The pro-Federalists Connecticut Currant smeared a potential Thomas Jefferson administration with “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest…the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.” Equal time was not offered in the Currant. Jefferson’s supporters were not spared and singled out as …”cut-throats who walked in rags and sleep in filth and vermin.”
Jefferson’s republicans counter attacked declaring John Adams a “licentious fool and criminal tyrant.” They accused Adams of wanting to establish an American Monarchy and rejoin Great Britain, at the same time trying to obtain four mistresses from London.
Alexander Hamilton got in a swipe against President Adams writing…”the disgrace of his foolish and bad manners…he does not possess the talent, there are great and intrinsic defects in his character which unfit him for the office…infected with some visionary notions, imagination sublimated and eccentric, vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object.” Not too severe an attack, until you realize they were in the same Federalist party. This was private correspondence leaked to the press.
Adams responded to Hamilton’s slurs calling him…”an intriguant, the greatest in the world…a man devoid of every moral principal…a bastard.”
Even the universally worshipped George Washington was not off limits. Benjamin Franklin’s grandson declared…”if ever a nation has been debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington.”
Alexander Hamilton also hated Aaron Burr. His attacks on the future Vice-President were relentless for years. During those years Burr seems to have either ignored Hamilton or was simply too busy with his own intrigues to care. But all this changed in 1804. Burr lost his election for Governor of New York, and Alexander Hamilton was one of the reasons. A letter appeared in the Albany register which proclaimed Burr was “a dangerous man who ought not to be trusted.” Not remarkable for the times until the letter writer declared “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
This called for clarification from Aaron Burr. Historians are not certain as to the “despicable opinions” are but some believe he claimed Burr having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter.
Burr called Hamilton out and Hamilton agreed to an “interview” (duel).
On the morning of July 11, 1804, the men settled their differences as Vice-President Aaron Burr put a one ounce slug into Alexander Hamilton’s liver. Hamilton died the next day.
The years leading to the outbreak of the War of Northern Aggression were tense in Congress. Senator Hammond of South Carolina observed that “every man on the floor of both houses is armed with a revolver…some with two revolvers and a bowie knife.” Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio was not to be out gunned so he carried a sawed off shotgun. The House of Representatives “seethed like a boiling cauldron”.
The cauldron boiled over on May 19th, 1856. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts rose to give his “Crimes Against Kansas” oration. Sumner singled out for attack Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina proclaiming “The Senator from South Carolina…has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others is always lovely to him…I mean the Harlot, slavery.” The Senator from Massachusetts goes on and on and his spell-binding rhetoric is not appreciated. Three days later, Representative Preston Brooks, also of Carolina, entered the Senate Chamber to discuss the speech.
“I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler who is a relative of mine”. As Sumner was considering his reply, Brooks suddenly
pulled out a cane and beat Sumner bloody. He collapsed unconscious and in a coma.
The Presidential campaign of 1864 was vile. Harper’s Weekly published a catalogue of libels against President Abraham Lincoln expressed by the supporters of his Democratic opponent George McClellan. Lincoln was characterized as a “Monster, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher, Liar and Filthy Story Teller”, just to name a few.
The New York World was vicious, referring to the Lincoln-Johnson ticket declared “The age of statesmen is gone; the age of rail splitters and tailors, of buffoons, boors and fanatics has succeeded…the country is asked to consider the claims of two ignorant, boorish, third rate backwoods lawyers for the highest standings in the Government. Such nominations, in such a conjuncture, are an insult to the common sense of the people. God save the Republic.”
Not to be out done the New York Herald piled on “President Lincoln is a joke incarnate…his first election was a very sorry joke…his debut in Washington society was a joke…his inaugural address was a joke…his cabinet is and always was a joke…all his state papers are jokes…his title “Honest” is a satirical joke…his intrigues to secure renomination and the hopes he appears to entertain of a re-election are, however, the most laughable jokes of all.”
These are Northern newspapers!! How their editors managed not to be arrested and tossed into Fortress Monroe for the duration of the war is not known.
Our more modern and progressive era has long since frowned on elected officials murdering one another, but the slander and libel continues. Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Tea Party Patriots participate, replacing bullets with bluster. Cable television, radio and the internet have replaced the deadly dueling ground. No blood- shed in our political wars, but it’s the closest we can get to combat without dying.
All sides believe there’s too much at stake to risk showing weakness by respectful debate. And when the political lines are drawn, they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s the American way of politics.
(Editor’s note: For more “tantalizing true tales of historic misbehavior by the Founding Fathers read “A treasury of Great American Scandals” By Michael Farquhar