“The period of John Adams' presidency declined into a time of political savagery with few parallels in American history, a season of paranoia in which the two parties surrendered all trust in each other.”
So, I just discovered the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton. I know, I know, I'm a couple years late to the party, but what a party! What an epic, tragic story! The wordplay! The music! All day long King George's bouncy breakup song to the colonies is tripping through my head.
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion
To remind you of my love
Da da da da da...
And then there's that unforgettable line from Hamilton and Lafayette that I kept seeing on Facebook memes without knowing where it came from. Hearing it context with the driving music behind it made me want to stand up and shout along:
Immigrants—we get the job done!
The music got me so interested in Hamilton and in the history of our nation's birth that had seemed so boring in fourth grade that I had to learn more. I started with the book that inspired the musical, 731 pages of print that demanded reading glasses: Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.
The book doesn't make you tap your toes, and it takes a lot longer than the musical's two hours and twenty-two minutes to get through, but Chernow is a great storyteller and brings the people and times to life. I couldn't wait to get off work each day and read some more.
I learned a lot about the nation's first Treasury Secretary and how he shaped our nation and government, but what inspired me the most was seeing how many uncanny parallels there were between those times and ours.
I get discouraged by the bitter political climate and divisiveness that have infected our country and just assumed that things would have been radically different during the age of intellectual giants working together to win their freedom, write our extraordinary Constitution, and build a brand new nation from the ground up. Not so! A few of the many parallels:
A hyper-partisan climate that threatened to paralyze the government. As Thomas Jefferson described it: "Party animosities have raised a wall of separation between those who differ in political sentiments." Sound familiar?
Politicians and their followers vilified each other in the press in the harshest terms, attributing sinister or greedy motives to their political views, usually anonymously. Who needs the internet?
Media sources exhibited shameless partisanship, making no effort to appear unbiased. "Fake news" was a problem, as there were few standards for backing up rumors with reliable sources. Jefferson wrote: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
The federal debt was a problem. In fact, 55% of the federal budget went to service debt from the Revolutionary War. (Today it's about 6%, but then, our budget is much, much bigger).
Congress spent a great deal of time conducting partisan investigations of the executive branch. An investigation of Hamilton's Treasury Department dragged on for months, and though he was totally cleared of all charges, the investigation helped drive him out of power.
President Adams fired his Cabinet members in a fit of rage. Chernow writes that the Secretary of War was “shocked less at being sacked than by Adams’ ‘indecorous and at times outrageous’ behavior.”
President Jefferson complained about unfair European trade practices, and isolationism was on the rise.
When the electoral college rules won Jefferson the presidency, his opponents began to agitate to “impose new rules for choosing presidential electors. They now wanted the electors chosen through popular voting by district.” That pesky electoral college.
Gun violence was a problem, only instead of school shootings, it was politicians settling their differences on the dueling ground.
Anti-immigration sentiment was on the rise. The Alien & Sedition Acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen and allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous or who were from a hostile nation, all in the name of national security. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
Oh, and those Alien & Sedition Acts? They also criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government. Thomas Jefferson was appalled at this blatant disregard for freedom of speech, but once he became President, even he found it too hard to resist suing a couple of newspapers for libel. Today we find it shocking that Trump even thinks about doing this. It's been done already. By a Founding Father. Whom no one would deny was a "stable genius."
The great part about all of this isn't the realization that these brilliant people weren't any better than us; it was the recognition that WE GOT THROUGH IT.
The Alien & Sedition Acts were allowed to expire (mostly—the President still holds the power to imprison enemy aliens.) The media pulled themselves together, establishing rules for sourcing stories and making great strides toward unbiased reporting. Partisanship never disappeared, of course, but there have been many periods in our history in which politicians from opposite sides of the fence were able to work together civilly without fear of losing their next election. Dueling fell out of favor. Immigration rose again (and fell, and rose, and fell). Isolationism came and went.
The current divisiveness seems intractable. There seems to be no way forward, no way to recapture a sense of unity. But history shows that it can and does happen. There is hope for our great nation.
"What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see... America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me. You let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up."
~ Hamilton, “The World Was Wide Enough”
Verdict: Highly recommend for anyone who likes history and long books. (Also, if you haven't listen to the Hamilton soundtrack yet, do it!)