Let’s all find the better angels of our nature

A Liberal Dose


I want to begin this column by acknowledging John Gottlied’s statement last week that, despite our many disagreements, he is never attacking me personally because he believes I am a good man (and, in the past, he’s said my heart is usually in the right place). I can say the exact same thing about him. I recommended him for this column because I know he is a man of principle who would never hold back from ardently criticizing my views when he disagrees with them, without resorting to the nastiness that has become so common in our public life today. I am grateful to The Expositor for publishing both our viewpoints, because I think it is good for readers to see that two men, friends since childhood who love each other as brothers and respect one another, can disagree over politics - and even get mad sometimes - without losing sight of each other’s humanity. As I said, that seems to have become a scarce commodity nowadays.

It shouldn’t be like that. It doesn’t have to be like that.

I think frequently about the funeral of Democratic senator Ted Kennedy, the “liberal lion,” in 2009. I was moved by the heartfelt tears of Republican senator Orrin Hatch, one of Kennedy’s best friends. They were not only from different parties, Hatch had campaigned his way into Congress over 30 years earlier expressly on the platform of thwarting the liberal policies of, specifically, Ted Kennedy. Yet they worked together on important legislation through the years and developed a powerful friendship.

I think, too, of the presidential campaign of 1800. Back then, whoever came in second in the election would serve as vice-president to whoever won (what could go wrong?). In 1796, Thomas Jefferson had come in second to John Adams. Jefferson and Adams had been close allies and friends during the Revolution and for several years afterwards, but when our present government was formed as a result of the Constitution, the two men found themselves increasingly at odds. By 1796, Jefferson and James Madison had formed a political party, the Republicans - known to historians as the Democratic-Republicans and reorganized in the mid-1820s as the Democratic Party, so not to be confused with the modern Republican Party. Adams, meanwhile, joined the Federalist Party formed by Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson/Madison and Adams/Hamilton had very different ideas about what was best for the country, which sometimes led to animosity.

This was especially true during the Adams-Jefferson administration, as the two men went at each other sometimes viciously, with Jefferson running against Adams again, in 1800, and defeating him. To get by the “second-place gets VP” rule, the Democratic-Republicans also ran another candidate, Aaron Burr - all the party delegates were supposed to vote for both (each delegate got two votes) but one was supposed to NOT list Burr, guaranteeing he would come in right behind Jefferson if Jefferson won, and be his VP. But the delegates apparently became confused, because Jefferson and Burr wound up tied (ahead of Adams), which meant the election was sent to the House of Representatives to decide. The House was evenly divided, and no clear winner was evident there, either. Hamilton stepped in and urged his party to throw their votes to Jefferson. Despite their differences, Hamilton viewed Jefferson as a good and honorable man, a “lover of liberty,” whereas he called Burr an “embryo Caesar” who loved nothing but himself (Burr later killed Hamilton in a duel). When Jefferson was inaugurated, he sought to calm the acrimony of the campaign by saying, famously, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.”   It took another decade, but, after Jefferson left office, he and John Adams even renewed their close friendship.

Here’s hoping our current season turns out more like that, rather than take the turn things did in the 1850s/1860s. Let’s all return, instead, to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here