Monthly Archives: October 2020

“Your Neighbor as Yourself”–Obsolete?

Sierra Nevada. One of many breath-taking scenes in American wilderness. Classroom material

This phrase reflects a basic idea traced to religion–the Second Commandment: Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. When applied to our secular life, some communities sit in direct opposition–reflecting the angry words of the political divide that carves deep into our neighborhoods. Ugly words bubble up automatically.

Seeking a route to a more hospitable future, I found Union, the story of two college acquaintances—a Republican and a Democrat–who got to become friends on a coast-to-coast road trip. They stopped to see the beauty of America, reflected in the Sierra Nevada above, view some of the ugly disagreements, and noticed how some disagreed but found ways to stay in the conversation, using logical arguments.

In a negative environment, where anything and anyone can be open game for ridicule, we will be left with a divided nation after the 2020 Presidential Campaign ends in November, no matter the final outcome of the election.

Thinking about how America could regain its balance, I ran across Union, a 2020 book by two curious college graduates raised in California—Chris, a speechwriter, and Jordan, businessman/ entrepreneur/ former Marine from opposite political parties. They made three road trips East to West and wore out the Volvo Chris inherited from his 87-year-old grandfather (literally, the engine’s ghost gave up in North Carolina on the last trip). They stopped for beautiful scenery like Yellowstone, Red Rocks Canyon in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, Casco Bay near San Francisco, but their main objective was to listen to partisans on all sides to see where openings occured to slowly stitch the country back together block by block.

The idea for their American Odyssey began as Chris, the one with the longer hair, wearing a “Berkeley Political Review” tee shirt, sped the Volvo around the black, volcanic rocks of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon hurrying Jordan to Northern California to serve as “man of honor” for his sister’s wedding. The flashing red lights came up behind them, causing Chris something this side of heart palpitations. He had been going well over the posted 70 mph.

The stop progressed from a through-the-window exchange of registration and license to “out of the car” and moved to Chris being seated inside the Idaho State Patrol car. “You say you’re from California, but you have a D.C. license, and Jordan’s car is registered in New York—to a different name (probably his grandfather). . . and you can’t stop shaking. It just doesn’t add up, kid.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” Chris said. “But he is who he says he is, and so am I.”

At this point the trooper gets out of the vehicle after barking, “Stay here,” as he goes to the Volvo to talk with Jordan, who gets out of the car. Chris starts to think next; I will be moved to the backseat where the doors do not open from the inside.  All Chris can see is hand waving and gestures to the car by the officer first, then by Jordan, and a bit of conversation, which he cannot hear. Jordan throws his head back and laughs. Then a smile breaks on the officer’s face. Chris now totally confused as they approach the patrol car together. Turns out they are both Marines—a brotherhood that covers a lot of ground and finds forgiveness with a word of caution for two guys trying to make it to a family wedding.

As the Volvo drove around Oregon’s Crater Lake after escaping the state’s steamy eastern lowlands, Jordan starts to talk about his older sister, Jenna, the bride-to-be. She paved the way for him in school and protected him at his school across town by sending her male senior buddies to have a “talk” with the bully pestering her freshman brother. This came in particularly handy during Bush v. Gore. She went to one of the most liberal high schools in the country, so Republicans were not treasured. She got up at an assembly before 500 people and laid it out. “All of you need to stop it. My parents and my brother are Republicans, and they are still good people.” (Union, p 35)

Jordan saw first-hand in Afghanistan what happens when the rule of law breaks down, leading to endless civil war.  In one of their pre-trip conversations, Jordan said: “I really like the idea of a Constitution as a covenant, something that binds us together in a society of mutual trust and collective responsibility.”

Jordan offered: “One of my professors described it as an intergenerational project in which every American has a role in helping to achieve a more perfect union.” But how does it work?  That is what our struggle will be through the end of 2020 and marching beyond.

The conversation continued as they struggled to determine what this means and what binds us together. Jordan said he could see “almost a spiritual dimension to all of this.” He pointed out that Americans find meaning in a multitude of things—art, culture, work, even politics. But now? We focus on our differences. (Union, p. 5)

Chris said it was obvious to him “something was amiss.” His solution was to go out and see America for himself because how could he talk or write intelligently about the people in the country without meeting more of them.  Jordan invited him on their first-cross country road trip—East to West.

Is “My Neighbor as Myself” an unreasonable pipedream? Are we so nestled in our homes due to Covid 19 that we are ignoring our neighbors? Or by pulling back our responsibilities beyond home are we having more time to converse over the fence, at the end of a dog leash, or through the car window?

Maybe “loving our neighbor” is too high a bar and maybe a downgrade to “tolerate” our neighbor might be an improvement over “despise” or “hate” our neighbor’s politics. Perhaps we can learn to love their lavender tree?

Stick with Past Becomes Present for Part 2 of Union as I dig deeper into the book. How did these frenemies survive the discussions on the road? What did they learn about America while on the road? How could we begin to dialog, rather than talking past each other—when no one is listening?

Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh, Union, A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground (New York: Little Brown and Company) pp. 291

Your Choice for a Beer: Adams or Jefferson

Jefferson, the wordsmith vs. Adams, the convincer-in-chief

Would you select a political candidate depending on whether they could be comfortable in a pub enjoying a beer?  Who were these men and what would make you want to share a beer?

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson come from a more formal era, but there were pubs and tavern galore where one could stop for a pint to trade local gossip or stay the night and get a wider spectrum of political ideas from travelers. Back then pubs were based on the “Cheers” example, “where everybody knows your name.” Men were likely to have a favorite pub just around the corner or down the block, which made it easy for politicians to catch the temperature of their constituents, particularly in New England, even in current times.

Taverns granted wider polling opportunities for Jefferson on the way to and from Virginia’s House of Burgesses or while both men travelled to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and later Congressional meetings in Washington. In the 1770s bars and taverns belonged to men. Women who valued their reputation stayed far away. Politicians then did not worry about these absent women in these haunts because they would not become voters until 1920.

Adams looked forward to stopping in for a brew and testing the political waters. Jefferson preferred life on his mountain to time on the road, even when Monticello was just a one-room possibility. In the 1770s they shared a common goal—to get their countrymen to see the country joining as a single country and not as men clinging to separate regional perspectives.

Pulled by Opposite Parties—An Extrovert v. Introvert

Politically they clung to opposite parties—the Federalist for centralized government (Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) of states’ rights. Physically they were an odd pair. Jefferson at around 6’2” seemed on an easy path to the leadership roles imparted to tall men, like George Washington at 6’4,” who stood out in a crowd of Colonial men, who averaged 5’7”-5’9” tall. Adams could not compete with their height, but he undersold himself as short only in comparison to the taller politicians, since he stood with average men at around 5’8.”

Opinions by his contemporaries whether Jefferson was handsome varied. He had a prominent chin, high cheekbones, deep-set, nondescript hazel eyes, sandy-red hair, and ruddy skin, but he had habitually poor posture, according to John Ferling in Setting the World on Fire. (1) His intelligence, personal charm, passionate curiosity, and manner made his company pleasant, according to Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs. (2)

There would be no debate about Adam’s beauty—he being portly, balding, pallid, ungainly, and indifferent to fashionable attire or as an acquaintance remarked, “careless of appearances.” Neither a backslapper or a flatterer and on occasion known as “irascible,” yet Adam’s friend Jonathan Sewall, a rival in pre-war legal circles in Massachusetts, said later “Adams has a heart formed for friendship.” Sewall saw Adams as honest, open, approachable, good-natured, and down to earth, attributes that drew friends throughout his life .(3)

By comparison Jefferson loathed arm-twisting politics and did not appear for debate in Congress, as he hated public speaking, possibly due to shyness and a thin voice that did not carry in great halls. While Jefferson could write well-crafted arguments, he relied on someone else to present those ideas to Congress. Passing acquaintances found him reserved, even cold, but Jefferson showed up in committee with direct, not flowery, or oratorical, comments that added substance to the discussion.

In 1787, before their presidential rivalry, Jefferson told his lifelong friend, Madison, that Adams was so friendly “that you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.” (4)

Adams had ample opportunities to develop friendships and referee discussions between 1775 and 1777 he served on ninety communities, including twenty-five that he chaired, likely more than any other congressman—developing his skill as a leading political thinker, a foremost expert on foreign affairs, and an expert on military affairs (and probably lining up chits to eventually land the number two spot behind Washington.)

 Historian Joseph Ellis noted Adams’ s mastery of detail, pointing to him as possessing “the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress” in 1777.  While Adams did not have the Pied Piper talents of Samuel Adams or was not as electrifying an orator as Patrick Henry, but in May 1775 when Congress needed to change tacks from confrontation to management and diplomacy, Adams’ star rose. Jefferson had found Patrick Henry to be “electrifying.” But by mid-summer 1775, he saw him as “a man of very little knowledge of any sort.”’

Jefferson’s method of the personal relationship centered around Monticello as you see here in a note to Henry Knox, then Secretary of War who had served as a key general during the Revolution. “When the hour of dinner is approaching, sometimes it rains, sometimes it is too hot for a long walk, sometimes your business would make you wish to remain longer at your office or return there after dinner, and make it more eligible to take any sort of a dinner in town,” Jefferson wrote in 1791. “Any day and every day that this would be the case you would make me supremely happy by messing with me without ceremony or other question than whether I dine at home.” He finishes with the time: from quarter to three quarters after three. . .you’ll be sure to meet a sincere welcome.”

Orator vs. Writer

Adams enjoyed mixing it up with fellow legislators and became known for his skill drawing out his colleagues and convincing them that his plans were in their own self-interest. Jefferson would be more comfortable secluded on his mountaintop in Virginia. When Jefferson spoke before the Continental Congress, he would speak in low tones for ten minutes or less. It went to Adams to sell the Declaration to the legislators, all of whom knew they could be signing their death notice or that of their family and the possible destruction of their homes, fields, or businesses.  The Founders went to Jefferson, the young wordsmith, to prepare the sizzling document that gave life to their ideas, which would be passed to orator Adams, who would entice the legislators to be bold and sign on.

Jefferson’s role as scribe relied on his exquisite wordsmithing, but also on his brevity, covering Adams’ epistles in one-tenth the space (a talent perhaps not missed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address of 263 words!). Jefferson’s assignment in 1775: to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. He started with a long list of grievances against Great Britain, which would appear a year later in the final Declaration of Independence. (5)

In 16 years in Massachusetts courtrooms, Adams chose gravity paired with eloquence, rather than relying on the dramatics we see today. A Pennsylvanian Congressman noted Adam’s ability to see “the whole of a subject at a single glance.” (6)

The Case that Made Adams

Bostonians called it the Boston Massacre; Adams called it “slaughter on King Street” in the winter of 1770. On March 5, British soldiers fired on a crowd in front of the Customs House, who were responding to their killing of a young boy. In this second event, five were killed. Samuel Adams and other protesters convinced Adams to defend the British to avoid the feeling that it would be a sham trial.

Adams had the trial postponed to autumn to help rage subside and obtained separate trials for the commanding officer. He argued the commander had not ordered the shooting. Preston, the commander was acquitted along with six of the eight soldiers. Two were convicted of manslaughter, not homicide, and escaped punishment by pleading benefit of clergy, a technicality for escaping the death sentence. Once the trial ended, one of four Boston representatives resigned, leaving an opening which Adams was elected to fill. (7)

Visionaries

Both men were visionaries sharing a concern that the Union they fought to achieve could be destroyed in the long-term division of the country over the issue of slavery. (This is a longer discussion.) Not surprisingly the decision to count African Americans as 3/5 of a person–were baked into state and national governance and would influence decisions of governance even before their deaths.

The Election of 1800, in which these two men were both candidates for President—Adams for a second term and Jefferson for his first—would turn first on the census that determined the electoral ballots per state. As it turned out, Adams earned 65 votes towards a second term and Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73. This kicked the decision to the House of Representatives, where it took 36 ballots (Federalists were voting for Burr to deny Jefferson the Presidency) for Jefferson to prevail. The backroom dealings further disrupted the Adams-Jefferson relationship.

Twelve years after the 1800 Election the two men resumed their friendship, after Abigail sent a letter to Jefferson sending condolences after the death of his daughter, but it took Benjamin Rush’s diplomacy between the two men to remind them of their respect and love for each other that stood above the politics of the past. They continued as pen pals until they both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Both Adams and Jefferson are worthy of a seat at the bar, though Jefferson would probably prefer a glass of French wine or one pressed from his own Monticello grapes to a pint at the pub.

Notes

  • Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 48)
  • Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, Most Blessed Patriarchs, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), p. 101.
  • Ferling, p. 105
  • TJ Summary View, in Robert J. Taylor et. Al., eds. Papers of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1977.
  • Ferling, p. 105
  • Ibid.
  • DAJA, L. H, Butterfield, et.al., eds., The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, 293)
  • Noble Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987
  • Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, (New York: Random House, 2012)

Worst Presidential Election: 1800

Founders prior to fireworks: Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. History.com

American elections and political campaigns can be messy. Sometimes the desire for “victory” overwhelms or restructures “democracy,” no matter the century.

In 1800 the confusion landed in the House of Representatives. With just 16 states, it took the votes of nine to win a Presidential runoff. (Today the winning number in the Electoral College is 270 votes.) In the contest between President Federalist John Adams, 65, running for a second term, and his Vice President and thorn in his side, Republican Thomas Jefferson, 57, seeking his first term as President. Jefferson took New Yorker Aaron Burr (well-known from the Broadway play, “Hamilton”) onto the ticket in the second spot as a balance and to draw that state’s ample electoral ballots, but he was very much the wild card. Burr served in the Continental Army and as a lawyer in New York. He supported a bill ending slavery in New York, but owned slaves himself. Adams’ selected South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney as number two to add Southern votes to his New England base. Pinckney served in the Revolutionary War, as South Carolina’s Governor, in the U.S. Congress, and helped negotiate a treaty with Spain.

The 1800 ballot did not list a candidate for Vice President, but the person with the second highest number of votes took the second spot. That is how Jefferson, a small government Democratic-Republican, became VP to Adams, the strong national government Federalist were voted in four years earlier.  This created political fireworks, but certainly conformed to “checks and balances!”

 Fallout from French Revolution

Seen from the 21st century we might not imagine the French Revolution would impact American politics. But it did. Just thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, Federalists, like Adams, were shocked by the violence in France and felt aligning with Britain would help quell the bloodletting. Adams refused to declare war against France, angering his own party. Jefferson’s Republicans feared “radical conservatives” wanted to return to the British colonial template.

Just before Adams’ inauguration in 1796, France threatened not to allow the U.S. to trade with Britain. The strong French Navy could ruin the U.S. economy by sweeping America’s relatively meager ships from the seas, threatening the young nation with an economic depression. The French would not accept Adams’ envoys sent to negotiate a settlement.  Eventually Adams came to an agreement with the French, which further angered the Federalists, who really wanted WAR.

The most extreme Federalists (anyone thinking Tea Party or next up?), known as Ultras, scored great victories in the off-year elections of 1798—taking charge of both the party and Congress. They created a provisional army and pressured Adams into putting Hamilton (who was considered an Ultra) in charge. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thomas-jefferson-aaron-burr-and-the-election-of-1800-131082359/

Next they levied heavy taxes to pay for the army and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided jail terms and heavy fines for anyone who uttered or published “any false, scandalous, and malicious” statement against the U.S. government or its officials.  This angered many Americans still smarting from the taxes levied to pay for the Revolution twenty-five years earlier. Jeffersonians saw this as a way of silencing his Republicans and a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Unpopular Federalists’ Uphill Battle

This just to set the stage for the 1800 National Election. Then the Constitution stipulated each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who might actually get elected.

Here is the sticky part. The Constitution then stated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives “shall chuse (SP) by Ballot one of them for President.” Ballots to determine the President were not to be opened and counted until February 11. But nine days after the vote on December 3 in each of the state capitols, DC’s National Intelligencer newspaper broke the news that Jefferson and Burr were tied with 73 electoral votes. Adams received 65 and Pinckney 64. The decision as to the next President would rest in the House of Representatives.

How Adams Could Have Had Second Term

Adams became the first presidential candidate to fall to the notorious clause in the Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of one individual in calculating a state’s population, used to allocate both House seats and electoral votes. Had slaves, who were much more numerous in Virginia and the Southern states than in New England and Northern states, not been so counted, Adams would have edged Jefferson by a vote of 63 to 61. (It would be 1869 before African Americans received the vote with passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enforced it.)

Critical  Deadline: March 4, 1801

If neither Jefferson nor Burr were selected by March 4, when Adams’ term ended, then there would be no Chief Executive until the newly elected Congress convened the following December, nine months later. This upped the ante for the electors, but it did not really speed the process. It took 36 ballots, the first during a DC snowstorm, on February 11, 1801, to decide between Jefferson and Burr, a moment in history seemingly lost from modern memory. The electors most certainly must have realized the importance of their work, as only one of the 101 eligible electors were absent despite the inclement weather.

Public opinion did not matter as it does now because the public did not directly participate in the vote. Yet it seemed to side with Jefferson. His party’s nominating caucus supported him. He had served longer and in more prestigious roles (Secretary of State, Vice President) than Burr. This four years before the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the seeds of animosity were well planted.

Hamilton Lobbies Against Burr

Hamilton, a Federalist like Burr, did not trust him and wasted no time lobbying against him with a “fierce” letter-writing campaign from mid-December through January 1801 to electors deemed soft on Burr.

“There is no doubt, but that, upon every virtuous and prudent calculation, Jefferson is to be preferred,” Hamilton wrote to Oliver Wolcott Jr. on December 16. “He is by far not so dangerous a man and he had pretensions to character.” https://www.history.com/aaron-burr-alexander-hamilton-election-1800/

Some Federalists were not influenced by Hamilton because of his vicious attacks on Adams (and his own problems with a mistress and a payoff to her husband).

When balloting began, Delaware Federalist James A. Bayard, appeared in the cat-bird seat. Being the lone representative of his state, if he changed his vote, his state’s vote would also change. Bayard’s first vote went to Burr, which gave him six states to Jefferson’s eight—one short of attaining the Presidency. Burr received Bayard’s vote 34 more times over the next six days.

Hamilton had written Bayard on January 16 arguing Burr to be “a man of extreme & irregular ambition.” Republican newspapers also applied pressure, suggesting possible military intervention if a decision were not reached. Hamilton historian Ron Chernow indicated that Bayard “suggested in a caucus that he might vote for Jefferson to prevent a constitutional crisis,” while other Federalists shouted him down calling out: “Deserter!” (Ibid.)

Resolution and a Duel

Bayard realized he was able to make a deal, so he met with Jefferson’s friends, John Nicholas of Virginia, and Samuel Smith of Maryland. Bayard wanted assurance that as President Jefferson would maintain certain Federalist policies, including Hamilton’s financial system (National Bank) and retain Federalist officeholders. On February 17, Bayard submitted a blank ballot on the 36th round of voting. Vermont and Maryland also stepped aside, allowing their delegations to vote for Jefferson.

Federalists would never win another presidential race and by 1815 ceased to be a political party. The 12th Amendment at the end of Jefferson’s term separated the election of President from that of Vice President. When Burr learned that Hamilton had worked against him, his anger rose until it spilled over in their duel in July 1804. Hamilton shot high; Burr shot for Hamilton. Burr won the duel but ended his political career. Jefferson went on to win the 1804 Presidential Election.

Stay tuned for more about that election and “Who’d You Rather Share a Beer With– Adams or Jefferson?

Living in “Interesting Times”

58th Berlin Conference on “Living in Interesting Times”

Never can I remember times like these that surely qualify for the American version of what we have named “The Chinese curse,“  “May you live in interesting times.” Barely recovered from the debauched Presidential Debate this week, when we received news early Friday morning via the President’s tweet that he and his wife and White House assistant Hope Hicks tested positive for the coronavirus.

Now several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who attended an event at the White House a week ago Saturday, have also tested positive. Separate of how and when the virus spread, it’s important to wish the President and his wife, staff, and any legislators (and all others throughout the country still suffering from the virus) a speedy recovery.

Just a month remains in what feels like an endless 2020 political campaign for President. Here in Texas tomorrow marks the end of Voter Registration. Mail-in ballots, many from people over 65 fearful of entering the polls during the Pandemic, are already being deposited at locked boxes under the control of the Texas Elections Commission. Last week as the process began, the Governor mandated drop off points be limited to just one per county, despite the width and breath of most counties in this proud, very large state. That will force those living far from the drop off points to rely on the U.S. mail, slowed in recent weeks maybe to reduce costs, but when the mail carries electoral ballots, the nation requires efficiency and transparency to get this vital job accomplished with all possible speed. It is not the time to question this agency, but to support the Post Office where overtime and equipment are needed NOW to be prepared for the onslaught and to meet the federal mandate!

As we are faced with so many challenges to our lives, our finances, and the crumbling of dreams we held close, it seems we are surrounded by uncertainty. We may feel discouraged, distressed and even depressed over our prospects. I may be considered a Pollyanna, or a wishful thinker, but I believe it can be darkest before the dawn. We must stay the course, keep our heads held up as we plow through the darkness, never sacrificing our beliefs, always striving for the truth. There’s rocky road ahead, no doubt, but we must stay the course.

Former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, addressed distressing circumstances in 1966 after the assassination of his brother and Martin Luther King, prior to his own assassination. “Like it or not, we live in interesting times,” he said. “These are times of danger and uncertainty, but these are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” Six years earlier his brother, President John F. Kennedy, said on Oct. 1, 1960: I am a friend of freedom and wherever freedom is, I feel at home.” Today to maintain this “land of the free,” we must stay the course of democracy in order to “feel at home” here. Today as we assess our circumstances, certainly we are in “unusual times,” but we must continue our efforts to rebuild a nation that nurtures freedom and seeks to shape a creative response to our problems. Only by working together can we shed light on solutions that will bring a ray of hope to guide us out of the darkness.

In the 1930s a British MEP, Sir Austin Chamberlain, said he learned of an ancient Chinese curse from an ambassador, but such a curse never actually existed. Never the less, it continues more as an imaginary curse, repeated in American culture for ninety years.