Politics Was Always Uncivil

A very popular idea that politicians, pundits, journalists, and various other “experts” like to repeat today is that “politics has never been this uncivil.” We constantly hear lachrymose laments about how polarization has never been this bad, about how political rhetoric is over the top, about how we’re on the verge of a civil war, etc. etc. But are these claims true?

George Washington commands nearly universal respect among all Americans today (except some iconoclasts who are worried that memorials to Washington might make people feel threatened). He is widely, and correctly, revered as the Father of our Country, and is seen as a unifying figure who was above the political fray. But if you were to go back in time 200 years, find a random American on the street, and ask him what he thought of President Washington, you would be very shocked by the results.  

In 1796, President Washington signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which temporarily averted war with the European power and resolved some leftover issues from the end of the Revolutionary War. Many of Washington’s political opponents saw the treaty as a capitulation to Great Britain, and they swiftly seized on the Treaty’s signing to cast Washington as a surrendering coward.

Calls for a violence against Washington were frequent. Certain cartoons showed Washington being marched off to a guillotine, and in the President’s home state of Virginia, Revolutionary War veterans “raised glasses and cried, ‘a speedy Death to General Washington!’” Some even called for the president to be impeached.

Sound familiar?

Washington even complained that the “infamous scribblers” (journalists) of his time were calling him “a common pickpocket” in “such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero.” All this hatred for a man who saved his country in wartime and is consistently rated as one of our best presidents today.  

This divisive strain of politics did not stop after Washington’s time in office. The election of 1800 was one of the most contentious in American history, considering it marked the first transition of power from a ruling party to the opposition. The stakes were high, and tempers ran higher. Thomas Jefferson’s opponents warned that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced” if he won. Opponents of President John Adams, who ran for reelection against Jefferson, said he “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” The election was so bitter that longtime friends Adams and Jefferson stopped talking to each other, and only patched up their relationship twelve years later, when they restarted their now-famous correspondence.

And lest we think that it’s strictly a 21st century phenomenon to yell “Hitler!” at anything we dislike, consider the following: When President Harry Truman ran for reelection in 1948 against Republican John Dewey, Truman stated that “a Republican victory on election day will bring a Fascistic threat to American freedom that is even more dangerous than the perils from communism.” Fast forward to the 1964 election, and we see esteemed psychiatrists claiming that Barry Goldwater “has the same pathological make-up as Hitler,” and that, should he win the Presidency, “both you and I will be among the first into the concentration camps.”

In the 1980s, before Reagan was elected, Coretta Scott King said: “I am scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party.”  Democratic Rep. William Clay warned that Reagan was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” In more recent examples, recall that before John McCain and Mitt Romney became “Good Republicans,” they were repeatedly compared to Hitler.

If you prefer a more ancient example of toxicity in politics, consider the fate of the Athenian statesman Themistocles. Themistocles destroyed the invading Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis, saving Athens and the whole of Greece from subjugation to the Persian Empire. He also established Athens as a rising power in the Aegean by building a powerful fleet and constructing the Long Walls which kept Athens safe for half a century. He was, in a sense, an Athenian George Washington. Yet, due to his perceived haughtiness, the Athenians ostracized and exiled him. The man who saved Athens escaped into Persian territory, where he ended up committing suicide.

All of this is not meant to justify those today who are contributing to the deterioration of our political discourse. You should think long and hard before, say, you start making idiotic comparisons between the President of the United States and dictators who murdered millions of people, destroyed the free press, and enslaved entire countries. Of course this sort of stupidity is unjustifiable. In all democracies, voters feel that they have skin in the game, so they will naturally get angry at their political opponents. This holds true in ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, 18th century America, and all modern day, genuine democracies.  

So instead of being depressed at our current political climate, take heart! What we’re going through is nothing new in human history. For as long as free government has existed, and for as long as it will exist, people will continue to engage in mudslinging, character assassination, spreading of lies, and other outrageous accusations.