Polarization is a part of our history

Politics has never been more divisive, bitter and harsh in the United States, we’re told. To that it often is added that too many politicians have forgotten the definition of “public servant.”

It would be interesting to get Alexander Hamilton’s take on that. The former secretary of the treasury was shot dead in a duel in 1804 – by then-Vice President Aaron Burr. After leaving the vice presidency, Burr was accused of treason in an alleged scheme to establish a new country on land included in the Louisiana Purchase. He was acquitted.

It’s true that some members of Congress waste few opportunities to criticize, sometimes harshly, their political foes. But it’s been a long time since senators and representatives routinely took pistols onto the floors of their respective chambers. That was common during the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.

On a few occasions, the guns were drawn – but not used. Once, a congressman was so upset by a man testifying in a hearing that he drew a gun and threatened the fellow.

In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a speech criticizing a South Carolina colleague. A couple of days later, Rep. Preston Brooks, nephew of the South Carolinian, stalked onto the Senate floor and used a cane to beat Sumner within an inch of his life.

In terms of nastiness among politicians, ask yourself when was the last time that Congress investigated a president’s wife on a charge amounting to treason. It happened to Abraham Lincoln, when his fellow Republicans began looking into allegations his wife Mary was feeding information to the Confederates.

So strong was Lincoln’s personality that the probe was dropped when, one day, he walked unannounced into a congressional hearing and told the lawmakers he would vouch for his wife’s patriotism.

Still think politics is too brutal these days?

Ah, but the scandals and conspiracies these days! At least that didn’t happen in the good old days. Or did it?

The first really juicy scandal in American politics involved a journalist named James Callendar, who reported that President Thomas Jefferson had children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. At the time, the accusation was so scandalous Jefferson was able to overcome it. Now, DNA evidence suggests strongly that Callendar was right.

On July 17, 1803, Callendar’s body was found floating in three feet of water in the James River at Richmond, Va. The story was he’d been so drunk he drowned accidentally. How many books would modern-day conspiracy theorists get out of that one?

Then there was the famous attack opponents of Grover Cleveland used when he was running for president in 1884. It seems Cleveland had an affair with a woman, who gave birth to a son. When the opposition got ahold of that, they spread the chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

More recently – with, I’m sorry to say, the complicity of some in the press – President John F. Kennedy was notorious for his affairs. His girlfriends included Marilyn Monroe and a woman linked to a Mafia boss. Some of his trysts occurred in the White House. Yet while he was president, not a word of it was reported.

Americans ourselves are more polarized than ever, we’re told. Did the talking heads who make that claim miss the Vietnam era and the civil rights battles? Or how about the Civil War? Here where we live, there was a bit of polarization leading up to 1863, when we decided our differences with our fellow Virginians were so deep we had to break away and form our own state.

Now that’s polarization.

Among the boldest power grabs ever made by a president was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court packing scheme. Roosevelt didn’t like some Supreme Court rulings over his New Deal programs – so he tried to get Congress to pass a law allowing him to appoint enough new justices to, in effect, give himself a majority. It failed.

So, are we Americans and our politicians more polarized than ever? Not even close.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net