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Protests Are Many Things, But Not Un-American

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Whenever this country comes to a great divide over issues, there is a long held myth that any public acrimony is somehow the antithesis of America. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as much in a recent column.

Pelosi, along with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, questioned the patriotism of those who have recently disrupted the town-hall meetings on health care. Pelosi and Hoyer wrote that this behavior is "simply un-American."

I can certainly understand Pelosi's frustration, but is it un-American? In 1791, George Washington's first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, amassed enormous powers en route to becoming a controversial figure.

The assumption of the debt, under Hamilton, expanded the power of the federal government. But Hamilton set out to reshape the fledgling nation.

Hamilton put a series of proposals before Congress, with Washington's blessing, instituting a national currency, the dollar. He established a national bank, the precursor to the Federal Reserve.

Moreover, Hamilton's vision stimulated the growth of the stock market. He also proposed the government get directly involved in the development of large-scale industry.

Those such as Thomas Jefferson saw Hamilton as laying the groundwork for a monarchy. Jefferson feared Hamilton was creating a powerful central government that would threaten individual liberty. For Jefferson, Hamilton's policies were too reminiscent of the European state. It was two competing visions of what America should be.

Jefferson and his allies formed a loose political alliance, known as Democratic-Republicans, but commonly referred to themselves simply as "Republicans." Hamilton and the supporters of Washington's administration were called "Federalists." This divide is the first sign of what would ultimately become America's two-party system.

The battle between the parties became a public fight that spilled onto the streets. A new political culture was born; the opinions of ordinary people took on increasing importance, giving rise to highly partisan newspapers unabashedly lobbying the cause of their side.

Hamilton and Jefferson hired journalists to carry their political water and to denigrate the opposition.

Hamilton's Caribbean origins and immigrant status even led to innuendo through the press that he was part black. It was, in the words of Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, "the golden age of literary and political assassination," depicting the Founders as not exactly a harmonious group in lock-step marching toward a democratic utopia.

Jefferson understood the power of public opinion much more so than Hamilton and he won the public debate. I don't doubt the sincerity of Jefferson's disagreements with Hamilton, but his winning the public battle created one of the great ironies in U.S. history.

Hamilton, the immigrant, the self-made man would be the one cast as an elitist, while Jefferson, born into the Virginia gentry, owner of slaves, his wealth creation greatly aided by unpaid labor, is viewed as the man of the people.

But 218 years of hindsight allow us to see in many ways Hamilton is the quintessential American story. He's a self-made man who comes to this country with very little and through luck and ingenuity built a legacy that we remain the beneficiaries into the present day.

The other ironic historical twist is that although Jefferson (along with Hamilton's own self-destruction) managed to ensure that he and not Hamilton would become president, it was Hamilton's visionary thinking that led to America having the highest credit rating in the world. When France gave President Jefferson the opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory and double the area of the United States, money and credit were readily available.

Beginning in the 19th century the canals, the railroads, the heavy industry, the huge cities and the boom in technology that led to the greatest prosperity known to humankind -- can trace their lineage to Hamilton's vision.

But in the 18th century during the heat of battle, those in the public conversation siding against Hamilton and for Jefferson did so against their self-interest. Driven by emotion, influenced by propaganda, bombarded with false facts, nervous about radical change, many saw in Jefferson what they wanted to see, though in many ways Hamilton's story was their story.

This is why I take issue with Pelosi's characterization of those who disrupt the town-hall meeting and ostensibly the health care debate in general.

Are their tactics frustrating? Yes. Are they filled with misinformation? Yes. Are many debating against their self-interest? Yes.

But can we call their actions un-American?

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com