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The Founding Fathers and Campaign Civility

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Downfall of civility? Not so fast.

The political stasis surrounding the debt-ceiling debate has provoked many to lambast Washington's climate of hyper-partisanship. Numerous pundits caution that we have entered a new age -- one of forever-compromised civility and respectability. A good example of this is the backlash ensuing from the recent West vs. Wasserman Schultz skirmish.

There is no doubt that the state of our political climate is both regrettable and unacceptable. We seemingly jump from crisis to crisis as harsh rhetoric replaces substantive reform. However, the lack of civility certainly apparent today is far from new. In fact, it is as old as our republic and, historically speaking, much tamer.

We often look to the founding fathers as men who, understanding the necessity of compromise, were ultimately able to forge and maintain a union. This is true, but they were not afraid to truly speak their mind in the process. John Adams widely characterized Hamilton as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler" and "the Creole." George Mason joined in suit, stating Hamilton did "us more injury than Great Britain and all her fleets and armies."

Thomas Jefferson, with the assistance of his hired gun, James T. Callender, was arguably our founding father of negative campaigning. Utilizing this pamphleteer/political operative, Jefferson spread vicious rumors about his political enemies (Hamilton and Adams), including a particularly damning claim that Hamilton was a consistent adulterer. Additionally, Hamilton was sure to respond. Under the pen name Phocion, Hamilton penned over 25 essays attacking Jefferson -- most notably, an accusation of Jefferson's multiple affairs with slaves.

The most contentious and personal political spat may have been between Adams and Jefferson in the election of 1800, widely held as one of our nation's dirtiest campaigns. In this period, Adams designated Jefferson as "the son of a half-breed Indian squaw," while Jefferson responded that Adams was "a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

And this political climate didn't solely exist on a national level, as famously exemplified by the conflict between Roger Griswold and Matthew Lyon. Lyon, who, in 1789, declared himself the voice of the common man on the House floor to the mocking rebuke of Roger Griswold, in turn spit in his face. Two weeks later, Griswold responded. Not with a stern email or call for resignation. But rather twenty blows to the head of Lyon with a wooden cane (it would have been more if Lyon had not fire tongs to defend himself).

All in all, our political punditry could use a little historical perspective before launching into hyperbole. Should we like that our politicians think of each other so poorly, as displayed by Congressman West and Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz? Of course not. But this isn't a product of a soon-to-be lost era. It's our system, and, more importantly, it has worked. So let a few eggs be cracked to make an omelet. As long as canes/fire rods are staying off the House floor, I think we'll end up all right.

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