Monday, October 22, 2007

Son of Same As It Ever Was

Speaking of metaphors, cultures can be said to have a kind of "genetic inheritance" in them, traits and conditions and even behaviors which get handed down from generation to generation. Consider, for example, the "split" between rural America and urban America, between the "rubes" and the "city slickers," between the "bucolic countryside" and the "dens of iniquity" in the cities, between the....well, you know what I mean. Ever wonder where that started?

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff....For the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe....The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.

Thomas Jefferson

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.

Alexander Hamilton
Not an exact cleavage, but the "rich and well born" tend to hie themselves to the cities, the better to enjoy their "first class" lifestyle, and the "people...turbulent and changing" tend to be either the working class of the cities, or the manual laborers of the farms. And back and forth we have swung ever since, from the Sodom and Gomorrah of the cities to the Winesburg, Ohio and Spoon Rivers of the small towns and the country. Ever and again we renew this dichotomy, and to this day, like good descendants of Lev Tolstoy, we identify the "heartland" as somewhere equidistant from both the cities on the East Coast, the cities on the West Coast, and even the cities on the Third Coast. Few of us know anyone who lives there, but we're quite sure they are the "real" America, even if we aren't quite as starry-eyed as Jefferson or cynical and elitist as Hamilton.

But that's only a portion of the fun we have. This is from 1801; it could be from 2007, as well:

Yesterday Expired,
Deeply regretted by Millions of grateful Americans,
And by all good men,
The Federal Administration
of the
Government of the United States....

It found the United States bankrupt in estate and reputation; it hath left them unbounded in credit; and respected throughout the world. It found the treasuries of the United States and individual states empty; it hath left them full and overflowing....

It found the United States at war with the Indian Nations;--it hath concluded peace with them all....It found Great Britain in possession of all the frontier posts; it hath demanded their surrender, and it leaves them in the possession of the United States. It found the American sea coast utterly defenseless; it hath left it fortified. It found our arsenals empty; and magazines decaying; it hath left them full of ammunition and warlike implements. It found our country dependent on foreign nations for engines of defense; it hath left manufactories of cannon and muskets in full work....

It found our mechanics and manufacturers idle in the streets for want of employ; it hath left them full of business, prosperous, contented, and happy. It found the yeomanry of the country oppressed with unequal taxes;--their farms, houses and barns decaying; their cattle selling at the sign-posts; and they driven to desperation and rebellion; it hath left their coffers in cash; their houses in repair; their barns full; their farms overstocked; and their produce commanding ready money, and a high price....

It found the United States deeply in debt to France and Holland; it hath paid all the demands of the former and the principal part of the latter....It found the United States without a swivel on float for their defense; it hath left a navy--composed of thirty-four ships of war.... It found the exports of our country, a mere song, in value; it hath left them worth above seventy millions of dollars per annum.

Boston Columbian Centinel, 1801
What sad event does this commemorate, what unprecedented disaster presaged the famous farcical Onion headline with such sad tragedy? The election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency, and the change of government from the Hamiltonian Federalists to the Jeffersonian Republicans. Yeah, the GOP today is not only not the party of Lincoln, its not the party of Jefferson, either.

But you knew that. What you didn't know, perhaps, was the calamity the Jeffersonian election was predicted to be:

The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat.

Yale College President Timothy Dwight, on the possibility of Jefferson's election
Ah, for the days when all we had to fear was the author of Candide. But who knew the fear of losing our Bibles to a President was such an American custom?

And last, but not least, in this era of High Broderism where we look winsomely back to the past, hoping to recover some of that bi-partisan spirit which led this country for nearly 200 years, and which has been shattered in the last 7, perhaps never to be recovered, it is worth recalling the campaign materials of a more civil time, when disputes were carried out in measured, even tones, viz:

Thomas Jefferson is a firm Republican,--John Adams is an avowed Monarchist....Thomas Jefferson first drew the declaration of American independence;--he first framed the sacred political sentence that all men are born equal. John Adams says this is all a false and a falsehood; that some men should be born Kings, and some should be born Nobles....Will you, by your votes, contribute to make the avowed friend of monarchy President?--or will you, by neglectfully staying at home, permit others to saddle you with Political Slavery?

1796 Jeffersonian election statement
Don't you just love American history?

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