Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Historical Analogies

Everyone makes them. From Bill Clinton being "the next Thomas Jefferson" to Barack Obama being "the next John F. Kennedy" to John McCain being "that crazy old guy mumbling to himself in the corner"...wait, no that one doesn't work...where was I?

Oh, right, historical analogies. Anyway, one of my favorites is the old standby, "This election is just like..." You know the one. People find tenuous threads connecting various candidates or situations to historical figures and their lives, then their hearts become all fluttery when they realize they have enough of those threads to Draw A Historical Analogy, and if you'll only see how true the analogy is, you'll realize that the past predicts the future.

Unfortunately, when the rubber hits the road, the truth is that analogies are called "analogies" precisely because they are not exactly the same situation. If they were, they'd be called "exactly the same situation". Lean on them too hard, and they tend to crumble. However, they are terribly fun to toy with, and since I'm currently reading David McCullough's excellent book on John Adams, I'm noticing parallels to an election that I consider to be the most significant in American history (more on that some other time). I haven't heard anyone else make this particular comparison, and I delight in the thought that I may just have squeezed out an original idea. Therefore, I shall do my humble best to convince you that this election is JUST LIKE the election of 1800. Except when it's not.

Let's start off with a little background. An unpopular administration, a controversial and ill-defined war (which the challenger also happens to be an ardent opponent of), a series of controversial national security measures, and an incumbent party that is losing ground in the legislature and seems almost as dissatisfied with, and hostile to, their moderate candidate as the opposition is. Is any of this starting to ring a bell?

John Adams had taken the advice of George Washington to heart. As he left office, Washington warned of the pitfalls of party politics, and while his positions were mostly those of a Federalist, John Adams never became a party man. He managed to fly in the face of their consensus just often enough to keep the "High Federalists" of Alexander Hamilton from ever fully accepting him. At the time of the election, their main point of contention was his desire to negotiate peace with France. By picking a middle road on the issue, he had both sides angry at him.

By signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, fighting an undeclared naval war with France (a country supporting privateering, arguably an early form of terrorism, against America), and advancing both a stronger federal government in general and more specifically a stronger executive branch, did Adams no favors with the opposition either. The Alien and Sedition Acts were widely unpopular. The Alien Act was the original immigrant controversy. Under the Sedition Act, people could be, and literally were, thrown into jail for merely insulting the president. Compared to this, the Patriot Act is sissy stuff. While the Acts were not Adams' idea, he nonetheless signed them into law and approved of them. Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans (DR's from this point on) did not.

The candidates themselves have some interesting parallels with those in our current race. Back in 1800, campaigning was seen as undignified and unbecoming in a potential president, so everything was done through surrogates. (Much like the dirtier aspects of a modern race) These surrogates were absolutely vicious. John Adams was an old man of 65 at the time, one whose rough life of service to his country showed in every line, lost hair, and a body wracked with the ailments of the years. The DR newspapers of the day gladly pointed this out over and over. Words like "toothless" and "senile" found their way into more than one story. They accused him of having a temper that made him unfit for office, and at times went so far as to claim he was not fully in control of his faculties. Dark rumors were circulated regarding his faithfulness to his wife. That fact that these accusers were without a shred of evidence seemed not to bother them. Even more damage was done when these attacks were the result of friendly fire from his fellow Federalists.

Meanwhile, Jefferson, his opponent, was an effete man of renown (some might say "over hyped") intellect. At 57, he was seen as young, handsome, and fresh in a way Adams was not. He was accused of elitism, his religious views were the subject of much controversy (some justified, some not), and his pacifistic feelings toward the country's current conflict were portrayed as borderline disloyalty. He was too foreign and not enough an American. Federalist papers described him as a weakling of unrealistic and vague Utopian visions, with little grounding in reality.

Like any analogy, this one has it's flaws. Adams was the actual incumbent, not just a member of an incumbent party. For all his idealism, Jefferson actually accomplished things before being elected to the presidency. However, one point should not be lost on today's voters. The Federalists were unhappy with John Adams. They wanted him out in order to make way for "real" Federalists. And so, they showed their displeasure. In fact, they showed it so forcefully that there was a 22-seat swing in the House, a similar change in the Senate, (the Senate wasn't elected back then, but heavy losses in the state houses had the same effect) and Adams came in third place. Rather than leading to a renaissance within the party, their disarray lead to a 28 year absence from the White House. Of course, this is only an analogy. Maybe this time, things will end up differently.