Frustrated by Political Polarization and Division? Take a Lesson from History, and Begin the World Over Again

Thrilled or concerned about the incoming changes in Washington? Worried that the amount of political divisiveness in our country today is, except for the actual Civil War, unprecedented?

Joe Roche has a reminder for all of you – perhaps especially those of you with concerns on either point – that despite what Mrs. Obama says, there is reason for hope. Joe demonstrates with examples from our history that our present divisiveness is actually less than that endured in earlier eras and by some of the most revered names in our history. And he also has encouragement for those who believe the incoming Administration may not share their views, reminding them of a major historical figure who thought the same about a prominent president of his own era, and who nonetheless, because he didn’t give up, ended up having a substantial impact upon the course of this nation.

As Joe has not written for this blog recently, a re-introduction may be in order. In the 13th years since this blog’s debut, and very many worthy posts from many talented and knowledgable writers we are lucky to have, perhaps none of its writers have had a greater impact in its pages than Joe Roche. His posts here include what I believe is the first blog post ever quoted by a presidential nominee in his or her convention acceptance address (or maybe publicly by a president in any context, I don’t actually know) and, as far as I know, the first blog post to be quoted in a Smithsonian Museum exhibit. And, of course, Joe’s posts have been quoted in hundreds of newspapers and the media, as many other worthy bloggers have done.

This post heralds a return to our pages by Joe after a considerable absence spent in various endeavors in defense of our country, and is a refreshing message of dedication to our values that is especially timely during Christmas and Hanukkah.

Welcome back, Joe! And now, for his post…

Frustrated by Political Polarization and Division? Take a Lesson from History, and Begin the World Over Again

by Joe Roche

When Henry Clay faced crushing defeat in troubling campaigns for the presidency of the United States, he always turned from those defeats to upholding the quivering pillars of the Republic. That was his main purpose – defending & saving the Republic – so that even when the atrocities of Andrew Jackson were victorious over the Nation, it was Clay who saved the Republic over and over again. In the end Clay was given the greatest honors by the American people, and his legacies today are lasting and permanent, whereas Jackson’s are completely gone, and Jackson is actually ridiculed in memory (for example, by being placed on the $20 bill – an ironic disgrace to Jackson’s entire Bank War campaign, with Roger Taney as his Treasury Secretary).

Clay was known as Scaevola, for the Roman hero memorialized for dedication to duty regardless of being ostracized and alone in defeat. “I had rather be right than be President,” Clay proclaimed in the face of his last, defeated, effort to become president. The Nation honored him by placing his body in state in the Capitol, the first time any American had been so honored – not even a president had been so honored previously.

The presidential campaigns of 1824, 1828 and 1832 were especially brutal, with vicious lies and slander on all sides. It was, in fact, worse than what we just saw in this campaign, and the wife of his nemesis, Andrew Jackson, died because of the attacks on her in the campaign. Is Melania Trump or any Clinton dying now? Yet, a mere four months after the 1832 defeat, in which Jackson had emerged supreme, violating laws, ignoring the Supreme Court, and doing all sorts of tyrant-like things that were unconstitutional, it was Clay who saved the nation over the Nullification Crisis with the Compromise Tariff of 1833.

Abraham Lincoln would speak of Clay as being the foundation for his own “mystic chords of memory” girding conviction in the Union.

Joe_Roche_Mitch_McConnell_08It is notable that, starting from before the revolution of the 1770s all the way to the start of the Progressive Era more than a century later, the American people championed and celebrated DEFENSE attorneys, not prosecutors, as we obsess over today! That says a lot about how protective we were for our freedoms back then, but have now turned to just seeking protection instead. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and even Abraham Lincoln are examples of defense attorneys. So too was Clay. And in the face of Jackson’s monstrous abuses and violations of the law, Clay used his legal defense attorney skills to pursue the causes of liberty, justice, and integrity in the law. In contrast, today “defense attorneys” has almost a negative connotation. What a huge flip we have taken from our founding passions!

Though Jackson and his proteges would dominate for decades, hold the White House most of the time until Lincoln, and dominate many elections for decades, Clay would remain like Scaevola, always dedicated to the ideals, mission, and purpose of the Republic. The great Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall heroically led the Supreme Court through most of its most seminal rulings creating the Republic and defining the Constitution, so much so that while James Madison was called the architect of the Constitution, John Marshall has been known as the definer of the Constitution, the one who really stood-up the principles of the American Republic from mere hopes to actual pillars of institutions. As a consequence of Marshall’s focus to erect a lasting union and Republic, his last years were focused on issuing a series of rulings meant to prevent the Jacksonian Democrats from destroying the republic.

This was an abusive, slanderous, and polarizing time, much more so than we see today. Americans forget their own history at their peril when they deceive themselves into thinking things are unprecedentedly bad today. Not so. There is no excuse for giving up now. For example, so polarized was the nation during the entire presidency of John Quincy Adams, the son of a Founding Father who had perhaps the most brilliance and thorough preparations for office of any president in American history, that Congress, dominated by Jacksonian Democrats, refused to work with him on anything, and completely defeated all of his policies, making his a failed presidency.

Jackson’s apex of unconstitutional abuses reached several high moments, such as during the Bank War, hailed by his demagogic followers as “the Second Declaration of Independence,” while throwing the nation into an unending series of financial panics. Jackson, whose only claim to the presidency was his noble victory in the Battle of New Orleans over a decade earlier (there was nothing to his campaign agenda, unlike the candidates of our just completed election), focused on reversing many of Marshall’s key rulings, such as McCulloch v Maryland, which established the Necessary and Proper Clause, and also Marbury v Madison, which established Judicial Review. McCulloch, in fact, was only saved from being overturned by the untimely death of the Jacksonian president William Henry Harrison in 1841. Its reversal would have devastated many of the epic legislative achievements of Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Reagan Revolution. Jackson himself had ignored Marshall’s rulings blatantly, such as Worcester v Georgia, when Jackson ordered the unconstitutional and executive power abuses of the Cherokee Indian Removal, resulting in the sad bloody scar on American history of the Trail of Tears. Using a line that would be repeated in the 20th Century by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as he was crushing Eastern Europe, disdaining Winston Churchill’s appeals by flaunting the lack of military divisions controlled by the Pope, Jackson would simply say in regard to violating Marshall’s Supreme Court rulings, “now let him enforce it!”

Another Jacksonian follower, Martin Van Buren, later would pack the courts so as to politically bend and shape rulings his way. No, FDR wasn’t the first to try this with court-packing during the New Deal era. In fact, most of the abuses we imagine as unprecedented today were begun during this era, such as when states were gerrymandered specifically to remove Federalists from Congress in Virginia! And so politicized were the courts, for example, that the first SIX Supreme Court Chief Justices were all chosen for political partisanship and advocacy, a few of whom either held or ran for political offices while they were on the Supreme Court, including one (Oliver Ellsworth) who was simultaneously a candidate for president! Yes, this includes George Washington’s first Chief Justice, who ran for New York governor while presiding over cases in the Supreme Court. Where the myth comes from that the Founding Fathers never allowed politicization of the courts to happen is simply a lack of historical awareness. It’s not that there isn’t merit to this ideal, but it is certainly not rooted in this Nation’s founding.

Nonetheless, Clay also said that, sometimes in order to maturely and effectively move on from past abuses and slanderous times, it is necessary to throw “a veil over the past for the sake of the future.” This was necessary for Lincoln and the Reconstruction age when the legacies of Marshall had to be resurrected from Jackson’s decades of attacks. Marshall, in fact, had been relegated to obscurity, the famous landmark rulings we know today so well had been ignored and were basically unknown to the nation for many decades after Jackson until Lincoln’s followers picked up on Clay’s work, and brought back Marshall’s legacy in order to promote freedom, voting rights, the end of slavery, and later, with women’s suffrage, and many other key American freedom movements.

Were Clay to have given up during the many times he was politically defeated by Jacksonian Democrats and their law-breaking abuses, it would have been impossible for Lincoln, let alone Martin Luther King, or even Sandra Day O’Connor, to have found firm foundations for their causes by citing John Marshall’s Supreme Court. The late Antonin Scalia, according to Lee Liberman Otis, one of his law clerks, saw Marshall’s ruling in Marbury in particular as “integral to how Justice Scalia saw his job – not as the shaper of the Constitution, but as its servant.”

Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary war hero, said that it is the birthright of every American “to begin the world over again,” which is what we have today, whether you choose to advocate for the new president and his agenda, or for those in Congress and the courts who hold different views and may find challenge in the coming years. This is what Americans of every generation keep doing, the great birthright of all of us. And no greater practitioner of this was there than Henry Clay. Again, it wasn’t in great elective office gains, because despite decades of shaping the United States in many ways in many different offices, he was always defeated bitterly and miserably every time he ran for the presidency.

Yet, it was Clay’s ceaseless dedication, like Scaevola, to the Republic and the Constitution, that today inspires my friend, Senator Mitch McConnell, who often speaks of Clay’s inspiration for his role as Senate Majority Leader. McConnell has faced great challenges over the past years, and surely will face equally dramatic challenges ahead. But as he has told me many times, from when I lived in Kentucky, to when we’ve seen each other here in Washington, D.C., that it is the commitment to continue working for the Republic, even when brutally defeated in campaigns, that Clay teaches us is most vital, admirable, and durable in eventual success.

The terrible unconstitutional abuses of Jackson, such as ignoring Worcester for Indian Removal, and many other violations of executive authority, would have become sacred and unassailable precedents for all leaders after him, were it not for Clay, who held Jackson’s feet to the fire during Jackson’s eight years as president, and then continued holding the metaphorical feet of every subsequent Jacksonian to the fire over the next few decades. By remaining dedicated to the Republic regardless of political calamity, Clay saved the nation over and over again, such as from the Missouri Compromise, to the Compromise of 1850. This is why Lincoln would resurrect Clay’s “mystic chords” legacies to heal the wounds of the Civil War – not Andrew Jackson, but Henry Clay’s legacies.

Jacksonian abuses reached an apex, for example, when Jackson’s former Treasury Secretary and then Supreme Court Chief Justice appointed to replace Marshall, Roger Taney, issued the notorious Dred Scott ruling. Yet, when it was the turn of those seeking justice against such tyranny and abuse, such as when Benjamin R. Curtis resigned from the Supreme Court after issuing his dissent against the Dred Scott ruling – the only Supreme Court justice ever to have had the courage and integrity to resign after the court turned very wrong – or such as when all the poets and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, or the Christian Second Great Awakening spread across the nation, they found precedent, argument and inspiration in one man, Henry Clay.

Gerard Magliocca, a modern historian of much of this, writes that, “reform leads to resistance, and resistance leads to reform,” in which he explained “that is the central theme of the constitutional cycle” of this Nation. To which I ask, what would exist of this cycle were it not for Clay’s dedication to always fight for the republic every time he was defeated in campaigns? What if Clay had retreated from politics, given up, and decided he had nothing more to contribute since he was so devastatingly defeated and humiliated in some campaign? I know many of you are tempted to feel this way, but you must not let our Republic lose you all because you have been humbled by the mechanisms under which our Nation operates. We have been conditioned to think things are worse now than ever, that abuses, negativity and polarization are worse than ever before. That isn’t true. In fact, much of American history shows that the constant state of polarized division and gridlock since 1796 is also when great things can sometimes be accomplished by those who keep fighting even in defeat. Think of Henry Clay! Follow his example, so that if you are tempted to throw in the towel now, instead realize that the Republic may need you now more than ever before!!! This may be your time to be another Scaevola, either in support of our new president, or in support of the Republic when challenged by the new president. The causes are many, and you have to follow your conscience. But as I have learned watching Senator McConnell over many years, we have a wonderful legacy in Henry Clay that is beckoning YOU a great challenge to get back in the arena, and live Paine’s articulation of our birthright “to begin the world over again.”

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