American Civility: Hamilton-Burr Edition

Let’s go back in history, shall we? Feature this: It was July 11, 1804, and the sitting Vice President of the United States and the former Secretary of the Treasury took separate boats across the Hudson River to a bank below the New Jersey Palisades. They were gathering for a duel.

The events that led to this fateful meeting provide an interesting context for our continuing discussion about political speech in America today. If our major political parties today have their roots in this era, and they do, I think it’s fair to say that the men involved, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, provide us with actors analogous to our current right/left division. Burr was a thin-skinned conservative, earnest as the day is long, but also the creator and product of a machine he didn’t understand. Hamilton, for his part, was a clever urbanite known for his wit and sarcasm, sometimes cheating and deliberately provoking those he deemed as less intelligent, and thus less worthy, than he and his kind.

Burr, a Democratic-Republican, and Hamilton, a Federalist, didn’t like each other, and they competed in the same corridors of power in America at that time—namely New York and Washington. They worked at screwing each other over. For example, when the electoral vote for president resulted in a tie between Burr and Jefferson in 1800, Hamilton used his considerable power and influence in the House to ensure Jefferson, who he didn’t much like either, won. Burr was relegated to the office of Vice President, a pretty powerless position, politically speaking. Hostilities escalated after Hamilton and his family attacked Burr’s character when Burr ran for Governor of New York in 1804.

Now understand that a lot of this involves friends and families. And if you think what you’re reading today sounds like a load of childish garbage, you should read how these men fought it out in letters they published in newspapers back then. Tit-for-tat journalism is apparently nothing new, either. Hamilton, Hamilton’s father-in-law, and Burr, as well as some guy named Charles Cooper all had their letters published in newspapers around New England before things escalated to the duel. The controversy centered on an impolite comment made by Hamilton’s father-in-law at a party. Burr kept demanding retractions of the slander. The Hamilton side feigned memory loss and demanded specifics before an apology would issue.

Apparently unable to accept that, in a country with a Constitution that included the First Amendment, people were free to dish dirt on him at parties, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton for his part, out of an oversized ego or a decidedly suicidal streak (historians aren’t sure which; Hamilton had lost his son two years before in a duel and prepared his will the night before this one), agreed to it. Duels were outlawed in New York, so they convened in New Jersey, which had also outlawed dueling, but which had less harsh penalties. Now here’s where things get tricky.

Hamilton, as the challenged, got to pick the pistols according to the dueling rules. He chose a pretty deadly set for the time (Wogdons, for historic gun fans), which had hair-pin triggers on the inside that could be set for more rapid fire. Reports conflict, but historians believe that Hamilton used the hair-pin trigger on his own pistol, but left Burr unaware of the feature on his.  This bit of trickery backfired (pardon the pun) in the end, as Hamilton fired past Burr’s shoulder while Burr’s musket ball penetrated Hamilton’s gut and ricocheted, wounding him fatally. He died the next day.

That’s the basic story as I understand it. There’s lots more to the aftermath, including the fact that Burr eventually returned to Washington and completed his term as Vice President (Cheney anyone?). It was an early warning to our country about the hazards of partisanship, a warning we still have not taken seriously. When this story even comes up in our cultural dialogue, we treat it as a joke a la the “Got Milk?” commercial (in the 1980s, dating myself here) or that funny rap song about being “Aaron Burr ‘cause we’re dropping so many Hamiltons.” But it was serious. It ended Hamilton’s life, and ended Burr’s career, however eventually.

And it was all “just words” until the two decided to bring guns into the equation. And just like today, one side isn’t more to blame than the other. Sure, death is much worse than the loss of livelihood, but they both escalated it until they both thought it was a good idea to resolve it with pistols. It can’t really be classified as political either, even though both actors were politicians. The fight wasn’t over anything substantive; it was about name-calling and mutual othering.

So it is today. Our political discourse still revolves around name-calling and mutual othering. Occasionally, violence comes into play, either through madness or irrational rage, or both. And there’s not much we can do about it, either. Most people are going to gravitate toward wherever the noise machine takes them. It’s too tempting—we hear a baaaah, we instinctively baaaah back. And there will always be a few Aaron Burrs, a few Alexander Hamiltons, a few Jared Lee Loughners. Take away the guns and they’ll bring knives.

But I’m encouraged by recent developments. It seems there is a clamoring for speech that does not name-call and treat people like they are ignorant, wrong, or otherwise disingenuous, and there’s a real desire manifesting for understanding another point of view. It has its roots in the political dissatisfaction of certain groups on the left and the right that arose from the political and financial turmoil of 2008. I don’t think people have yet put into perspective how much changed that year. Between the Clinton-Obama fight and the bailouts, a lot of people on both sides had a few click moments about how effectively the legacy parties served their interests.

Their numbers grow with the continued disenchantment with Obama on the left and with the Tea Party’s disenchantment with Washington insiders. These folks are trying to lead new discussions, but they keep getting verbally assaulted by the partisans who run the noise machine and irrationally shunned by the consumers of that drivel. This always happens with popular movements. Ironically, Frances Fox Piven said it best in a NYT article on Saturday:

“There is a kind of rhetorical trick that is always used to denounce movements of ordinary people, and that is to imply that the massing of people itself is violent.”

She was referring to an article of hers that Glenn Beck attacked, in which she apparently called for a Greece-style uprising of America’s unemployed, but it also applies to the Tea Party. Speaking of which, it’s pretty interesting to hear her views on the Tea Party, which includes the rhetorical trick she deplored in her quote. But I don’t want to get sidetrack on Piven, who is ultimately of no consequence and really is a kind of rhetorical punching bag for Beck and his viewers. That’s just more of the partisanship problem.

The point is that the effect is to keep these pockets of enlightened groups alienated from one another, so they don’t ever see their common interest and get ideas about working together.

I’m interested in this newer crowd, this crowd of people with their click moments, who’ve suddenly realize the parties don’t really offer us much choice, but who don’t want to use that as a reason to disengage. I’ve seen that impulse too often, too, and I don’t think there’s anything enlightened about deciding the parties are the same, the game is rigged, and then ceasing to care. Apathy is not an answer.

More later…


11 comments on “American Civility: Hamilton-Burr Edition

  1. joescarp says:

    Thanks for the history lesson. I knew the basic facts, but not the story behind the story.

  2. WMCB says:

    “The point is that the effect is to keep these pockets of enlightened groups alienated from one another, so they don’t ever see their common interest and get ideas about working together.”

    Yep. I’ve never said that I agree with all or even most the aims of the teaparty. Nor do I think that everyone on the right is my ally, even in limited areas.

    But those “pockets of enlightenment” exist, however faint, and the controllers of the narrative of both legacy parties do not want those pockets making even limited common cause.

    I did a long comment on crawdad’s weekend wrapup this morning that gives an example of that sort of limited common cause.

  3. Thanks, Joe. WMCB, I’ll check out your comment.

    I am always reminded of the backlash Jane Hamsher received when she tried, however briefly, to work with Grover Norquist to call for Rahm Emanuel’s resignation and investigation. She paid for that dearly and my guess is she will never take that bold risk again. She won’t because the noise machine trashed her endlessly after that, and a bunch of uber-lefists O-bots left her site when she did it. I thought it was one of the more promising acts to come out of the blogosphere, and was unsurprised to see it was a woman leading the way.

  4. WMCB says:

    I remember when Jane tried that, and got roundly crucified for it.

    It’s amazing, because I hear people on the RIGHT saying we should have put the banks into federally controlled bankruptcy, used the bailout funds to cushion the blow to the economy, liquidated assets, then broken them up into far smaller regional banks so that no one house of finance was ever big enough to threaten our country with collapse again.

    A teapartier friend of mine told me with great frustration, “Don’t they realize that having 3 or 4 banks holding 90% of the assets of a country is asking for trouble? Why don’t they dust off those moldy old Sherman Anti-Trust statutes and APPLY them??!!”

    A lot of people in this country are seeing all too clearly the dangers of oligarchy. But a lot of them use different verbiage to describe it, so get poo-pooed by the left when they erroneously call it “corrupt socialism” or some such nonsense.

    • I have similar experiences. I had a conversation a few days ago with a bonafide life-long conservative who was asking my why we couldn’t combine the VA health system with Medicare and Medicaid and let people buy into that instead of having this mandate, which he himself automatically met by having VA and supplemental insurance, but which he didn’t think was fair for the folks who will fall through the cracks. I asked him if he realized he was proposing a kind of public option. He wasn’t aware, but when I said that, he had a look like he had a click moment himself.

  5. WMCB says:

    Yep. And if people like that can be reassured that we’re talking about practicalities and pooling risk, instead of doing a sneaky end-run to nationalize the whole economy, they can be persuaded.

    Sometimes I wonder how people think their dream of a fairer society is going to come about in the real world. I mean, do they believe in democracy and representative govt, or do they think that those who “know best” should just shove it all down the public’s throat somehow?

    Because if you believe in representative govt, then the ONLY option is to persuade voters, not make enemies of them. If you, on the other hand, believe in your vision of ideology no matter what the people think of it, then I guess persuasion is unnecessary – you’ll just find a way to impose it.

    I don’t like that road. And I don’t believe that road is in any way shape or form consistent with Liberal principles. “Screw what the People think (they’re stupid anyway), we’re going to do what’s best for the People” is not a liberal tenet. And when you say that there is to be no serious discussion of the ideas that oppose you, no seeking to understand the whys and wherefores of good people and the legitimate sources of their anger or fear, then aren’t you coming across as in favor of the “nasty bully State” that you so vehemently deny is your aim? Aren’t you REINFORCING the worst of the right’s accusations against the left?

    Americans will go for govt as helpful tool. They did for Bill, in droves. But you give them even a whiff of “govt as master”, even a benevolent master, and they will oppose you, and hard.

    So I stand and watch the left, rather than easing those fears in the public, seem to do everything in their power to reinforce them. Fucking idiots. I don’t know what world they live in, but it’s not the real one. And when that approach fails, yet again, they will STILL not engage in any self-reflection at all. It will all be the fault of the stupid hateful voters, too backward to appreciate all you were trying to do for them.

    • Were we, like, separated at birth? Whose the evil twin here, you or me? ‘Cause you and I see eye to eye on this pretty clearly.

      I’ve been talking for years about our responsibility to use the tools of persuasion and compromise outlined in our Constitution. They were the gift of our founders, a hedge against a violent world. We continue to ignore their ideas at our peril.

      • WMCB says:

        LOL! Yes, I find myself nodding at much of what you say as well.

        Maybe there are a lot more of us out here than we think – we just need to speak up. When the legacy parties have everyone convinced that “engagement = agreement”, then everyone is afraid to engage their neighbor for fear of being branded traitor and in agreement with the enemy.

        And no, I’m not talking about D and R politicians engaging one another. Politicians are gonna do what they are gonna do. It’s going to have to be us. Us out here with all of our different ideas, and yes, disagreements, and wide spectrum of beliefs TALKING to each other.

  6. myiq2xu says:

    Poor whites in the post-war South had more in common with blacks than they did with the wealthy plantation owners.

    Racism kept the poor whites and blacks from uniting.

    • 1539days says:

      I remember making that same point on a history test in high school. The teacher was of the opinion, however, that all white people were living it up and every slave was treated like trash.

      This is why I don’t think about the “Tea Party” as much as the people it inspired. The people who go to Tea Parties or fund them are a tiny segment of the population and are more likely to be older, white conservative Republicans. The important people are the onees who look at what the Tea Party talkes about and agrees. They don’t like Obamacare. They don’t want to be taxed for nothing. They’re sick of the governemnt bailing out everyone.

      Kicking the worng people may only be the first step, but at least it’s a step. Otherwise, what are you going to do?

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