I have been thinking a lot about the U.S. government in history lately. I hear and read on the news almost daily now about how bi-partisan our nation currently is and how different this is from the past. Then there was Representative Joe Wilson calling President Obama a liar during Obama’s congressional address this past week. News media and politicians on both sides reacted to this outburst, Democrats calling it disrespectful and Republicans shaking their heads at a time when there has been such much criticism lately about the behavior of their party. But what I find interesting is how shocked we all seem to be at this behavior, that we act as though our history has been filled with polite, perfect politicians. What history are they talking about? Does anyone remember President Jackson’s relationship with Henry Clay? Much less than peaceful. Or how about the entire Republican party’s relationship with FDR during the Great Depression?
The behavior of our elected representatives is anything but new to American history. In the years leading up the Civil War, politicians were extremely ill behaved. They were disrespectful, often finding themselves caught up in shouting matches. Determining how to to handle slavery as new states entered the nation was so emotional, so difficult it led the nation into its most brutal war. So out of control were politics, that congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner (an abolitionist) of Massachusetts with his cane. The attack was so brutal that Sumner fell into unconsciousness and Brooks’ cane was broken. It took Sumner three years to recover and return to the Senate. Somehow, Wilson’s outburst last week, pales in comparison (please do not take this as condoning of either yelling or beating fellow politicians with sticks).
The point here isn’t whether Wilson should have yelled or not, or whether bi-partisanship is appropriate or not (that could be a whole other blog!). The point is, however, that this is not new behavior. Politics can be passionate and should be, its about the leadership of our nation and its future. The media and American public expects that our leaders should be quite, calm, and collected and when that doesn’t happen, they complain. They discuss this behavior as if it is a symbol of the tragic path our nation is embarking upon. However, it is not new, it is not revolutionary. The nation finds itself in a difficult time, and just as we have seen in history, this leads to extraordinary (if not always appropriate) behavior.