The incivility and almost vicious atmosphere of this primary and special elections season might make it hard to believe that our political system and our form of government had their beginnings in church.
But to be honest about it, things haven’t really changed that much in more than two centuries.
While school books today seldom — if ever — mention it, voting for those who would govern the first permanent settlements of Europeans in what now is the United States was democratic among the men who were members of the Pilgrim or Puritan churches whose followers founded the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies in the early 1600s.
Just as today’s textbooks neglect to mention that it was deeply committed men of faith representing the 13 colonies who voted a century and a half later to revolt from the English monarchy and establish a republic based on a democratically elected bicameral legislative body, little — if anything — is said about the ugliness of the political campaigns that quickly followed the creation of the new nation.
The form of government that was adopted was familiar to James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution which spells out how the new government was to be organized and operate. It was the system used in the Presbyterian Church, a descendent of the church of the Pilgrims and the one in which Madison was a leader.
But by the time of the presidential campaign of 1796, the spirit of the event seemed far removed from the church. One of the most honored of the founders, candidate Thomas Jefferson, was called “a mean-spirited, low lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia Mulatto father.”
Even those remarks were mild compared to those in the campaign of 1828 when Gen. Andrew Jackson was described as a cannibal who, after killing 500 Indians, ordered one of his men “to dress a dozen of the Indian bodies for his breakfast, which he devoured without leaving even a fragment.”
Still, the key to our system of government are the laws passed by that legislature modeled from earlier church experience and the underlying structure embodied in the Constitution whose birth was hailed in this manner by Thomas Paine, one of the leaders of the Revolution:
“…let it be brought forth, placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed there on, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king.”
If “the divine law, The Word of God,” is king in the United States today (or if it ever really was), it certainly has not been evident in many political campaigns even in the “sophisticated” modern era.
Not, for example, in the gruesome 1964 “Daisy Girl” television commercial which implied that the election of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater would result immediately in a graphically depicted Russian nuclear bomb dropping on a little American girl in a field picking flowers.
Many of the founders foresaw what John Adams, the voice of reason throughout the nation’s birthing process, expressed when he wrote: “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”
But the staid and devout statesman, only the second man to lead the new country, was realistic enough about politics to be quoted as making this observation: “In my many years, I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”
Perhaps it is the cruel and dirty path a candidate seems forced to take to get there and the abuse which often follows that prompted Adams to say that, “No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.”
(Adon Taft was for 48 years a reporter for the Miami Herald. He also taught social sciences at Miami-Dade Community College. Now retired in Brooksville, FL, he can be reached at [email protected].)