About eight months ago I embarked on a project to read a biography of every president. Currently stuck at and with Millard Fillmore, the endeavor has calmed my political mind quite a bit. As I suspected, covering the presidents serves well as a shortcut to our broader national history. That history tells me that today’s bitter climate is not the apex of an arc but more a bookend to our founding.
I knew going into the project that our leaders have always stood by their views with fierce conviction. The stories told in the biographies, however, reveal that the tactics our first leaders used to achieve their goals were not so different from those employed today. Before the Republican party co-opted Fox News (or vice-versa), Jefferson and Madison used State Department employees to print pamphlets undermining the administration they served. Before using the Senate floor to broadcast attack ads through C-Span, a physical fight on that same Senate floor resulted in the permanent crippling of the guy who engaged in the contest without a walking stick. And so on. We have always been a nation of raging malcontents.
As a counterpoint, the biographies also affirm that while we are often divided, we have never been irretrievably so. Slavery and the Civil War brought us close, but we survived even that hell. The question each generation confronts is whether we can set aside our differences in times of national need. Because that answer has always been “yes” we survived the struggles of the frontier, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression and several big recessions, panics on Wall Street and Main Street, and most recently, the horror of 9/11.
Is it still so? Can we unite to meet our challenges? The vitriol hurled at each other on a daily basis, Washington gridlock and the fact that everyone has an opinion and a megaphone put the answer in doubt. But our history and Millard Fillmore say otherwise.