LETTER TO THE EDITOR: History and today’s poisonous political debate

What can we do about the poisonous present level of political discourse? On the one hand we have a name-calling president, who insults anyone who disagrees with him with junior high level invective — “Little Marco,” “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary;” On the other hand we have people like Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Calif.), who calls anyone who disagrees with her is a “racist.” This is the congresswoman who hugged Louis Farrakhan, a bigot comparable to David Duke, but with far more influence.

These are just a few examples of people in the public arena who debase the English language with their venom, and whose efforts have established our present toxic political atmosphere. We are living through an era, thanks in with part to their invective, that hardly leans towards cooperation, joint problem solving or intelligent debate.

In the interest of full disclosure, we need to concede that this is nothing new. Back in almost our nation’s early years, Hamilton’s Federalists routinely accused their opponents of being “demagogues” and “traitors” for favoring the French; and Jefferson’s Republicans routinely accused the Federalists of being secret “monarchists” and “traitors” for favoring the British. Street violence was also invoked; with riots, vandalism and tar and feathering of opponents a constant threat.

Both sides accused the other of sexual indiscretions (but in that case, however, both sides were right — Jefferson had sex with a slave, and Hamilton was an adulterer). George Washington was horrified by the conduct of his revolutionary colleagues, many of whom then immediately turned their insults on the man they previously honored as the father of our country.

But even though savagery has historic roots does not make it good, and there is no reason for us to accept it, especially today. I am not the first to note that our nation today is almost evenly divided on many issues such as health care, violence, immigration and other areas where a consensus answer is urgently needed. Sometimes it seems that we do not even listen to each other anymore, no less show courtesy and respect to those of whom we might differ. An alternative to the present political dilemma was presented 175 years ago, and I now share it for your reflection and consideration .

The early to mid-19th century in America was an era of turmoil; similar to America of today. During that time there was a cornucopia of issues competing for national attention, some good and some, in hindsight, were very bad. In addition to abolitionism and temperance, the woman’s suffrage movement, the public works-supporting “American System” and the immigrant-hating “No Nothings” competed for attention through over-the-top oratory and more than occasional political violence.

On Feb. 22, 1842, the Temperance League, known for its destructive attacks on saloons and spirits, gathered at the Second Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois. The group had selected as its speaker that year was gaining a reputation as a terrific orator, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was only 33 years old and his background was not that of a typical prohibitionist. He was a frontier farm boy from Kentucky, a state that even then was famous for moonshine. In his new home in Springfield he was already known as a wrestler and storyteller, and had developed quite a following among some of the classes where beer and strong drink were particularly popular. Maybe, some in the league might have had the thought he could make some converts from his otherwise hard-drinking friends.

Lincoln, it should be remembered, was a man who did not run from a fight or mince words He was a supporter of labor and public works, and was to be an opponent of the bigoted anti-Catholic “No-Nothings.” He never made it a secret that he opposed slavery, and had even spoke favorably about women’s suffrage.

In the near future he would accuse the sitting president, James Polk, of provoking the war with Mexico! Patriots were aghast, which threatened to destroy his political career, an act that he as moralist never apologize for. The audience expected young Abraham Lincoln to give a principled, fiery speech against demon rum and inspire the crowd, but they were in for a surprise.

To be sure, in his remarks, Lincoln denounced alcohol in no uncertain terms. and looked forward to a time “…when the victory shall be complete — when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth — how proud the title of that Land, which may truly claim to be the birthplace and the cradle of both those revolutions, that shall have ended in that victory. How nobly distinguished that People, who shall have planted, and nurtured to maturity, both the political and moral freedom of their species.”

While he hated the effects of alcoholism he opposed mob violence even more. He counseled the audience instead to appeal to peoples’ better instincts, and make them understand that you oppose the belief but not the believer. “If you would win a man’s heart to your cause,” he argued, “first convince him that you are a sincere friend…that catches his heart, and once gained, you will have but little trouble of convincing his judgment.”

Take again the issue of slavery; Lincoln flatly abhorred it, saying “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” but he did not resort to name calling or personal insults. He famously felt that neither side, North or South, could claim innocence about the “peculiar institution.” He remained guided by his principles and because he always tried first to achieve his goals by democratic means did not mean that in the end he would equivocate on his views. When arguments failed, despite his best efforts, he did not hesitate to stand on principal, and led the country into one of our nation’s most necessary and bloody wars.

Throughout the conflict, however, he always differentiated between “Southerners” and the institution of slavery. This would, he knew, hopefully help the nation to heal and renew the ties that bind the nation.

Let us encourage the legacy of Lincoln’s commitment to dialogue in a time when both right and left engage in hate-filled invective. That is our nation’s strength and today it is being sorely tested. Even if you support a presenter’s arguments, left him or her know that any expression of hatred of their fellow citizen is intolerable.

When Lincoln died, Edwin Stanton said, “he now belong to the ages,” but let all people of good faith who believe in this country and who treasure his memory on this, the anniversary of his death, ensure that his message on reasoned and respectful debate today remains alive and well.

Larry Koch, EdD

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865 and died on April 15. On Monday, at 6:30 p.m., the community is invited to the Dover Public Library for an old-fashioned Irish wake, sans booze, where we will laugh and hear humorous stories from the life of our 16th president via Larry Koch, EdD.

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