Face to Face in Politics

John AdamsJoseph Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning book Founding Brothers  is an excellent read. History as it should be written, with wit, humor, and insight into the men and the times. I am not familiar with the time period he covers, 1790 through the death of Jefferson and Adams in 1826. Because of this I cannot vouch for Ellis’ accuracy. The book is well footnoted, but that does not always make it accurate. My guess is that most of what he writes is true.

There was one section I found intriguing. In the first chapter he gives common themes which run throughout the stories in his book. He lists these at the end of the chapter 1:

1. “The achievement of the revolutionary generation was a collective enterprise that succeeded because of the diversity of personalities and ideologies present in the mix.”

2. All the members of the revolutionary generation “knew one another personally, meaning that they broke bread together, sat together at countless meetings, corresponded with one another about private as well as public matters. Politics, even at the highest level in the early republic, remained a face-to-face affair in which the contestants, even those locked in political battles to the death, were forced to negotiate the emotional affinities and shared intimacies produced by frequent personal interaction.”

3. “They managed to take the most threatening and divisive issue off the political agenda. That issue, of course, was slavery, which was clearly incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution, no matter which version one championed. But it was also the political problem with the deepest social and economic roots in the new nation, so that removing it threatened to disrupt the fragile union just as it was congealing.”

4. Finally, Ellis says, that “the faces that look down upon us with such classical dignity in those portraits by John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale, those voices that speak to us across the ages in such lyrical cadences, seem so mythically heroic, at least in part, because they knew we would be looking and listening. All the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation developed a keen sense of their historical significance even while they were still making the history on which their reputations would rest. They began posing for posterity, writing letters to us as much as to one another, especially toward the end of their respective careers.”

The theme that struck me most was the second. How different is our world today. When was the last time political enemies sat down in one another’s house and had dinner together. You could probably search every level of politics, local, state and national and not find many examples of this. The same is true in the church. The internet now allows Christians to strafe other Christians from across the country. Men now fight without ever having met their enemy face to face or had them over for dinner. This has to some degree been true throughout history, but still face-to-face meetings tend to diffuse situations, especially if they are frequent occurrences. It is much harder to slander a man who is your friend even if you do disagree with him. Not impossible, but harder.Would politics in America change if more politician eat dinner at each other’s houses?