The Grand Experiment


I've just finished reading the historical novel TREASON by David Nevin, and a few weeks ago I read William Safire's novel, SCANDALMONGER. Both deal with essentially the same timeframe, that of the years immediately preceding and following 1800. The main characters, of course, in both novels are Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Burr, Monroe, and a handful of lesser lights, along with passing references to such folks as Washington, Jackson, and the Adamses. Safire approached the subject through the vehicle of what passed for journalism in that day, while Nevin sort of looked at the scene through the eyes of Dolley Madison, but mostly through his own perceptions. Both books are well written and furnish an open and wide window into the politics of the period, as well as the particular fragility of the nation at that time. It's easy to read the history of the period from textbooks, but quite another matter to sort of get into the minds of the principals and get an inkling of what they faced in the launching of what has to be the most daring social experiment in history - the attempt by a very diverse and at times perverse people at self-government.

Though it has been co-opted as Black History Month, February is rightly conceived of as President's Month, the birth-month of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. January could rightly have been labeled Black History Month, if there needs to be such a month, since it is the birth-month of Martin Luther King, Jr., and since Congress resolved in 1945 that January 5 would be observed as George Washington Carver Day, honoring perhaps the greatest African-American, in terms of benefits accorded the entire population. Carver was a genius. King should go down in history as one of the eight or ten most important men of the 20th century in light of his gargantuan accomplishments with regard to civil liberties. The greatest single accomplishment in behalf of civil liberties, though, belongs to Abraham Lincoln, who, contrary to what many people insist, was a vehement and vociferous enemy of slavery long before he ascended to the presidency. Just the record of his debates with Douglas leading up to the 1858 Illinois Senate election, which he lost, furnishes abundant evidence supporting this claim.

The striking thing about U.S. government during its infancy (is it far past that yet, relative to the histories of other world governments?) is that it was much like the politics of today - often, if not most of the time, down and dirty. The biggest difference between then and now lies in the fact that, whereas everything from governmental actions, edicts and orders of that long ago time and the reporting of same took weeks or months, they are transmitted in terms of minutes or even seconds today. This is not even to mention the risk and potential failure inherent in a horse- or sailing vessel-supported information/transportation system that could be disrupted totally by a simple act of nature or a rogue's dagger. Today, success or failure is determined practically instantaneously through the use of technologies not dreamed of even ten years ago, much less 200 years ago. Today, an item of interest can be transmitted throughout the world in seconds, while in 1800 weeks or days could be expended in getting a letter from New York City to New Orleans, with everything from shipwreck to pirates to thieves to acts of war, whether declared or not, to the breakdown of a man's or horse's health a factor.

Safire made much of the influence that the newspapers, tracts of one kind or another, and other types of periodicals had on everything that happened…indeed, as often as not, both affected and effected these events. Writers could and did say about anything they liked, especially editorially, and were often aligned, and openly so, with one or another of either governmental entities or individuals engaged in a number of enterprises, including government. The rough stuff written in the op-ed and editorial pages of today fade into nothingness when compared to the unbelievably strong language, accusations, and recriminations employed by editors in that era. Since the printed word comprised the only source of both news and opinion, the writers of that day wielded tremendous power, but could be bankrupted, if not thrown in jail, in an instant when having the misfortune to be on the wrong side at the right time, and vice versa.

Though the language in all areas of the media is far more moderate today and apparently far greater attention is paid to getting the facts straight, media organizations still function in about the same way as the writers did in 1800. With rare exceptions, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio outlets have recognizable biases in the major media. This is obvious not only in the op-ed areas, but also in the way straight news is presented. For instance, there was a time when the front page of a newspaper was reserved for news, with no bylines given to those who wrote the accounts. Now, the news is presented in the form of information-and-interpretation and bylined, the better to let the reader know who the smart guys are. The same is true on the evening TV newscasts - information filtered through the bias of interpretation. ABC's White House correspondent, Terry Moran, for instance, can be expected to tell what happened (in an almost Shakespearean performance), then tell why, then tell what the folks who made it happen were thinking at the time, then explain the meaning of it all. Anchor Peter Jennings will ask him an obviously rehearsed question, to which Moran, head bobbing in every direction, will reply with an answer as from Mount Olympus - take it to the bank, guaranteed correct, etc. Actually, this little Jennings/Moran show is laughable, another way of saying that TV is an entertainment venue not to be taken too seriously.

It was planned at the beginning of this effort to draw the difference between Safire's work and Nevin's, but that can wait for another day. Suffice it to say here that Nevin approached the happenings 200 years ago from the standpoint of what the main players were facing, what they were thinking, what the intrigues were (such as Aaron Burr's kookie escapade possibly with General Wilkinson's traitorous cooperation), what their actions were, and some of the expected distractions. He and Safire both had the element of recorded history to help them, so they can be taken seriously. By contrast, consider the Dan Rather Affair of last October, when a "news" outlet simply reverted to the antics/tactics of 1800, when verification of most things was neither instant nor probably accurate (no Xeroxes, scanners, e-mails, etc.), and simply tried to swing an election by presenting material so easily categorized as false that it was picked up by bloggers.

But the grand experiment that is the United States of America has survived. Time will tell whether the people can actually govern themselves, at least without sliding down the slippery slope of socialism so evident in "Old Europe" and other places such as Canada.