Civility has been a subject of much concern for President Barack Obama in recent weeks.
"This erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens," Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 4. "It poisons the well of public opinion."
While many have praised Obama's efforts, others have lamented that our political system has become too divided to expect any good will to exist between the two parties.
Dan K. Thomasson of the Scripps-Howard News Service wrote on Feb. 6 that "the days when a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans for the good of the nation would adopt a civil-rights bill ... are a distant memory, replaced by the rancor and selfishness of lawmakers dedicated to special interests and extreme ideologies."
With all due respect to Mr. Thomasson, the early 21st century does not claim any historical monopoly on name-calling, partisanship or all-around bad behavior. A quick glance through history is enough to show these habits to be as American as apple pie.
The presidential campaign of 1829, in which Andrew Jackson challenged incumbent John Quincy Adams, is synonymous with mud-slinging. Jackson's supporters called Adams a "pimp," claiming that he had arranged for an American girl to serve as consort to the czar of Russia while Adams was serving as ambassador to that country.
The Adams camp made much of the fact that Jackson had married his wife before her divorce to her first husband had been finalized. One newspaper asked, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?"
In 1884, former Speaker of the House James Blaine was widely known as the "continential liar from the state of Maine," based on allegations that he had influenced legislation to benefit his own railroad investments. His opponent, Grover Cleveland, was haunted with taunts of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha," in reference to an illegitimate child he had fathered years earlier.
Civility in Congress reached an all-time low in May 1856, when South Carolina Sen. Preston Brooks physically beat Kansas Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane, injuring him critically. Brooks was angered by Sumner's anti-slavery comments, which displayed a certain lack of civility as well; Sumner referred to Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas as "a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal."
While we applaud Obama's calls for civility, on this President's Day, let us not dwell unduly on the idea that this moment in history is unique. For better or for worse, uncivil politics are part of our national tradition.