Commonplace Book #68

The period of John Adams’s presidency declined into a time of political savagery with few parallels in American history, a season of paranoia in which the two parties surrendered all trust in each other.  Like other Federalists infected with war fever, Hamilton increasingly mistook dissent for treason and engaged in hyperbole.  In one newspaper piece, he blasted the Jeffersonians as “more Frenchman than Americans” and declared that to slake their ambition and thirst for revenge they stood ready “to immolate the independence and welfare of their country at the shrine of France.”  Republicans behaved no better, interpreting policies they disliked as the treacherous deeds of men in league with England and bent on bringing back George III.  The indiscriminate use of pejorative labels–“Jacobins” for Republicans, “Anglomen” for Federalists–reflected the rancorously unfair emotions.  During this melancholy time, the founding fathers appeared as all-too-fallible mortals.

An episode at Congress Hall in January 1798 symbolized the acrimonious mood.  Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermon, a die-hard Republican, began to mock the aristocratic sympathies of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut.  When Griswold then taunted Lyon for alleged cowardice during the Revolution, Lyon spat right in his face.  Griswold got a hickory cane and proceeded to thrash Lyon, who retaliated by taking up fire tongs and attacking Griswold.  The two members of Congress ended up fighting on the floor like common ruffians.  “Party animosities have raised a wall of separation between those who differ in political sentiments,” Jefferson wrote sadly to Angelica Church.

Ron Chernow,  Alexander Hamilton, 569.

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