RALEIGH — How might our modern-day, national politicians fare debating our Founding Fathers? To be honest, I cannot imagine many contemporary political figures — Republican or Democrat — matching wits with most Federalists or Anti-Federalists.
Scheduling such an intellectual match seems unfair — and possibly unkind, especially for today’s politicians, who deem their intellects larger than and superior to those of their contemporaries and constituents … and even their ancestors. Consider this analogy: Imagine throwing an average, 200-pound man in a boxing ring with a top contender in the professional welterweight division (141-147 lbs). The experienced gambler would bet his house and his mother’s and grandmother’s (and more) on the welterweight. The match is only an illusion of competitiveness. Although today’s politicians, via “progress,” use such methods as Twitter and Facebook to put forth their arguments rapidly to a wide audience, an expanding array of technological advancements do not foster better logic or reason or encourage a discussion relying on first principles.
Compare almost any contemporary politician with Luther Martin, an Anti-Federalist from Maryland. Federalists charged Martin with being sodden and lacking graceful oratory (both charges were fairly accurate). In particular, Federalists criticized Martin for incorporating slang into his speeches and recorded that his language was “too low” — that is, his speech was unfit for a gentleman’s ears. His dialect also offended many Federalists. He said, for instance, “cotch” rather than “caught” and “sot down” instead of “sat down.” Oh, and he earned a reputation for uttering long-winded, desultory speeches.
But many of his speeches have a clarity that is missing in The Federalist Papers (when taken collectively), and the rambling orator from Maryland more than likely would outsmart many politicians of today. Replying to criticisms that whenever he spoke at the Constitutional Convention, delegates were yawning, slumbering, and snoring, Martin replied: “If my rising to speak had such a somnific influence on the Convention … I have no doubt the time will come, should this system [the Constitution] be adopted, when my countrymen will ardently wish I had never left the Convention, but remained there to the last, daily administering to my associate the salutary opiate. Happy, thrice happy, would it have been for my country, if the whole of that time had been devoted to sleep, or been a blank in our lives, rather than employed in forging its chains.”
Although there were accomplished statesmen on either side of the aisle, it was a common tactic among the Federalists to attack Anti-Federalists’ intellectual capacities. During the first ratification debate in North Carolina (1788), James Iredell, a leading Federalist and one of the first justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, suggested that Anti-Federalist Timothy Bloodworth was uneducated, unread, and uninformed. Of course, his comments were stated in a veiled way — a way that he undoubtedly believed went above the New Hanover County farmer’s head while remaining clear to the more distinguished members. (At one time we’ve all been involved, as the giver, recipient, or spectator, of this type of humor.)
Bloodworth was no Demosthenes, nor was he genteel or an exemplar of the early-American autodidact. But he argued not only about a proposal’s details but also about first principles. He questioned ramming a plan through without a detailed explanation.
A budding curmudgeon I may be, but the self-styled sophisticates in today’s political arena amuse me. Many times they cast themselves as superior intellects who know what’s best for all, with arguments suggesting that change is inherently good. Well, newer isn’t always better. And in the case of politicians, they don’t make ‘em like they use to.
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (www.northcarolinahistory.org).