We enter what is likely to be an historic and critical year for our country. It is a country deeply divided with bitter elements in both divisions.
I am among those who fear our system of Constitutional government might be at risk. Simply writing or reading that sentence seems like overblown hyperbole or perhaps paranoia. But the strength and well-being of a democratic government rests upon the confidence and consent of the governed.
I read the other day that George Washington was the father of our country; James Madison the father of the Constitution; and Alexander Hamilton the father of our government. All three worried during the country’s infancy that popular anger over a whiskey excise tax and an initially unpopular treaty with Britain might bring down the new government. On top of that, Thomas Jefferson and Madison had become implacable political enemies of Hamilton and Washington, believing (without any evidence) that Washington and Hamilton wanted to establish a monarchy in place of a president. On top of that, Jefferson enthusiastically embraced the bloody, terroristic French Revolution.
In fact, Hamilton and Jefferson engaged in a bitter fight for the soul and direction of the county. The new nation might not have survived that bitter ideological battle had George Washington not been who he was, what he was and where he was at that precise time in history.
During those formative years, Washington’s stature, prudence and caution about precedence combined with Hamilton’s brilliance and writing talents held off Jefferson and the Republicans; but with the departure of Washington, his succession by John Adams and Hamilton’s death, the battle was over. But each side demonstrated how easily they could abandon principles they wrote into the Constitution.
Hamilton’s and Adams’ Federalist Party managed to pass the odious and undemocratic Alien and Sedition Acts by which critics of the government could be and were imprisoned or deported. It was fortunately later repealed. Jefferson and Madison (the latter had argued for a congressional veto of state laws during the constitutional convention) penned the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions arguing states could ignore or “nullify” federal laws not to their liking. In doing so, the two slave holders lay a cornerstone of the Civil War and which still echoes dangerously in places like the Kentucky State Capitol today.
Jefferson and Madison eventually won the battle, and along with Aaron Burr’s bullet fired into the chest of Hamilton during a fatal duel, ended the Federalist Party. But the country in the end followed Hamilton’s blueprint of capitalism and markets over Jefferson’s system of yeoman farmers and very limited government.
The fate of the nation and its form of government swayed in the balance twice again: during the Civil War and The Great Depression. Each time it survived; but each time it was close.
We’re entering a presidential election year once more deeply divided, perhaps as much so as at any time since the lead-up to the Civil War. We have a Congress which has relinquished much of its constitutional power to the presidency; a court system largely packed with conservative members of the Federalist Society; and a president who does not seem to understand — or care about — the Constitution. And a president who has been impeached and faces trial before the Senate.
I am among those who believe Donald Trump is guilty of multiple impeachable offenses. I am also among those who fear the impact on a divided country of a traumatic trial, one which by all appearances will be no more than a show trial.
But what I fear most is a razor thin election for president this November. After years of dishonest propaganda of the worst kind about fixed elections, the crooked press, locking up political opponents and the “deep state,” can we trust there will be a peaceful transfer of power?
Let us hope whoever wins, wins by a large margin in both the popular and Electoral College vote.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and now writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.