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Life as performance art


By Fr. G. Corwin Stoppel

I just finished reading Ron Chernow’s massive biography on Alexander Hamilton. When someone asked what I thought about this exhaustive, exhausting work, I replied the author went into everything except for the type of wood used to build the officer’s privies at Valley Forge. In short, it was a page-turner full of surprises.

Many of us recall looking at that wonderful painting of Continental Congress members signing the Declaration of Independence. Based on that and/or the musical “1776” left us the impression these were all true gentlemen.

They had different views about every conceivable subject, but we thought they at least respected each other and got along fairly well. After a long day of debates, we pictured them all going off for dinner and a few of their favorite tipples, resting up, then going back to it the next morning.

As for George Washington, he was beloved Father of Our Country. The only two scoundrels in those golden years were the traitor Benedict Arnold and quick-tempered Aaron Burr, who shot Hamilton in a duel.

After reading the biography, I said farewell to that wishful thinking. Washington wasn’t all that beloved until he died. Politicians thought he was a dud as a general during the Revolution and too pompous and arrogant as president. Others thought he was a dangerous tyrant ready to go to war against his own citizens when he organized a militia to persuade them to pay the whiskey tax.

By Washington’s second term, opponents thought he was slipping into senility and called him “Old Muttonhead.”

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were members of opposite parties and, for the most part, did their best to destroy each other’s reputations. Hamilton wrote endless articles about the real and alleged scandalous behavior of his opponents and was an expert name caller. Pick any scandalous topic and you could be sure one man used it to destroy his opponents.

This messiness has continued ever since the start of the 19th century. From what I read in the news, it continues to this day. One of my friends who grew up in South Carolina still has a grudge against President Lincoln because he instigated the War of Northern Aggression against the South. It goes on and on.

It was a bit demoralizing to read that some of my boyhood heroes weren’t always heroic and there was so much tarnish on what I’d thought of as the golden age of our country. But it was also rather comforting to know that what we’re experiencing today is not all that different from what happened in the past.

That doesn’t make it any better or worse. Like our predecessors, we don’t have to like it. But it goes on.

Just because politicians can’t play nicely together doesn’t mean we have to imitate them. For our part, let’s focus on getting along with each other, building consensus and making life better for us all.