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Henningsen: Politics Ain't Beanbag

08/12/10 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST)  As the nation prepares for a mid-term election, scandals involving the candidates erupt and rivals hurl accusations at each other. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us that it's been worse.

(HENNINGSEN) Tired of the low level of today's political discourse?  Wouldn't it be nice to return to the days when our Founding Fathers set the standard for correct political behavior?  Maybe not.  Politics was pretty rough back then too.

Here's a quiz.  Let's see how many of these people you can name.

First, confronting a mob of infuriated voters, this former cabinet member was pelted with stones when he defended administration policy and accepted challenges to two duels before he could leave the rally.  Accused of embezzling public funds while in office, he cleared himself by confessing to paying blackmail to cover up an adulterous affair with the wife of an employee.

Next, this war hero's distinguished record was repeatedly questioned by his detractors, some even suggesting that he'd actually been a spy for the other side.  In office he was assailed by a prominent journalist with the words, "As to you, sir, treacherous in private friendship...  and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any."

Another presidential candidate was dogged by repeated accusations that he displayed physical cowardice while a governor, twice running away when his state was invaded.  When that story lost momentum, opponents charged him with serial rape of an unpaid staffer half his age.

Then there was the distinguished ambassador who secured a crucial alliance for the U.S, which then launched a full-fledged investigation to make sure he hadn't misused Congressional appropriations.

And finally - when charged with cowardice, this congressman responded by spitting in his accuser's face.  His opponent then beat him with a thick hickory cane, while he fought back with a set of fireplace tongs.

Ready for the answers? OK, here we go.

Alexander Hamilton was hit by a stone and agreed to two duels while defending the Jay Treaty at a rally in 1795.  And he did indeed admit to an affair in order to prove he wasn't corrupt.

The war hero whose record was challenged was George Washington.  His accuser was Thomas Paine.

The supposed gubernatorial coward and serial rapist was Thomas Jefferson.

The embarrassed ambassador was Benjamin Franklin.

And the dueling congressmen were Roger Griswold of Connecticut, wielding the cane, and Vermont's own Matthew Lyon - who came to be known as "Spitting Matt" -  with the fire tongs.

"Politics ain't beanbag," someone once said, and a close look at the 1790's makes our current mudslinging look distinctly JV.  Next time you long for the days of high-minded political discourse, remember the words of Oscar Wilde:  "Things were never as good as they used to be."
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