Water Man Spouts

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Gathering Storm

{1} "The strife of parties, like the agitation of the natural elements, purifies the moral atmosphere, and gives life and vigor and freedom to our institutions; but there are some questions too great, some too small for the exercise of political parties; and we have many duties … which we should come together and discharge …. Without inquiring whether we belong to this or that division of political parties ….

"Free public discussions are essential to the health of popular liberty, and the day which finds the public mind reconciled to the secret movements of political parties, will find us far on our way to the slavery of depotism. If good men may meet in secret for good purposes, we can have no assurance that bad men, under the same plausible exterior, will not secretly sap the foundations of public virtue." – Senator Daniel S. Dickinson (D-NY); quoted from "Speeches and Correspondence of Daniel S. Dickinson- Volume 2"; by John R. Dickinson; G.P. Putnam; New York; 1867.

There was a time when Daniel Dickinson was one of the most powerful politicians in the United States. Today, he is a footnote in our nation’s history, and while some of the figures he worked closely with – including Presidents Van Buren and Lincoln, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster – are well-known, Dickinson’s life is largely forgotten. Twenty years ago, my friend Marjory Hinman authored the first biography of the small-town, self-educated attorney who became a NYS Judge on what was then known as the Court of Errors (then the highest court in the state); a state senator from the 6th District; NYS Attorney General; NYS Lieutenant Governor; and a US Senator. Hinman noted that most people who walk by the statue of Daniel in front of the courthouse in Binghamton have no idea who he was.

Dickinson’s wife, Lydia, is one of three women that my 13-year old daughter views as fascinating, if not a role model. (The other two are Senator Hillary Clinton and Yoko Ono.) She has been doing some research on Lydia, for a possible book, which allows her and I the opportunity to have fun going to places that were significant in Daniel and Lydia’s lives. A while back, I sat in the Commons of a historic village that is found on the way to Ithaca, watching my daughter taking notes from the numerous NYS historical markers there, when two beautiful elderly women approached me. They wanted to know what my daughter was doing with her history book, spiral notebook, and pen during the summer months? When I explained, they asked if it was okay if they bought her an ice cream cone? It confirmed for me that what my daughter was doing was important in the context of community.

Later, we sat in a long-abandoned "pioneer" cemetery, next to the graves of Lydia’s parents, and I told my daughter how Daniel had been an often contradictory character. Hinman wrote that he "was a radical, for his States’ Rights proclivities were a little too strong, his adherence to the Constitution a little too unyielding, his expansionist ideas a little too greedy, and his gifts of oratory a little too overpowering." Dickinson was an advocate for the Irish immigrants, and supported Ireland’s struggle against the tyranny of the British, yet he was strongly opposed to Scottish-American activist Fanny Wright. (Ms. Wright was a reformer who, among other things, attempted to buy and emancipate slaves as "freemen," and was a suffragette who advocated the then controversial cause of birth control.)

Dickinson was opposed to slavery as an institution, though not because of any enlightened view of African-Americans. And his ignorance about the equality of African-Americans and women, combined with his concerns with the possibility of an actual civil war amongst the states of the Union, resulted in his trying to find a way to maintain the Union at the expense of those he viewed as second-class citizens and slaves.

His father-in-law, a country doctor educated at Yale, was a leading abolitionist in this area. I had shown my daughter some of the local "stations" on the underground railroad that Dr. Knapp was associated with. As we sat near Dr. Knapp’s grave, we speculated on what the conversations must have been like when the extended family gathered to celebrate the holidays.

{2} "No American, young or old, must ever be denied the right to dissent. No minority must be muzzled. Opinions and protest are the life breathe of democracy – even when it blows heavy.

"But I urge you never to dissent merely because someone asks you to, or because someone else does. Please know why you protest. Know what it is you dissent from. And always try when you disagree to offer a choice to the coursethat you disapprove. For dissent and protest must be the recourse of men who, in challenging the existing order, reason their way to a better order." President Lyndon B. Johnson; June 7, 1966.

In Daniel Dickinson’s day, the issues were slavery, states’ rights, and conflicts between agrarian versus industrial society. These issues caused fractures in the political parties and created temporary alliances between different interest groups. There were the Hamiltonian "National Republicans," and the Jeffersonian "Democratic Republicans." There were others, including the Liberty Party;the Free Soil; the American Party (aka "Know Nothings"); the Whig party; the Copperheads; and a dozen more.

Within the Democratic Party, there were significant divides. The most important was between the conservative democrats, who by no small coincidence were associated with banking interests, who were known as the "Old Hunkers" and the "Hardshells," and the radical branch known as the "Barnburners" and the "Locofocos" (after the newly-invented phosphorus matches, called "loco-focos.")

In the days of LBJ’s presidency, the biggest issues were the war in Vietnam, and civil and women’s rights. This country came as close as it ever had to a second civil war in those days. There were violent divisions in the nation, and that included friction between the modern Old Hunkers and the new left Locofocos. The divide was exploited by the dark forces that rose to power under the guise of the Nixon administration.

Today, the Nixonian disease has metastasized, and threatens the very Constitution that Daniel Dickinson struggled to defend. The threat is not so much one of a division between groups of states, as between the the Constitution of the United States (including that Bill of Rights), and the non-democratic forces that wish to rule from the shadows of secrecy that Dickinson warned against.

There are some Old Hunkers who say that the "radical" democrats today pose a threat to our party unity. They accuse the progressive grass roots democrats of being divisive, because we advocate investing our money and energy into those select campaigns of candidates who reflect our values. Maybe they need to study our history a bit closer.

Dickinson was the first politician on the national level to advocate for federal aide to education. I took my daughter to the spot where Daniel and Lydia built one of the first "universities" in this area, one of two in the area that prepared local students to attend the bigger schools in the East. We went to a couple of the local schools where Lydia had taught.

And then we went and sat near the water falls, where the teen-aged Daniel Dickinson worked at a cloth & carding factory. We talked about the similarities between Daniel and Lydia’s world, and our own. I told her that in politics, there are always going to be differences of opinions. Those differences can be found within families – including the differences between Dickinson and his father-in-law – and within political parties, and indeed states and nations. But we never fail because we attempt to do the "right thing," be it advocating for individual rights, civil rights, or human rights. We never fail because we take a stance to defend that Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The democratic party is not weakened or damaged by grass roots progressives advocating for an end to the war in Iraq, or for the congress to impeach VP Dick Cheney. But our party – indeed, our nation – is being harmed by Old Hunkers who refuse to do the right thing, no matter if it is because they are too comfortable or too cowardly.


Post a Comment

<< Home