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May 6, 2017 History, Sailing, Williamsburg

Sailing into Historical Feuds

Sometimes the stars align for the perfect publishing break. That was the case last summer when Colonial Williamsburg released “Founding Feuds” in the middle of the presidential primaries. The subtitle seemed ripped from contemporary headlines: “The Rivalries, Clashes and Conflicts That Forged a Nation.”
This week, author Paul Aron will discuss his book at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. It’s part of the Banner Lecture Series, endowed the past 29 years in honor of Charles F. Bryan Jr.
Sailing into Historical FeudsAmerica was appalled last year to hear Donald Trump refer to “Little Marco” Rubio and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, but that was nothing compared to our early years. A blurb by the VHS says it succinctly: “During and after the Revolution, the founders were not only debating but also screaming, spitting, and occasionally shooting at each other—their politics every bit as polarized as our own.”
Full disclosure: Before he went to Colonial Williamsburg as a writer, Paul Aron reported for me at The Virginia Gazette. Among other beats, he covered crime better than anyone else because he enjoyed connecting the dots that occasionally reflected trends. This book reflects that kind of thinking.
As students of history, many of us focused on events and battles as they fit into the big picture. There wasn’t time to sort out the personalities, much less the tensions between them. We all knew about Hamilton vs. Burr, but books have been written disclosing their eerie similarities and weird behaviors.
Who knew that Patrick Henry and James Madison didn’t get along? More to the point, who cares? Aron sets out to show how Henry challenged Madison over his Constitution, achieving a turning point that matters in history.
John Adams and Jefferson were colleagues in the independence of 1776 but quickly fell out when they opposed each other in the election of 1800. They famously made up years later and died on the same July 4 fifty years after the Declaration of Independence.
After Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in their duel, he became persona non grata and drifted West. Rumors were that Burr conspired around 1805 to start a new nation west of the Mississippi so that he could become its president. President Jefferson had him caught and tried for treason in a slam-dunk case. But the jury found him not guilty, in part for lack of evidence and because the judge in the case was Chief Justice John Marshall, an enemy of Jefferson.
What? Marshall vs. Jefferson? Marshall was a distant relative of Jefferson and a war hero who disdained Jefferson as a cowardly governor during the Revolution and a “lousy” lawyer as well (Aron’s term).
Many of these feuds reflected different views over a federalist, centrist government by Washington, Hamilton and Adams vs. an agrarian decentralized government by Jefferson. In one case, Aron writes: “The Jefferson-Marshall feud was deeply personal but also, more than any other founding feud, a test of the balance of power between the branches of government the two men represented.”
Of 13 discrete one-on-one feuds described in 13 chapters, fully three involve Jefferson. What’s with that? Aaron is brutally  frank in his criticism:
“His critics, then and now, have attributed it to Jefferson’s hypocrisy. He was our greatest proponent of liberty yet he owned slaves. He fought the growth of federal power until he became president, after which he did not hesitate to wield all the power that came with the office. Even if one grants that Jefferson changed his positions because circumstances changed, his chameleon-like behavior would still have earned the enmity of those whose positions Jefferson abandoned.”

Want to Go?

Paul Aron will speak at noon Thursday, May 11, at the Virginia Historical Society, 428 North Boulevard, Richmond. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for students and children. Admission is free for Historical Society members and Richmond Times-Dispatch readers with a Press Pass coupon. Aron will sign copies of his book after his lecture. Lunch is available on site afterward.

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