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September 20, 2014

H. Brandt Ayers: Six giants vs. Tea Party

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Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2014 3:30 am

Six American giants scowl down at the Tea Party-led Congress. They stand as a reproof of history and an example of how strong-minded men can overcome bitter partisan enmity to again become useful friends.

The paired giants are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, and Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Hugo Black.

Having been in intimate contact with Taft and Roosevelt for weeks through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s massive Bully Pulpit, let’s begin the tale with them.

On the surface, the two Republicans couldn’t be more different; yet the bold, athletic and decisive Roosevelt and the contemplative, 300 pounds of goodwill for everyone, Taft, agreed on the imperatives of the industrial age.

As Secretary of War in Roosevelt’s cabinet and campaigner for the president’s re-election, the different temperaments of Taft and Roosevelt merged into a powerful force pushing the traditional boss-led, Big Business-financed party into the agenda of the progressive movement.

The two men were like brothers, with Will Taft in the role of admiring “little” brother, avoiding anything that might displease Big Brother, despite the fact that their wives did not like each other.

Declining a third term, TR made sure “little brother” would succeed him as leader of the party’s progressive faction and left on an African adventure. Returning, he found Taft had not been a steward of the cause and had fired TR’s great friend, the conservationist Gifford Pinchot.

The break was as inevitable as it was painful, leading to Roosevelt’s birthing the Progressive Party, which split the GOP, elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson and led to six years of cool aloofness between the formerly close friends.

Learning that the old Rough Rider was in the hospital, Taft sent a note to which the colonel warmly responded. Sometime later, in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, Taft learned Roosevelt was dining alone there. Spotting the colonel, “Theodore,” he exclaimed, “I am glad to see you.” Rising, the colonel grasped Taft’s shoulders and expressed his own delight.

Sensing the moment, the whole dining room rose and burst into applause.

Backward in time to the Colonial period, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were co-conspirators in the rebellion against Great Britain. Adams, whose bluntness was not universally popular, prevailed on the elegant, articulate Virginian to write the draft of what became the Declaration of Independence.

Their cordial relationship became political disagreement over passage under President Adams of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made it a crime to merely criticize the government.

At a time when serious men feared that arrogating to themselves the power of kings from whom we had so recently rebelled, the acts were unpopular. Jefferson seized the issue and ran successfully against his former friend for the presidency. Their correspondence ceased during Jefferson’s two terms.

A mutual friend having assured the two men that each still held strong feelings of friendship for the other, John Adams initiated correspondence between them — correspondence of such a high degree of scholarship and warmth that is unimaginable today when little men argue over such petty causes.

Their friendship continued until July 4, 1826, when on his deathbed Adams was heard to mutter “Jefferson survives,” not knowing that five hours earlier the master of Monticello had breathed his last.

As in the case of the other twinned giants, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter, they were different men. Frankfurter was a Harvard intellectual and adviser to presidents. Black was from rural Clay County, Ala., a country lawyer who had won a populist campaign for the U.S. Senate.

The two clashed over contempt citations against a California union leader publicly threatening a strike if a court ruling against his union wasn’t reversed, and against a local newspaper, which demanded the union be punished further.

Frankfurter argued that the contempt citations be upheld based on two centuries of British reverence for the dignity and power of judges. Black wrote for the majority, “No purpose in ratifying the Bill of Rights was clearer than that of securing for the people of the United States much greater freedom of religion, expression, assembly and petition than the people of Great Britain had ever enjoyed.”

Over the years of service together on the court, the Harvard intellectual and the Alabama country lawyer developed respect and friendship for each other.

When Frankfurter died, Black wept.

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