“There’s nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) When the author of Ecclesiastes wrote those words a few thousand years ago, did he or she mean there were no new inventions? No new buildings? What about Israel’s transition from being a bronze age civilization dependent upon the Philistines for the few iron tools that they could scrounge together, to being able to produce iron implements on their own, allowing them to finally compete on an equal footing with their neighbors and allowing them, ultimately, to dominate them?
So what did the author mean “there’s nothing new under the sun?” Would he or she be shocked by the technological changes of the last two hundred years? Would he or she want to revise the words from the book of Ecclesiastes, perhaps change the whole argument of that essay?
Not at all. He or she wasn’t thinking about technology, buildings, wars, changes in rulers, the growth and fall of nations and empires. Rather, he or she was speaking of the way people live their lives. There is an endless cycle of birth, growth, and ultimate decay and death that stretches behind and before in a seemingly endless repetition, so that in the broad scope of things, an individual life is but the wink of an eye compared to the vast enormity of time and space. What also repeats endlessly and never changes is how people conduct their lives: the amazing pettiness, the arguments, loves, hates, and the selfish jostle for position and money.
During one of the past elections, some pundits decried the level of negativity and mudslinging, insisting that this was the dirtiest, nastiest election in history. Of course, by stating things in that way, they demonstrated they embodied the words of the song, “I don’t know much about history.” It is a common affliction among the chattering classes.
Reason.com created a video toward the end of this campaign season which included a few choice quotes from campaigns past. For instance, during the campaign of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson commented of Adams that he “is a blind, bald, crippled toothless man who wants to start a war with France. While he’s not busy importing mistresses from Europe, he’s trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of king George. Haven’t we had enough monarchy in America?” Later, Jefferson said that “John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force nor the firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
And the negative campaigning was not a one sided affair. John Adams responded that “If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed. The soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, children writhing on a pike?”
Adams also commented that “Jefferson is the son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoe cakes” while also commenting about John Hamilton, another candidate, that he was “a Creole bastard brat of a scotch peddler.”
And of course the negative campaigning was not limited to the election of 1800; it was the way all campaigns went from that time forward. Andrew Jackson’s character was regularly impugned, along with that of his wife. Stephen Douglas described Abraham Lincoln as a “hatchet-faced nutmeg dealer” and Lincoln was regularly described by his opponents, both in the press and those who campaigned against him, as ugly and a “gorilla.” He was regularly accused of war crimes and of being a tyrant. Today we can’t imagine Lincoln being anything but widely loved and respected. But during his political life he was widely hated and mocked, and not just by rebellious southerners. By the end of the Civil War, most people in the re-united America despised Lincoln.
The civility of modern elections and campaigning, the generally honest and uncorrupt nature of our elections and government are a remarkable change from what went on in the nineteenth century, when vote buying, ballet box tampering, and the disenfranchisement of many voters because of their skin color or nation of origin was both widespread and accepted.
Next time you hear someone comment that “it’s never been so bad” regardless of what they might be discussing, whether politics, crime or the state of society in general, just laugh. Anyone who has really studied history knows that the author of Ecclesiastes was right: there really is nothing new under the sun. He or she also wrote, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) The good old days really weren’t so good or different from today, since people are the same all over, past, present and future.