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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Era of Good Feelings

With thanks to those of you who have inquired, Hubby is recovering from two heart valve replacements and complications in his lungs. He was in Tampa’s VA Hospital, most of it in ICU, from December 23 to January 6. As was the case when was there in September, the medical staff took good care of him -- but the VA administration remains terrible, especially on caretaker issues such as scheduling, parking, and food availability. Food sales in particular could make an actual profit, and I can only conclude that its executives are clueless. They also think that wives have no lives.

In contrast, I want to give a belated shout-out to the Rough Riders Krewe, which came around on Christmas Eve giving away teddy bears. Teddy Roosevelt would have been proud! And to my friend who fixed our garage door opener. Bankos Doors had been rude when I called the day after they installed one that didn’t work. It is a medical need, as it will be weeks before Hubby can lift that much weight, and I can’t do it now. Bankos didn’t care, so I asked a friend – a retired construction union official who also taught vocational ed – if he could check the installer’s work. It turned out that a simple spray of WD-40 corrected the problem. If it’s hard to get good help these days, a large part of the reason is that Republicans have destroyed blue-collar unions and the worker education they provide.

* * *

The legislative session begins early this year and will be underway by the time you read this. Pundits predict better behavior this year than last, when the House took its marbles and went home because its “leadership” couldn’t get their way on everything. Better behavior is partly predicated on the fact that Republicans face a divisive presidential primary in a matter of weeks, and our Florida folks will be trying to present a better image than their clown car of national candidates. At the same time, have you noticed how few of them are willing to associate themselves with the fairly sensible Jeb!, who was their hero a few years ago? Nothing about Jeb! has changed -- but the party, on both the state and national level, jumps off cliffs in a never-to-be-successful effort to appease its politically and historically ignorant Tea Partiers.

Whatever happens, this will be a historic year for the Florida Senate. Because we in the League of Women Voters won our long court challenge on redistricting, all senators will have to run for reelection this year, with half running for two-year terms and the other half for four years. Beyond that, fifteen of forty seats will have no incumbents -- the most since term limits went into effect in 1992. It’s hard for me to believe the math, but it means that when the Senate goes into session a year from now, in January of 2017, it will mark the greatest change in a quarter-century.

This is a genuine opportunity for sensible reforms, but I won’t hold my breath. Indeed, Republican Representative Richard Corcoran of Land o’Lakes already has predicted that, because so many current House members plan to run for Senate seats, the Senate will become more like the House. Let us hope these bad boys don’t win, as the generally older and more experienced senators behave much more like grown-ups. In any case, we should pay attention.

* * *

Big change of subject – and yet not. While Hubby was on drugs and sleeping most of the time, I finished a book by my friend Dr. Mike Denham of Florida Southern College in Lakeland. He spent twenty years researching the first biography that has been written on Florida Governor William DuVal. (Yes, that is the correct spelling, despite Duval County being named for him. Spelling is one of many standards that were lower back then.) Florida still was a Spanish colony in 1814, when DuVal began his political career as a congressman from Kentucky.

He arrived in Washington soon after the British burned it during the War of 1812 – and that’s another thing that we Americans prefer to forget. I’ll bet very few of those Tea Partiers who like to dress up in 18th century clothing would admit that the forefathers they revere actually fled when the national capital was invaded. The “White House” was the “President’s Mansion” before its charred wood was painted white, as President James Madison, his Cabinet, and the army ran out of town. Dolley Madison stayed to preserve paintings, silver, and other items that would become historic but didn’t yet rate that status. Except for the distractions of the ongoing Napoleonic War and other colonialism that extended as far Burma, our new nation might have lost and been forced back under British rule.

I have to admit that I did not quite grasp how thoroughly Washington was destroyed until I read Mike’s book. The British invaded on August 24, 1814, and when Congress met in special session on September 22, conditions indeed were dire. In addition to the capitol and executive offices, British troops also set fire to the Library of Congress, the Navy Yard, and Army Arsenal. Indeed, the only public buildings unharmed were the Patent Office and the Post Office. The House met in the Post Office, in its biggest room, which nonetheless was so small that congressmen sat on windowsills and even in the fireplace.

Many politicos questioned whether the United States could survive. One wrote, “The appearance of our public buildings is enough to make one cut his throat… The dissolution of the Union is the item of almost every private conversation… There is great contrariety of opinion concerning the probability.” Elitists in the New England-based Federalist Party condemned it as “Mr. Madison’s War,” but even as they railed, the Virginia Democrat was negotiating for peace in European diplomatic circles.

The war officially ended in January after these melodramatic predictions in September, and when the 1816 election occurred, Madison’s chosen heir, fellow Virginia Democrat James Monroe, easily won. He stomped Federalist candidate Rufus King of New York with 183 electoral votes to 34. The Federalist Party went into deep decline, with the result that the 1820 election was called “The Era of Good Feelings” because Monroe was virtually unopposed. Not even six years after the invasion of its capital, the nation not only hung on, but also enjoyed a nearly unanimous presidential election. Never again have we had such political harmony.

The 1820 electoral vote was 231-1, with the one vote being for John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. The son of John Adams, the second president, John Quincy Adams dropped his Federalist affiliation in 1824, and all four candidates in that year’s election called themselves Democrats. It was the first election in which popular votes were recorded, and Andrew Jackson won 153,544, while Adams got 108,740. Jackson also had more electoral votes, with 99 to 84. It should have been clear that he won, but the two other candidates, House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky and Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, held 78 votes between them. Although the nation had seen multi-candidate elections since 1796, and although more than one president had held the office without winning a majority of the electoral vote, Clay managed to push the House into granting the victory to Adams. Crawford, who actually ran ahead of Clay, behaved better: He refused Adams’ offer of a Cabinet position and retired to Georgia. Adams, the “victor,” served one unhappy term until Jacksonian Democrats forced him out in 1828.

“The Era of Good Feelings” was over, as ambitions and egos got in the way of ideas that promoted the common good. The same is true today, especially in the Florida House where competitive games seem to matter more than crafting sound policies. Yet, although there’s lots of ground for cynicism, any historian will agree that government steadily has become less corrupt and more democratic since women got the vote. Hubby and I have known lots of elected officials over the decades, and there are many, especially women, who sincerely put the welfare of their constituents ahead of any personal interest. It simply requires attention from us voters to choose them over the frat boys.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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