Shutdown at Independence Hall: a Political Ghost Story
“You there!,” a muffled voice called out from behind the bushes. “Come hither, sir, will you?”
Let me set the scene for you: an October afternoon in stately old Philadelphia, chilly and prematurely darkening, with heavy gray clouds hanging over the spire of Independence Hall.
Like the rest of the National Park system, the building that birthed the United States stood closed and vacant — a casualty of the ongoing government shutdown. Where throngs of eager tourists once lined up to gawk at the ancient woodwork, desks, chairs and inkwells, only a few uniformed guards now patrolled the grounds inside the barricades.
I had approached the barricades for a closer look at the forlorn scene, snapped a few photos and retreated along the shaded walkway that leads to Walnut Street. That’s when I heard the muffled voice through the bushes.
“Please heed me, sir, I implore you.”
I left the walkway, sidestepped the bushes and spied a large old man, apparently homeless, slumped upon a bench. He wore a tattered tricorner hat and lay half-concealed under a thin wool blanket that he pulled up around his broad chest. But the face was unmistakable: in life, it belonged to George Washington.
“Be not alarmed, sir,” the homeless man assured me. “I am what you might call an apparition, as you have doubtless surmised, though I am altogether harmless. I believe you recognized my features.”
“There’s no mistaking you for anyone else,” I told him. “And I’m honored to meet you. But why have you called me? Do you need my help?”
“I do, sir; I do indeed. I should like you to inform me why the government of these United States has ceased to function. ‘Tis a matter that vexes my mind most grievously, and I fear that I am at a loss to comprehend it.”
He fixed his pale blue-gray eyes directly upon mine and waited for a response.
“Partisanship — extreme, uncompromising partisanship,” I answered. “That’s the shortest and best explanation. The members of our two political parties have come to view each other as mortal enemies. Sometimes it seems that they’d rather sink the country than let the other side gain even a minor victory. The president’s party blames the opposition party for the shutdown, and the opposition party is going out of its way to make it impossible for the government to function.”
Washington’s face reddened, his mouth tightened, and his famous temper wrestled free of its owner’s control.
“Damn them, the treacherous blackguards!” he fumed. “I should have expected as much. Our Constitution never espoused the establishment of these contentious factions. Upon my soul, the document itself was founded squarely upon the principles of balance and compromise, for which we are indebted to the ingenuity of little Jemmy Madison. He, not I, was truly the indispensable man at the Constitutional Convention. ‘Twas the bickering of two brilliant, impetuous, stiff-necked members of my Cabinet which engendered this abominable rift.”
“You mean Jefferson and Hamilton?” I asked.
“Indeed, sir, you understand me. Mr. Hamilton favored the mercantile interests, supported in their endeavors by a strong and cooperative central government. Mr. Jefferson, though of elevated parentage, championed the rights of the common man and the individual states. There was no reconciling them, and I expect that their mutual acrimony has borne bitter fruit in your time.”
“It wasn’t always this bitter,” I told him. “Yes, the country went through some periods of pretty intense partisan strife, but nothing like this in my lifetime. I can remember when members of the two parties actually reached across the aisle and cooperated with each other on important legislation. Not any more. They’re afraid that compromise would make them look weak in the eyes of the extremists within their party.”
“But what care they about the opinions of the wretched extremists?” Washington answered. “Are they not an insignificant minority?”
“You’re absolutely right,” I agreed. “But the extremist minorities have the power to marginalize the moderates, even using their moneyed connections to make it difficult for them to win re-election. Our politicians today — especially the more sensible members of the opposition party — live in constant fear of being exposed as moderates.”
“Moderates regarded as turncoats, sir? ‘Tis almost ludicrous. It confounds common sense. And yet, the seeds were doubtless planted in my own time. I feel responsible, sir, that I did not exercise my authority as president to extirpate the partisan rivalries.”
“You did your best, and your best was better than just about anyone else’s best. I’ve come to believe that factionalism is an unfortunate and inevitable part of human nature.”
“Indeed, sir, but It must be controlled and conformed to the common good, like the steeds on a runaway coach, or it shall destroy our sacred Union.”
At Washington’s last remark, a second voice emerged — this one from behind the bench.
“We must all be hanged together, or assuredly we… confound it, I can never remember my own witticisms these days.”
It was old Ben Franklin. Apparently he was homeless now, too.
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Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.