This past week, I went back in time to put invective in perspective.
Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez's anger at nasty-grams posted on The Courant's online comment boards, beneath stories on crime in the city, prompted me to visit the Connecticut Historical Society Museum to see just how civil conversations were a few centuries ago.
The kind staff of the wonderful Historical Society let me handle several Connecticut Courants from 1800. The four-page blue-gray newspapers look quaint with their Page 1 ads for horses and timepieces. But the rants against Thomas Jefferson were far from quaint.
"Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes" if Jefferson is elected president, predicted a writer who signed himself as "Burleigh" in a front-page editorial on Sept. 15, 1800.
The Republican candidate was "an enemy to the United States, and wishes its destruction," the Federalist mouthpiece Burleigh wrote in another editorial that year. He described Jefferson as a "libertine" and an "atheist" and asked readers, "Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike and the halbred" if Jeffersonians take power?
The attacks turned racist in a handbill from around that time that called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
Despite all this, Jefferson won the election.
This little history lesson is not to defend The Courant for failing to catch and cull some vile, cowardly and anonymous comments about Hartford (and the mayor) from our message boards these past few weeks. It's just to show that, well, 'twas ever thus.
I don't expect that to console Mayor Perez. He vented his anger with a demonstration Friday afternoon at the newspaper, which happens to sit across from an entrance to I-84. One editor, watching the scene out the window, noted the irony of the mayor using his free-speech right to protest the newspaper's free-speech right by blocking workers from exercising their freedom-of-travel right to get on the highway and go home.
To me, the mayor's fuss is beside the point. His temper tantrum over messages that few people saw until he publicized them is distracting the city and the region from the more serious conversation about 90 shooting victims so far this year in Hartford. Isn't that what we should be talking about?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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