Q&A: Can America relearn civility from its founding fathers?

"We disagree on things but that doesn't mean we can't have a relationship."

The four presidents at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The four presidents at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

BOSTON, Mass. (AP) — Think back to America’s founding fathers, and you’d be forgiven for imagining plenty of prudence and self-restraint.

You’d be wrong: A lot of riotous rhetoric sprang from those stiff upper lips. Political bombast is nothing new — it’s in our DNA. But so is the concept of civility in public discourse, which sprang from the colonists’ initial rough-and-tumble approach to nation-building.

Steven Bullock, a professor of humanities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the author of a new book, “Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America,” thinks we’ve lost our way.

In an interview with The Associated Press, he points to lessons from Benjamin Franklin and others that could help us regain our footing:

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AP: You trace Franklin’s political personality. It sounds like he was a real piece of work. He even wrote an article in 1750 titled, “Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion,” where he talked about contradicting and interrupting people?

Bullock: He started off as an arrogant know-it-all, a young man who loved to prove people wrong. He was kind of a tough guy to deal with. He wasn’t the smooth person that people in France loved during the Revolution. He was this argumentative kind of fellow — a guy who thought about conversation in terms of winning. As he grew older, however, he realized that winning good will was more valuable than winning arguments. He decided he was never going to contradict somebody in a social setting.

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AP: Who else besides Franklin?

Bullock: There was a Virginia governor, Francis Nicholson, who was the opposite of polite. He engaged in these extraordinary tirades — fits of anger that could last for hours, shouting at people. In some ways he was a quite successful colonial leader. The British government kept putting him into positions, even after Virginia leaders said, ‘This guy is crazy — he’s threatening to kill us!’ It was a sign of how he viewed governing. He viewed power and the authority of Britain as something you couldn’t talk back to — that you needed to submit.

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AP: So where did the notion of politeness in politics come from?

Bullock: This ideal gets created because things were just so problematic. People were at each other’s throats. There were tremendous battles. These were ideas that were being developed in England — it wasn’t just an American thing. Eventually they concluded they could get more accomplished when cooler heads prevailed. It’s part of the reason why the American Revolution didn’t go off the rails. George Washington was one of the great examples. He suffered throughout the whole Revolution, dealing with a clunky and terrible political system he had to rely on for funding; writing endless letters to Congress. It was so dispiriting. He was able to achieve a sort of self-mastery and get the job done.

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AP: Fast-forward to 2016. Civil discourse seems to be in pretty short supply. We’re all shouting over each other. Is all lost?

Bullock: Maybe. But this is very much like things were at the turn of the 18th century. People accusing each other of treason, of disloyalty to the nation. People were fighting about politics, fighting about religion. They felt things had gone wrong. Some people said, ‘We’ll never get back to normal again. It will take decades.’ So they set up this new set of ideals, this vision of politeness. They’re trying to think, ‘How do you deal with this?’ Their conclusion: ‘We disagree on things but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a relationship. Underneath it we have this commonality.’

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Follow Bill Kole on Twitter at https://twitter.com/billkole. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/william-j-kole.

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This story has been corrected to show the name of the school is Worcester Polytechnic Institute, not Worcester Polytechnic University.

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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