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Revolutionary War era lessons for today's White House

The photos were of a meeting between President Trump and Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak.

The Trump administration has been hampered by accusations of foreign interference in our elections, concern over attempts to stifle freedom of the press and charges of nepotism — just to name a few of the dark clouds hovering over the White House.

These issues are neither entirely new nor unprecedented: They were present during the Revolutionary War era. And there is a lesson in how the leaders of the day worked their way through various challenges that could have derailed our young democracy.

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My ancestor, Thomas McKean, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, president of the Continental Congress and Pennsylvania state supreme court justice. He was also at the center of many of the controversies that swirled around national politics.

A photo of Thomas McKean, the seventh man to be president of Congress at the opening of the Hall of Presidents Before Washington at the Westin in Annapolis.
A photo of Thomas McKean, the seventh man to be president of Congress at the opening of the Hall of Presidents Before Washington at the Westin in Annapolis. (Joshua McKerrow, staff / Capital Gazette)

In 1799, at age 60, McKean decided to enter elective politics and run for governor of Pennsylvania. The campaign was waged largely in the press with the Philadelphia Aurora backing McKean, and Porcupine's Gazette backing his opponent. Because the Gazette's editor, William Cobbett, was British-born, the Aurora accused him of being a British agent engaged in "a most audacious foreign interference in our elections."

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Yet, with the support of Irish and German immigrants, McKean narrowly won. Having split with the Federalists, he became the first Democratic-Republican governor in the United States. He immediately set about overhauling the state government, firing scores of Federalist sympathizers. He then installed friends and members of his family in key positions: One son was appointed state attorney general, another served as his private secretary, and a nephew was made the state secretary. As a result, McKean is sometimes identified as the father of the "spoils system" in American politics. Sound familiar?

The Hall of Presidents Before Washington, an exhibit honoring the 14 presidents before U.S. President George Washington under the Articles of Confederation and

McKean's election was followed by the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800 after a bruising campaign against President Adams. One of the key issues in the campaign was the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed during the Adams administration to prohibit radical and potentially dangerous speech in the name of national security. McKean and Jefferson opposed the acts and stood strongly in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

However, by Jefferson's second term, both McKean and the president had less patience with the press, largely due to the personal attacks on their character. In 1804 Gov. McKean wrote to Jefferson, complaining about the "infamous and seditious libels published almost daily in our newspapers." As McKean saw it, "This vice has become a national one and calls aloud for redress." President Jefferson agreed, replying that he had "long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the process." Complaints by politicians about perceived bias in the press is nothing new.

On the surface, many of President Trump's problems bear a striking resemblance to issues faced in the early republic. But the differences are significant and instructive.

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Despite a federal judge's order that the Carroll County commissioners stop praying to Jesus at their meetings, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier reached into history and summoned George Washington to aid her cause last week.

My ancestor was not a paragon of what we recognize today as American values. He and other founding fathers were literally making it up as they went along. There was no playbook, no history on which they could draw. Yet, ultimately they coalesced around a shared vision of democracy, one undergirded by the rule of law. McKean served in all three branches of the government. He understood the need for checks and balances. That's why George Washington praised his character, John Adams commended his public service and James Monroe hailed him as a defender of "those liberties we acquired by our Revolution."

We now have had over 200 years of experience demonstrating clearly that our democracy is stronger when our elections are free of foreign interference, when our press is free from intimidation, and when someone who respects our history and our laws leads our government.

Like many presidents before him, President Trump often invokes the founding fathers. However, depending on what Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III uncovers in his investigation into potential collusion between Donald Trump's campaign team and Russia, this president may turn out to have less in common with the founding fathers than with another infamous figure from the Revolutionary War era: Benedict Arnold.

David McKean (dmckean@gmfus.org) is former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, and the author of "Suspected of Independence: The Life of Thomas McKean, America's First Power Broker" (Public Affairs Books). He recently gave the keynote address at the opening of the "Hall of Presidents Before Washington" exhibit in Annapolis.

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