Some Americans may think their country is divided politically more than ever but political acrimony was more serious, and sometimes violent, in other times in U.S. history, former long-time U.S. congressman James Leach, of Iowa, said in an IowaWatch interview.

“For sure, and I say this with a great deal of certitude, the 1850s were worse,” Leach, who served as a Republican in the U.S. House from 1977 until January 2007, said during this past weekend’s IowaWatch Connection radio program and podcast. “But they were worse for good reason. The issue was slavery.”

Even so, Leach also said in the interview that politics in Congress is more divisive, which includes more personal attacks on political opponents, than when he served. “There’s a personalization of all of politics,” he said.

Leach, of Iowa City, is a visiting professor of law and senior scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law and a visiting professor of political science at the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Other harsh times in U.S. politics, he noted, have included early in the nation’s history when founders Thomas Jefferson and John Adams hurled insults at each other, President Andrew Jackson dueled opponents and when Vice President Aaron Burr famously killed the first U.S. treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel.

Leach, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who spurned his party to support Democrat Barack Obama for president, said he still considers himself a Republican. He said he is in the mold of moderates in the party’s past like former President Dwight E. Eisenhower and former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, and that he would not agree with much of today’s Republican Party leadership in Congress.

“In politics today, both political parties have teams of people that advise their candidates,” he said. “And virtually all of them suggest that the candidate be prepared to go, quote, negative.”

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