Channelling the Spirit of 1800 This Post-Election Season





11-19-12

Michael Austin is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He is the author or editor of six books, including his most recent, That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing, published in September 2012 by Prometheus Books. He is currently working on a new book called Arguing as Friends: Why It’s So Important and Why It’s So Hard.

He invites people of any political persuasion to join his new blog project at http://argueasfriends.net and discuss current events in a civil and respectful manner with people on the other side.


Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

As Americans, we love to pretend that things were different back then, back when gods and giants roamed the earth. What would the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson need with 30-second attack ads? Would Alexander Hamilton stoop to voter suppression schemes? Would Benjamin Franklin care about the Meat Loaf vote? Now that the Founders have transformed into myth, we must consider them above such partisan nonsense. And we must at least suspect that, if they could only see us now, they would be so disappointed at the way we have abandoned their clear instructions on such issues as taxation, the national debt, federal power, states’ rights, military readiness, and the role of religion in the public square.

But these are the things that the Founding Fathers fought about too, just as frequently and just as passionately as we fight about them today. These were, in fact, six of the most important issues in the 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- an electoral contest whose incivility and hyperbole make our recent election look like a polite discussion over tea and cucumber sandwiches.

During that election, Hamilton and other high Federalists painted Jefferson and the Republicans as morally depraved atheists and fiery anti-government radicals who planned to set up guillotines on the banks of the Potomac and fill the new capital with blood. Republicans, on the other hand, portrayed Federalists as crypto-monarchists and usurpers of the Constitution. They pointed to the recent Alien and Sedition Acts as proof that Federalists would roll back the Bill of Rights at every available opportunity until they could declare Hamilton president-for-life and, from there, King of America.

And it got worse. Both Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians savaged the incumbent president, John Adams, a moderate Federalist who never quite managed to make either side happy. Hamiltonians worked as hard to throw the election to the other Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, as Republicans did to elect their hero Jefferson.

When I read primary sources from this election, I am often amazed by the extent to which everybody was convinced of their own absolute rightness and of the other side’s irredeemable wrongness. They sound so modern. Both Federalists and Republicans really believed that they had arrived at the most crucial moment of America’s existence and that the other guys wanted nothing more than to engineer a wretched betrayal of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The fact that the major players on both sides of the election actually wrote the Declaration of Independence (Adams and Jefferson) and the Constitution (Hamilton and Pinckney) did nothing to alleviate this concern.

Somehow, though, America survived its first party election and went on to prosper -- though not without plenty more bitter and divisive presidential contests. The factions that Madison and Hamilton portrayed so fearfully in their Federalist essays did in fact materialize -- thanks in no small part to the efforts of Madison and Hamilton -- but they did not doom our nation to impotence or ruin. And the election of 1800 yielded its fair share of object lessons for future generations. Two of these seem especially appropriate today.

The first lesson concerns the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These two great men stood side by side on the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and again as American emissaries to France in 1784. For years they maintained a deep friendship and a vibrant correspondence. Then they became bitter political enemies, and, in 1796, their correspondence stopped entirely -- except for a terse note that Adams sent to Jefferson in 1801 to say that he was leaving seven horses and two carriages in the White House stable.

In 1812, however, something remarkable happened. A mutual acquaintance persuaded Adams to send Jefferson a brief note, and a present of some books written by John Quincy Adams, after nearly twenty years of angry silence. Jefferson responded graciously, and, within just a few weeks, the two were corresponding again as friends. Between 1812 and 1825 (the year that both men died on July 4 within five hours of each other), Jefferson and Adams exchanged more than 150 letters, some of them terrifically long, in which they discussed both past and present in a tone of sincere mutual respect. They never recanted their own positions or minimized the importance of the things they disagreed about, but they did learn -- late in life and long after the election -- ow to disagree as friends. Both their lives and our history would have been poorer without this correspondence.

The other lesson -- not so happy but much better known -- concerns the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr. When the election of 1800 officially ended in a tie between Jefferson and Burr (before the 12th Amendment, the Constitution required electors to vote twice without separating votes for president and vice president), Hamilton used his influence to swing the election to Jefferson, citing a distrust of Burr’s character as his primary reason for doing so. The rivalry between Burr and Hamilton escalated when Burr ran for governor of New York and Hamilton opposed him again. These political slights led to a field in Weehawken, New Jersey where, on July 11, 1804, two pistol shots ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s political career.

Americans have just gone through another lengthy and divisive election in which the stakes have seemed exceptionally high and the results have produced both great joy and despondent anger. In the aftermath of this election we would do well to remember two lessons from 1800: first, even after a bitter political contest we can still come together and learn how to disagree as friends; second, taking shots at one an other can have serious consequences.


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