The election of 1800 was the nastiest, most vitriolic election in this country’s history.
If you think the current junior-high-level mudfest holds that title it’s probably because you haven’t studied much American history. For what it’s worth, you’re in good company. Most Americans haven’t. The simple fact, however, is that we haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of the rhetoric that has been deemed appropriate in presidential elections in the past. If 1800 is too far back for you, try looking at 1828, or 1860, or even 1968. There’s a lot of elections to choose from. We’re a rude and often reprehensibly juvenile culture when it comes to politics.
The language in this year’s contest is certainly enough to make any decent human being weep (seriously – I have no idea how I am going to teach this election without getting fired for repeating verbatim things the GOP candidate has said on camera) but 1800 takes the cut-glass flyswatter.
The election of 1800 was a rerun of the previous one – something that happens surprisingly often in American history – and pitted the Democratic Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson against the Federalist John Adams. Adams had won in 1796, and under the Constitutional procedures then in place (since changed by the 12th Amendment) this meant that his opponent Jefferson became his vice-president. With only a couple of months of actual campaigning once George Washington had announced that he would not run again, it had been a short but vicious election. I imagine that cabinet meetings during the Adams administration were rather strained.
In 1800 the gloves really came off.
Everyone knew there would be a contested election. And everyone knew who the candidates would be. Well, everyone except Alexander Hamilton, who had hopes of getting Adams off the ticket. But still. Mostly everyone. They had a long, long time to get their rhetoric ready for this one, in other words, and it was an age that knew well how to use rhetoric as a weapon.
Grab your popcorn!
And as you read through the couple of paragraphs after this one, bear in mind that the subjects of all that rhetoric are two of the Founding Fathers. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was arguably the most complex intellect this country has ever produced. He’s on our money – twice, if you count the $2 bill, which nobody ever does even if they should. Adams was one of the most incisive scholars of his generation, served as George Washington’s vice president, and was a man of such stout principles that he defended in court the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre. He won, too. We see these men as marble figures of lofty renown – Jefferson’s face is literally carved onto a mountain in South Dakota, after all – but we often forget that they were human, that they were politicians seeking power and being judged by the electorate just like any other politician.
Their contemporaries, however, did not forget this.
Thus John Adams – admittedly not the most handsome man in America (he was widely known as “His Rotundity,” pun not quite intended but I’ll take it anyway) – found himself described as blind, bald, toothless, and crippled, yet still somehow active enough to import mistresses from England to satisfy his base needs. He was accused of wanting to overthrow the Constitution, betray the Revolution, and return the US to English rule or at the very least install a monarchy in the capital. He was described in the press as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson was described as an “audacious howling Atheist,” a “rattle-brained modern philosopher” whose “wild and licentious” character had “the morality of devils.” For weeks – weeks – the leading Federalist newspaper in the country had the same unelaborated headline: “GOD AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT, OR JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!” He was described as both a fanatic whose election would result in the open practice of murder, rape, robbery, incest, and the spitting of children on pikes, and at the same time as weak, effeminate, delicate, and “a mixture of milk and vinegar, of honey, and of gall, every thing by turns, and nothing long.” Federalists denounced “the celebrated whirligig chair which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain, by a counter turn for every occasion” as the invention of a “Bedlamite.” They anticipated the destruction of both the Constitution and Christianity as a whole should Jefferson win, as Jefferson would no doubt turn the US into a pale copy of Jacobin France and soak the ground with the blood of the innocent.
This wasn’t random.
The nastiness of the rhetoric of the election of 1800 emerged directly out of the larger political situation. In particular, it came out of two things: the perceived fragility of both republics and frameworks of government, and the fact that classical republicanism, the dominant political ideology of the late 18th century, did not recognize political parties as legitimate.
In 1800 the Constitution was all of a dozen years old. Counting the British Crown, it was the third basic framework of government Americans had lived under during the previous two and a half decades, and there was no guarantee that it would be any more long lasting or effective than either the Crown or the ill-fated Articles of Confederation had proved. Further, republics – as all of the Founders knew well – were historically ephemeral things, prone to collapse and easily converted into anarchy, oligarchy, or, worst of all, tyranny. They were fragile in part because they required high levels of virtue among the citizens and leadership and this was a rare and easily broken quality.
Virtue in classical republicanism did not mean the avoidance of sins the way we use the term today. Virtue was a jargon term, and it meant the ability to set aside one’s petty private interests and work for the public good. There was only one public good – it was unified and easily visible, and all men of virtue would naturally work to achieve it.
This is why political parties were a sign of decay in a republic. Parties – “factions” or “juntos” in the language of the day – represented groups of men putting their private interests above the good of the whole and thus were surefire ways of destroying republics. And the election of 1800 most certainly was a partisan one. There were two easily identified and mutually incompatible parties with coherent visions of the future and agendas for achieving that vision, and each side naturally saw the other as an illegitimate faction working to destroy the republic by subverting the public good to their private interests.
Neither side saw the other as legitimate, in other words, and in an environment where the republic’s survival was assumed to be both fragile and under attack, it really isn’t a surprise that the rhetoric got ugly.
Once you get that down, you will also probably not be surprised by the fact that the nastiness didn’t stop once the voting was done, either. There was still a whole lot of campaign to go even after the votes had been counted.
Yes, John Adams lost. But it was not altogether clear who had won.
Thanks to that same marvelous little quirk in the Constitution that had led to Jefferson serving as the vice president to the guy who beat him, which was a quirk that apparently the Democratic Republicans had still not quite figured out four years later, there was no actual election for vice president in 1800. The Constitution simply assumed that whoever got the most votes in the Electoral College would be president, and whoever came in second would be vice president. And in an age that did not see political parties as desirable this made sense. You got the second-best person for the second-highest office, ready to step in should something happen to the winner. But in an age of political parties, where it was clear that someone should be president and someone should be vice president and the two guys at the top of each ticket really didn't see eye to eye on much, this presented a practical problem.
Specifically in this case it meant that at least one Democratic Republican elector had to remember not to vote for Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s running mate. That way Jefferson would win, Burr would come in second, Adams would come in third, and all would be right with the Democratic Republican world. But since nobody actually thought to remember this, Burr and Jefferson ended up tied.
That sent the election to the House of Representatives, in accordance with the Constitution’s requirements (which are, in fact, still in effect that way).
The outgoing House was dominated by the Federalists, who were exceedingly unhappy about having to choose between the two Democratic Republican winners (and yes, technically they could have chosen Adams, who came in third, but that kind of naked private interest was clearly not virtuous. It would take until the 21st century for right wing fanatics to make that case in all seriousness as a strategy to deny re-election to Barack Obama in 2012). Most of the Federalists saw Jefferson pretty much as the rhetoric had described him and were prepared to promote Burr to the presidency, though Alexander Hamilton – a principled man, if not exactly a politic one – frantically tried to convince them not to, since he regarded Burr as a scoundrel.
This is one of the things that Burr would later murder Hamilton for, so I suppose Hamilton had a point.
The vote dragged on for six days and thirty-six separate ballots. The two biggest Democratic Republican states, Pennsylvania and Virginia, mobilized their militias and were ready to march on the newly established Federal City on the Potomac should Congress try anything they regarded as suspicious. The new nation – less than two decades removed from the formal end of the Revolution – stood on the brink of civil war.
And then a strange thing happened.
Congress – swayed by Hamilton – settled on Jefferson. The militias stood down. The tension eased. And on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the nation’s third president.
It was a mild spring day in the capital, somewhere in the mid-50sF. Jefferson, seeking to make a political point, chose to walk from his boarding house to the Capitol dressed as a plain citizen. He entered the Senate chamber and in his thin, high-pitched, barely audible voice, he delivered his inauguration address.
“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think,” he noted, “but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. … Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. … [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
It was a call to come together, after the most vitriolic election in our nation’s history – to remember that we are all Americans, and that once the election was over it was incumbent upon us as Americans to accept the results and work together.
Adams, distraught over the death of his son a few months earlier and unhappy about leaving office, did not attend the inauguration, but he accepted the verdict of the election with at least some grace and no protest. He understood that the peaceful transfer of power was crucial to the survival of the republic, and that for him – or indeed any candidate for higher office – to declare himself unwilling to accept the results of the election once they had been officially certified would be to launch the nation down a dark and bloody path.
The United States has had over two centuries of largely peaceful elections since then. Sporadic violence at the polls – mostly driven by racial resentments – has not resulted in the repudiation of electoral results. And when elections have been challenged – such as they might have been in 1960, when there were many credible accusations of fraud, and as they actually were in 2000, with the extraordinarily close and rather suspect results from Florida – the final verdict once all the dust settled has been accepted by the defeated party with remarkable grace in the name of the public good.
We owe Richard Nixon and Al Gore a debt of gratitude for being willing to sacrifice their petty private interests in that way. Each of them could have refused to accept the results, once finalized (by the Electoral College in Nixon’s case, and by the Supreme Court in Gore’s), and the bitter results of such intransigence might well have destroyed the republic. Instead they chose country over interest, and the peaceful transfer of power over revolution.
Republics are fragile.
It is extremely disturbing, in this context, to hear the current GOP nominee’s refusal to accept the election results if they do not go his way.
This is a flat rejection of everything American politics has achieved in the last two and a half centuries. It is a crass willingness to place petty private interests above the good of the nation as a whole. It is a dangerous resort to the tactics of dictators and power-hungry whores, a childish and narcissistic foot-stomping episode from someone increasingly out of touch with the reality of the situation around him, and it has no place in American politics.
I worry about what this will do to the more deluded of his supporters, who are already threatening to disrupt the election and worse. It is dangerous to play to the fanatics, for they are by definition unstable and prone to violence. Anytime you hear the phrase "Second Amendment solution" you know you are in the presence of dangerous idiots.
You do see a belated recognition among the more sane GOP leaders that this is both un-American and something they need to respond to forcefully, and good for them. This is their candidate. This is the guy representing their party – and make no mistake, he does represent that party, sad though that may be to both the non-insane members of it and the rest of us. They need to own him and rein him in. I hope they are not too late.
If Americans could accept the results of 1800, you’d think we can accept the results of 2016.
I hope I am not wrong about that.