[To say that the 2020 presidential election will be a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of others, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On the election that definitely changed things in post-Revolutionary America—but also, inspiringly, didn’t.
It’d be an overstatement to say that the first decade of post-Constitution America was devoid of national or partisan divisions—this was the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their responses, after all; also of that little rebellion up in Pennsylvania—but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to see the first three presidential terms (Washington’s two and John Adams’s one) as among the most unified and non-controversial in our history. That’s true even though Adams’s Vice President was his chief rival in the 1796 election, Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson had gained the second-most electoral votes, which in the first constitutional model meant that he would serve as vice president (an idea that in and of itself reflects a striking lack of expected controversy!). There were certainly two distinct parties as of that second administration (Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans), and they had distinct perspectives on evolving national issues to be sure; but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of significant partisan divisions between them in that period.
To say that things changed with the presidential election of 1800 would be to drastically understate the case. Once again Adams and Jefferson were the chief contenders, now linked by the past four years of joint service but at the same time more overtly rivals because of that prior election and its results; moreover, this time Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr, was a far more prominent and popular candidate in his own right. And this combination of complex factors led to an outcome that was divisive and controversial on multiple levels: Jefferson’s ticket handily defeated that of his boss, greatly amplifying the partisan rancor between the men and parties; but at the same time Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, an unprecedented (then or since) tie between two Republicans that sent the election into the hands of the Federalist-controlled Congress. Although most Federalists opposed Jefferson (for obvious reasons), through a murky and secretive process (one likely influenced by Alexander Hamilton) Jefferson was ultimately chosen on the 36th ballot as the nation’s third president.
Four years later Burr shot Hamilton dead in the nation’s most famous duel (now more famous than ever, thanks to a certain groundbreaking musical), and it’s entirely fair to say that, in the aftermath of this heated and controversial election, the nation could have similarly descended into conflict. But instead, Burr and Hamilton’s eventual fates notwithstanding, the better angels of our collective nature rose to the occasion—Adams peacefully handed over the executive to Jefferson, all those who had supported Burr recognized the new administration, and the parties continued to move forward as political but not social or destructive rivals. If and when the partisan divisions seem too deep and too wide, and frankly too much for me to contemplate (as, I will admit, they consistently feel at the moment), I try to remember the election of 1800; not because it went smoothly or was perfect (far from it), nor because the leaders in that generation were any nobler or purer (ditto), but rather precisely because it went horribly and was deeply messed-up and the leaders were as selfish and human as they always are, and yet somehow—as untested and raw as we were—we came out on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll do the same this time.
Next election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other pivotal elections you’d highlight?
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