What the election of 1800 can teach us about the peaceful transition of power in the United States

There are so many lessons we can learn from the presidential election of 1800. For example, when we claim that we are living through “the most divisive campaign” in history, 1800 offers perspective:

The election of 1800 also figured prominently in the Broadway play Hamilton, although much of its treatment of the election is historically inaccurate.

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I focused on the religious aspects of the election. Many northeastern evangelicals believed that if Jefferson was elected he would come for their Bibles and close their churches. (Sound familiar?)

And as Sara Georgini of the Papers of John Adams reminds us in a recent piece at Perspectives on History Daily, the election of 1800 also offers some lessons on the peaceful transition of power. Here is a taste of her piece:

John Adams chased the dawn right out of Washington, DC, departing the half-built city shortly after four o’clock in the morning on March 4, 1801. He knew it was time to go. In a battering election that pitted Adams against his friend-turned-rival Thomas Jefferson, the New England Federalist suffered a humiliating and life-changing defeat. His popular predecessor, George Washington, swung into a second term easily. But the rules of the game had changed: Adams faced violent factionalism from within his administration, a seething press, rampant electioneering, and the eruption of party politics.

To many, Adams’s track record in office was controversial at best, thanks to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and an unpopular foreign policy with France. While the second president summered at his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton and a newly minted corps of campaigners trawled for votes. Fanning out across cities and towns, they set political fires in the local press that blazed across the very states Adams needed to win, and wouldn’t. He watched from afar, loathing the campaign tactics taking root. “If my administration cannot be defended by the intrinsic merit of my measures & by my own authority, may it be damned,” he wrote to his son Thomas Boylston Adams in late August. The elder Adams held strong opinions on elections, informed by his close study of classical republics and Renaissance state formation. He hoped to be known as the 18th-century ideal of a disinterested public servant, so a hard loss at the polls meant one thing: Transfer power peacefully to a new president, thereby safeguarding the office and the nation it served.

The election of 1800 did not invent this idea, but it did engrave America into history as a democracy. Both men vying for the presidency would have known Plato’s caution. Democracies thrived on the verge of oligarchy, and executive power—embodied by either president or king—risked turning into tyranny the longer its tenure. When did John Adams know his presidency was over, and what did he do about it? In the most technical sense, he lived (awkwardly) with the impending loss of power from December 1800, when key electoral votes failed to tip his way. He was not eager to stick around and watch the next inauguration.

Read the rest here.

Listen to our interview with Sara in episode 50 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.