The Election of 1800 and Today

larson-posterYesterday the Messiah College History Department hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 and the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  The lecture stemmed from Larson’s 2007 book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.

I will not offer a blow-by-blow account of the lecture here.  Those interested should read Larson’s book.  It is fast-moving and accessible.

But as Larson lectured to a room packed with undergraduates, faculty, and community members, I was once again struck by the many similarities (and differences) between the Election of 1800 and the Election of 2016.

Here is how I introduced Larson’s lecture:

Was 2016 the most contentious election in American history?  It seems that every election we hear the same things: “Political polarization has never been worse.”  “The rancor and divisiveness is unprecedented.”  But when historians hear words like “never been worse” or “unprecedented,” our natural inclination is skepticism.  As Americans we can so easily become enslaved by the narcissism of the present that we start to believe that what is happening today is the “best,” the “worst,” or the “most hard fought” of ALL TIME.

We can have an honest debate about whether the 2016 election was the most divisive election in American history. But any such debate MUST take into the consideration the Election of 1800.  This was an election of cantankerous politicking.  It was the first United States presidential election that saw the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.  And it had a controversial ending that makes last night’s announcement of “Best Picture” pale in comparison.

We are privileged today to have Ed Larson with us to help us sort it all out. 

As Larson gave us a blow-by-blow account of this controversial election he focused his remarks around the three themes.  As he sees it, the Election of 1800 was a contest over:

  1. National Security.  Adams and the Federalists claimed that they could protect the United States from the outside interference of armed French radicals and the threat of the French navy in the Caribbean.
  2. Immigration.  The Federalists had just passed the Alien Act which made immigration into the United States difficult. It allowed the government to turn away immigrants and refugees out of fear that some of them (radicals) might try to overthrow the republic.
  3. Religion.  The Federalist painted Jefferson as an atheist.  Jefferson painted Adams as a religious hypocrite who favored a state church.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps we might even add a fourth point–freedom of the press or freedom of speech.  The Sedition Act made anti-Federalist/anti-Adams rhetoric punishable by law.

As I tweeted following the lecture:

More Historical Context on the Electoral College


The work of historians in helping ordinary Americans make sense of the electoral college has been stellar.  We have already called attention to pieces by Kevin Gannon and Robert Tracy McKenzie.  Today I want to recommend Andrew Shankman‘s Historical News Network essay, “What Were the Founders Thinking When They Created the Electoral College?

Andy reminds us that if the original framers of the Constitution (and the Electoral College) had their way Donald Trump would be President and Hillary Clinton would be Vice President.

Here is a taste:

Created by the Constitution, the original Electoral College worked like this: each state appointed electors equal to its number of senators (2) plus representatives, apportioned at a ratio of 1 for every 30,000 residents. Each elector cast two votes for president and at least one of those votes had to be for someone outside the elector’s state. If someone received the most votes and a majority, he became president. The second highest vote-getter became vice president. If no one received a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives, which could choose the president from among the top five vote-getters, and had to make the highest vote-getter vice president if they chose not to make him president. To us these original procedures may sound insane, this year they would make majority vote-getter Donald Trump president and Hillary Clinton vice president.

So, what were the Founders thinking? The Founders were inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome and believed they had collapsed when they stopped seeking the public good as their citizens divided into parties to pursue their own interests. For the Founders the public good emerged from a coherent set of values, and understanding how to achieve it required a deep knowledge of the classics, of natural law, common law, and the law of nations, and of the new science of political economy that arose during the Enlightenment. Above all, one had to possess disinterested virtue–putting aside personal interests for the sake of the public good. The Founders thought that most citizens were not capable of fully comprehending the public good. For the United States to succeed, the small group of great and talented men who could would have to guide them. Believing in a unifying singular public good, the Founders saw no value in political parties. Parties existed to promote competing interests, which was contrary to the public good. Citizens either embraced the public good or they behaved selfishly and badly.

Only by starting with these assumptions did the Electoral College make sense. After George Washington’s presidency, the Founders assumed their Electoral College would routinely place the decision of who would be president with the House of Representatives. They reasoned that the small group capable of comprehending the public good was evenly distributed geographically. A reasonable number of them would stand for election. Each would be equally qualified virtuous gentlemen. Without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College. The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.

Yet almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution, reality obliterated the Founders’ plan….

Read the rest here.

We are Getting Close to the Election of 1800

Back in the day POTUS elections were about competing ideas.  Right?

Not really.

Today Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a racist.  Trump responded by calling Clinton a bigot.

We are getting close to the rhetoric of the campaign of 1800, although it is worth noting that little of the language in this video came directly from the mouth of the candidates–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

The 2016 Presidential Election and Historical Comparisons


Everyone is making comparisons between the 2016 presidential election and other presidential election in American history.  I have also been doing plenty of this here at the blog (including my last post about George Wallace).

Historical analogies are never perfect. But we can learn from them, even if it only reminds that, for the most part, there is nothing new under the sun.

Here are few analogies I have seen:

Election of 1800:  I have pointed to this video to remind people that the mudslinging we are seeing in this campaign is not new.  I have also referred to this election to show that politicians have been using religion in presidential campaigns for a long time.

Election of 1824:  I recently wrote a piece about Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts about Andrew Jackson.  Most historians who are interested in comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson also reference this election.

Election of 1912:  Historians have been referencing this election in the context of the possibility of the GOP rejecting Trump at its July convention.  In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was rejected by the Republican Party and responded to the rejection by forming the Bull Moose Party.  Some say Trump could do something similar if he does not get the nomination in Cleveland.

Election of 1964:  Political historians have compared the conservative extremism of both Trump and Ted Cruz to Barry Goldwater.

Election of 1968:  Some historians have compared Donald Trump to George Wallace.

What other presidential election comparisons have you seen?

Abigail Adams: Letters

LOA jacket templateThe Library of America has announced the publication of Abigail Adams: Letters.  The collection of 430 letters from the former first lady is edited by historian and Adams scholar Edith Gelles.

In a post at The Library of America blog, Gelles discusses Abigail’s remarks on the election of 1800:

“The Spirit of party has overpowerd the Spirit of Patriotism,” observes Abigail Adams in her January 29, 1801, letter to her eldest son John Quincy, then American minister to the Prussian court in Berlin. Written after having learned that her husband John had been defeated for a second term as president, Adams’s letter vividly conveys the unsettled nature of American politics in the early republic.

The election of 1800 was perhaps the most vituperative in our history. Federalist John Adams, the incumbent, was despised by a prominent faction of his own party, the so-called Essex Junto. Alexander Hamilton, the de facto leader of the Federalist party, had written a pamphlet denouncing the President as a madman. This fratricidal conflict opened the door for the two Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who, by a fluke of the original electoral process established by the Constitution, ended up tied in the Electoral College, with Adams coming third. The deadlock shifted the decision to the House of Representatives, where it would take 36 ballots for Jefferson to secure election. Denied a second term, President Adams, in a move that was as controversial then as it would be today, made a series of “midnight appointments” in the final days of his administration, including that of John Marshall to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As the young nation prepared for the first transfer of power from one party to another, the outgoing First Lady despaired for the future.

Adams’s mood in this letter is melancholy for more personal reasons as well. She had recently arrived in the swampy new capital, the first First Lady to occupy what would become known as the White House. On her journey to Washington, over roads that were so rutted that “it was like a ploughd field,” she had passed through New York City to pay a “dying visit” to her beloved second son, Charles, who was fast fading from the effects of alcoholism. Not yet regarded as a disease, alcoholism was then considered a sign of personal weakness and a sin. She prays that Charles, the son she remembers as the charming and loveable man “he once was,” will be forgiven, and that John Quincy will become a surrogate father to his younger daughter. Abigail and John took Charles’s older daughter, Susanna, home with them to Quincy, Massachusetts, where she remained until her marriage in 1817.

Read the rest here.

Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Was a Lame-Duck Appointment

MarshallOver at the blog of Oxford University Press, historian R.B. Bernstein reminds us that John Marshall, the man who many consider to be the most influential Supreme Court Justice in American history, was a so-called “lame-duck” appointment.

Here is a taste:

Those who argue that lame-duck presidents should not nominate justices to the Supreme Court have forgotten or ignored the most consequential appointment in the Court’s — and the nation’s — history: President John Adams’s 1801 appointment of John Marshall as the nation’s fourth Chief Justice.

The vacancy in the Chief Justiceship did not arise until after the 1800 presidential election, in which Adams lost his bid for a second term, and the disputed tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr persisted into 1801. Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, whom Adams had sent to France to negotiate a treaty to bring an end to the 1798-1800 “quasi-war” between France and the United States, sent the treaty that he had negotiated to President Adams – accompanied by his letter of resignation from the Court….

The Ellsworth resignation complicated President Adams’s life far beyond what he could have foreseen. Adams faced a multi-level crisis in American politics — how to respond to the seeming failure of all efforts to break the deadlock in the House of Representatives between Jefferson and Burr for the presidency; how to deal with the Federalist-dominated Congress’s efforts to reform the federal judiciary, both to make it more efficient and effective and to create many new judicial posts for Federalists; and whom to choose to replace Ellsworth.

Many Federalists called on Adams to name a die-hard High Federalist, in particular advocating the nomination of Justice William Paterson, a man whom Adams distrusted as an ally of such High Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and not a friend or supporter of the President. Adams also faced suggestions that he promote another Associate Justice, William Cushing, to the chief justiceship – even though Cushing had turned down such a promotion back in 1795, after the resignation of the first Chief Justice, John Jay, to become governor of New York. Some Senators even proposed that Adams name himself the new Chief Justice, an idea that the president rejected with scorn. Adams instead chose to name Jay to his old job, and the Senate confirmed the appointment. Though Jay seemed an ideal choice, liked by both factions of Federalists and a holder of the position from 1789 to 1795, nobody had asked Jay whether he wanted to return to the Court. On receipt of the news of his nomination by the president and confirmation by the Senate, Jay wrote to Adams thanking him for the honor but frostily rejected his reappointment, on the grounds that the federal judiciary was neglected, undervalued, and frustrating for those serving on it, and declaring his absolute refusal of reappointment.

In turn vexed by the choices before him, Adams turned to Marshall, his Secretary of State. Marshall was a loyal supporter of President Adams, a Virginia Federalist, an excellent attorney, and a widely-praised diplomat; in addition, Marshall had served Adams well as Secretary of State for a year when Adams decided to nominate him for the Chief Justiceship. Adams nominated Marshall with only weeks remaining in his presidency. Though the Federalist Senate at first was reluctant to agree, preferring a High Federalist like Justice Paterson, they knew that Adams would not nominate him (something that Adams had already told Marshall with considerable heat). The Senators realized that rejecting Marshall would create a deadlock that would leave the vacancy on the Court to be filled by Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr. Such a prospect was too dangerous for them to accept, and they confirmed Marshall.

John Marshall served 34 years as Chief Justice and left an extraordinary mark on the nation’s history and on American constitutional development. His judicial opinions on such matters as judicial review, federalism, national supremacy, and interstate commerce form the spine of American constitutional law. Nearly two centuries later, we live in the constitutional world that John Adams and John Marshall helped to create, a world that is now the nation’s heritage. And the Marshall precedent cuts against claims by leading figures in today’s Republican Party that no lame-duck President should make an appointment to the nation’s highest court.

Read the entire post here.

If Bernie Gets the Nomination We Could Have the Election of 1800 All Over Again

BernieAs we enter the final weekend before the Iowa caucuses and with the February 9th New Hampshire primary fast approaching, Bernie Sanders has given himself a legitimate shot at the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.  He is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the Hawkeye state and enjoys a comfortable lead in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, over on the GOP side, two strong evangelical candidates—Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—are doing battle with a New York businessman who has won the endorsement of several leading evangelicals and claims that he will keep Christianity in this country “safe” from the intrusion of Muslims and secularists.

If Sanders wins the nomination, the general election could become a political war pitting belief against unbelief.

Bernie Sanders has never been hostile to Christianity.  When he spoke last year at Liberty University he tried to find common ground with the conservative evangelical student body.  But he has also been open about the fact that he is not “actively involved with organized religion.”

When asked by the Washington Post if he believes in God, Sanders answered: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways.  To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of organized religion.

If Sanders faces Cruz, Rubio, or Donald Trump in the general election, it is likely that Sanders’s faith, or lack thereof, will become a major issue in the campaign.  Of course the GOP candidate will try to exploit the Vermont Senator’s progressive “big-government” views, but this critique will become even more powerful when the Republican nominee starts calling Sanders a godless socialist.

If the religious culture wars spill into presidential politics in this way, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened in American history.  In the election of 1800 the nation saw similar attacks made against a skeptical presidential candidate.  His name was Thomas Jefferson.

In 1800 the incumbent president, John Adams, represented the Federalists, a political faction with particular strength in New England.  Federalist strongholds such as Connecticut and Massachusetts had a long tradition of government-sponsored Christianity. The Federalists in New England worked closely with the Congregationalist clergy in order to ensure that the region would remain Christian in character and be governed by Christian political leaders.

Jefferson was the Vice-President of the United States.  Adams defeated him in the presidential election of 1796, but the margin of victory was slim.  As the population of the United States began to spread out beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the religious sentiments of the country turned against state-sponsored churches, Jefferson would attract more and more Americans.

But Jefferson’s religious beliefs would present a problem for him in the Federalist-dominated northeast.  Jefferson was not a Christian.  He was skeptical about doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible.  He was not the kind of godly president that many New England Federalists thought should be leading a Christian nation.

The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were fierce.  William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York, was representative of these attacks.  He wrote that he was forced to oppose Jefferson’s candidacy because of the Vice-President’s “disbelief of the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.”

Linn feared that the United States, under Jefferson’s rule, would become a “nation of Atheists.”  He made clear that “no professed deists, be his talents and acquirements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place [the presidency] by the suffrages of a Christian nation.”  He went so far as to argue that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.”

Linn was fully aware that there was “nothing in the constitution to restrict our choice” of a president with religious beliefs akin to Jefferson’s, but he warned his readers that if they elected “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation.”

Jefferson, of course, won the presidential election of 1800 and the republic survived.  But if Sanders squares off against today’s defenders of a Christian America it is quite likely that history may just repeat itself.

Name That Candidate

He ran on a platform of change. He wanted to move beyond the culture wars of the previous decade by promoting national unity. He was attacked for his religious affiliations. He was criticized for being an intellectual who was out of touch with ordinary people. He sought to transcend political parties by running on ideas that all Americans could believe in. He won the election.

The answer: Thomas Jefferson

In 1800, Jefferson defeated John Adams (and Aaron Burr, the guy who was supposed to be his running mate and not his rival for the office) and initiated a new “American Revolution.” He firmly believed that the Federalists of the 1790s had betrayed the spirit of the American Revolution through their social elitism, support for big business and banking, a foreign policy that favored Great Britain, and the curtailing of certain individual liberties such as free speech. In his first inaugural address he avoided polemics and tried to bring the country together when he famously declared, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

We had fun today talking about Jefferson’s libertarianism, using Peter Onuf’s Jeffersonian America as our guide. My students seemed surprised that it was Jefferson, the forerunner of the modern Democratic Party (or at least the 19th century Democratic Party), who favored limited government and promoted “little republics” centered around strong family values (in an eighteenth-century understanding of the term), local government, religious belief, and voluntary societies. In this sense, Jefferson’s vision was in many ways an extension of the Anti-Federalists of the 1780. (I am finally getting around to reading Saul Cornell’s excellent, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 )

I think some of my conservative students have a new hero.

The Election of 1800: Politics as Usual

My class on the History of the Early Republic continues to work through Edward Larson’s The Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. It has been fun teaching this book during an election season and my students seem to be enjoying it. (In fact, today we started class with a discussion about the differences between popular history and mongraphs).

Most of my students seem to already be cynical about American politics, so this book only enhanced their cynicism. On Monday we talked about Aaron Burr’s political ambition as it related to his successful attempt to bring New York’s electors into the Jeffersonian camp. Today we discussed Alexander Hamilton’s attempt to undermine the Republican victory in the New York state assembly elections by trying to empower the lame-duck, pro-Federalist New York legislature to give Federalist governor John Jay the power to choose the state’s electors to the Electoral College This, of course, would have made the Jeffersonian Republican victory orchestrated by Burr null and void and would have kept New York in the Federalist camp. In the end, however, Jay rejected Hamilton’s scheme. He placed principle over party. Though they did not put it in these terms, I think my students were relieved to see the way a Christian stateman like Jay refused to participate in Hamilton’s underhanded attempt for political power.

We started talking about the role of religion in the election today. It promises to make for a good discussion when we come back from fall break.