Let’s set the record straight on what Mike Pence can and cannot do at tomorrow’s certification of the Electoral College results

Donald Trump seems to believe that Mike Pence can overturn the votes of the Electoral College tomorrow when Congress certifies the results.

Here is Trump last night in Georgia:

And earlier today:

CNN is reporting that Trump and Pence had an unscheduled lunch today.

Is Trump right?

No.

Let’s start with the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1:

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President…

The Constitution says that the sitting Vice President does have a role in the certification process. His role is to open the results (presumably in envelopes) sent to him by the states. It is purely ceremonial.

Now let’s move on to the pertinent parts of the 12th Amendment.

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;-The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;-The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President…

The 12th amendment requires electors to cast one electoral vote for president and one electoral vote for vice president. This was necessary after Thomas Jefferson and his VP running mate Aaron Burr both received the same number of electoral votes in the president election of 1800. Learn more about what happened here. Notice that the language related to the Vice President’s role in opening the certified votes does not change with the 12th Amendment. His job is to open envelopes. It is a role that is purely ceremonial.

The final document of note is the Electoral Count Act of 1887. This act was passed ten years after the controversial presidential election of 1876. It clarifies the role of the vice-president in the certification of the Electoral College votes. Here is the pertinent part of the act as codified in 3 U.S. Code 15:

Congress shall be in session on the sixth day of January succeeding every meeting of the electors. The Senate and House of Representatives shall meet in the Hall of the House of Representatives at the hour of 1 o’clock in the afternoon on that day, and the President of the Senate shall be their presiding officer. Two tellers shall be previously appointed on the part of the Senate and two on the part of the House of Representatives, to whom shall be handed, as they are opened by the President of the Senate, all the certificates and papers purporting to be certificates of the electoral votes, which certificates and papers shall be opened, presented, and acted upon in the alphabetical order of the States, beginning with the letter A; and said tellers, having then read the same in the presence and hearing of the two Houses, shall make a list of the votes as they shall appear from the said certificates; and the votes having been ascertained and counted according to the rules in this subchapter provided, the result of the same shall be delivered to the President of the Senate, who shall thereupon announce the state of the vote, which announcement shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President of the United States, and, together with a list of the votes, be entered on the Journals of the two Houses.

Here is Joe Biden doing his ceremonial duty on January 6, 2017:

Here is Al Gore certifying the election of George W. Bush. Very awkward, but necessary:

The rest of the Electoral Count Act explains the entire process of dealing with objections. The Vice President’s only role in dealing with objections (which several members of the House and Senate, including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will bring) is to “call” for written objections.

In the end, there is nothing Pence can do to change the election results at tomorrow’s certification ceremony. It may take some time because of the objections, but Congress will certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Biden will be inaugurated on January 20.

ADDENDUM (8:37pm): Apparently Pence is going to do the right thing.

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.

What if Trump refuses to give up power?

Election of 1860

Clarkson University political scientist Alexander Cohen says that “American democracy will survive” if Trump decides to contest the election of 2020. He points to five previous contested elections: 1800, 1824, 1876, 1960, and 2000. In all five cases, democracy survived. But the contested election of 1860 was different. Here is a taste of Cohen’s piece at The Conversation:

The election of 1860 was a different story. 

After Abraham Lincoln defeated three other candidates, Southern states simply refused to accept the results. They viewed the selection of a president who would not protect slavery as illegitimate and ignored the election’s results.

It was only through the profoundly bloody Civil War that the United States remained intact. The dispute over the legitimacy of this election, based in fundamental differences between the North and South, cost 600,000 American lives.

What is the difference between the political collapse of 1860 and the continuity of other contested elections? In all cases, citizens were politically divided and elections were hotly contested.

What makes 1860 stand out so clearly is that the country was divided over the moral question of slavery, and this division followed geographic lines that enabled a revolution to form. Further, the Confederacy was reasonably unified across class lines.

While the America of today is certainly divided, the distribution of political beliefs is far more dispersed and complex than the ideological cohesion of the Confederacy.

Read the entire piece here.

If history is any indication, we will all make it through a potential Trump refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election. On the other hand, Americans have never seen a president quite like Trump. Stay tuned.

The court evangelicals respond to Donald Trump’s RNC convention speech and the aftermath

metaxas and Graham

Eric Metaxas and Franklin Graham were both in action (so to speak) at last night’s GOP convention

Last night I thought Franklin Graham offered a good opening prayer to kick-off the last night of the GOP convention. Today he sat for an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. At times Graham tried to be bipartisan, but in the end this was pure court evangelicalism. This idea that the socialists (and other secular enemies) are coming to close our churches has a long, long history in American evangelicalism. As I wrote in Believe Me, evangelicals said the same thing about Thomas Jefferson in the run-up to the election of 1800. On another matter, it is disingenuous for Graham to claim that he is “just one man” and does not speak for a significant portion of American evangelicalism. There are white evangelicals who hang on every word he says.  Watch:

Court evangelical Eric Metaxas showed us how to blind-side a protester and backpedal to safety. In this August 22, 2020 interview, Metaxas talks with fellow court evangelical Greg Laurie about “the role of virtue in the public square.” Metaxas notes how Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks were known for “turning the other cheek.” He laments the way “rage” and “violence” are “setting the [Christian cause] backward and confusing people.” He even speaks of non-violence as a Christian virtue. This 15-minute interview is interesting (to say the least) in light of what Metaxas did last night. Jab and move, jab and move.

Jack Graham ran into some trouble last night, along with dozens of other court evangelicals:

Two things are going on in this tweet. First, Graham’s story appears to be true. I am not sure how Graham was able to interrogate the “thugs” and “infidels” about their political ideology (Marxism), but he is right to suggest that this kind of harassment needs to stop. Second, Graham is playing to the base. He did not punch the protesters like Metaxas did, but Graham is obviously hoping his tweet will serve Trump politically by scaring evangelicals to pull a lever for the president in November.

If I recall correctly, in the New Testament Jesus stopped on the road to Golgotha with the old rugged cross on his shoulder and called his tormentors “thugs” and “infidels.” He then asked God to stop the insanity.

The same goes for Paula White:

I am guessing that Gary Bauer believed Trump delivered last night for the Christian Right

Ralph Reed saw his “good friend” Jack Abramoff Rudy Giuliani:

Reed and Giuliani

Robert Jeffress spent some time at the court today:

And then he talked with Lou Dobbs about it. There is no one “kinder and more gracious” than Donald Trump “and that’s what “makes him such an effective leader”:

67 days to go. I am afraid it is going to get a lot worse.

Mark Silk: “Trump’s 2020 religious attack on Biden harks back to 1800”

NO GOD

Here is Mark Silk at Religion News Service:

In case you hadn’t heard, last week President Donald Trump attacked his presumptive Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, on religious grounds. “No religion,” declared Trump. “No anything. Hurt the Bible. Hurt God. He’s against God.”

It’s been 220 years since the religion card was played so bigly in an American presidential campaign. The precedent is more apt than you might think.

The election of 1800 pitted the incumbent president, John Adams, against his old-friend-turned-bitter-rival Vice President Thomas Jefferson. In the two-party system that had emerged in the 1790s, Adams was the Federalist, Jefferson the Democratic-Republican. The Federalist case against Jefferson centered on charges that he was a “Jacobin,” a radical on the order of the French revolutionaries he had admired since serving as American ambassador to France in the late 1780s.

In a series of newspaper articles published in 1798, Alexander Hamilton attacked those revolutionaries for trying to “undermine the venerable pillars that support the edifice of civilized society,” not least by “the attempt … to destroy all religious opinion, and to pervert a whole people to Atheism.”

Hamilton claimed that Jefferson was, like them, an atheist who, with the help of fellow American Jacobins, would pursue the same agenda if elected. In the words of another Federalist writer, the choice was clear: “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT … [or] JEFFERSON AND NO GOD.”

And this:

Unlike Trump, John Adams did not himself attack Jefferson for irreligion. And unlike Biden, who called Trump’s attack “shameful,” Jefferson did not publicly respond to the attacks. As he wrote to James Monroe, “As to the calumny of Atheism, I am so broken to calumnies of every kind … that I entirely disregard it.”

Read the entire piece here.

The analogy is not perfect, but there are certainly similarities. Trump’s words about Biden play upon white evangelical fears over the decline of “Christian America.” Similarly, anxiety over the secular assault on America’s Christian political institutions played a predominant role in the presidential election of 1800. Adams was a New England Federalist who defended the idea that republics only survive when built upon the moral foundations of Christianity. Jefferson, Federalists believed, was most responsible for allowing infidelity to flourish in America.

Jefferson had the support of frontier, largely uneducated, evangelicals–such as Methodists and Baptists–who shared his commitment to religious liberty. It is noteworthy that the religious liberty-loving ordinary farmers supported that supposed “anti-God” candidate.

The Federalists, mostly members of the educated classes, called attention to Jefferson’s heretical beliefs: Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or the divine inspiration of the Bible. He was not the kind of leader who should be the president of a Christian nation, the Federalists said, and they were prepared to stage an intense political campaign to discredit him before the American people.

The attacks on Jefferson’s supposed godlessness were relentless. William Linn, a Federalist minister from New York, chaplain of the House of Representatives, and a former president of Queens College (today Rutgers University), opposed Jefferson’s candidacy because of the vice-president’s “disbelief in the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian religion and open profession of Deism.” Linn feared that under Jefferson’s rule, the United States would become a “nation of Atheists.” Linn made clear that “no professed deist, 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 even argued that the act of “calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than rebellion against God.” For Linn, the evangelical choice was clear. If the people were to choose “a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation,” it would be “an awful symptom of the degeneracy” of America.”

Upon hearing that Jefferson was elected, frightened New England evangelicals thought that the new president’s henchmen would soon be coming to their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.

Trump’s new campaign ad in historical context

Have you seen Trump’s new campaign ad?

As Bruce Springsteen once said, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Fear has been a staple of American politics since the founding of the republic. In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery and robbery.

In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant American Party, commonly known as the “Know-Nothing Party,” was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words “Native Americans: Beware of False Influence.”

nativist flag

In modern America, campaign ads keep us in a constant state of fear–and not always from right-wing sources either. I still get a shiver up my spine when I watch “Daisy Girl,” the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign advertisement. Watch:

And here is Richard Nixon in 1968, another “law and order” president:

Political fear is so dangerous because it usually stems from legitimate concerns shared by a significant portion of the voting population. For example, there are groups who want to defund the police. Television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us. They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transforms them “into imminent threats.”

Jason Bivins, another scholar of fear, has noted that “moral panics” tend to “rely on presumptions more than facts; they dramatize and sensationalize so as to keep audiences in a state of continual alertness.” For example, Joe Biden does not want to defund the police. Nor do most Democrats. Yet Trump has managed to convince his followers that Biden and the Democratic Party are imminent threats to the country because of their supposed views on this issue.

Many of the people who will be scared by this new Trump ad are evangelical Christians. I wrote about their fear in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Wednesday night court evangelical roundup

Court evangelicals prayer

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

John Hagee invited Fox News commentator, conspiracy theorist, disgraced Christian college president, and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza to speak at the Sunday evening service at his Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Watch:

D’Souza tells the audience that American exceptionalism is ordained by God and it is under attack. He then moves into his usual critique of socialism. This then devolves into a rejection of systemic racism. If the camera shots of the audience members nodding their heads and cheering is any indication, D’Souza seems to be getting through to them. This is what pro-Trump megachurches have become. It’s pure fearmongering.

The Supreme Court made an important religious liberty decision today, but some court evangelicals and other Trump evangelicals are still fighting. They continue to stoke fear about threats to religious liberty.

“Christian” politico Ralph Reed turns a SCOTUS victory into a chance to get revenge against his enemy.

Johnnie Moore, the self-professed “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” responds to the SCOTUS decision in a way Bonhoeffer would not have recognized as Christian. Perhaps Johnnie needs to read The Cost of Discipleship.

This is what blind court evangelicalism looks like:

And this (notice “ALL” in all caps):

When you think David French is an “irrational woke liberal” and mock someone’s military service it speaks volumes about you and the institution you work for. In Jenna Ellis’s case it is Liberty University. Remember, not all Christian colleges are the same.

Jenna Ellis was on the Eric Metaxas Show today talking about Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech. Metaxas, who is also a spokesperson at the Falkirk Center, says anyone who criticized the speech is “loony.” He mocks the Sioux leaders who pointed out that Mount Rushmore was on Lakota land: “They have benefited from this country.” Ellis thinks that Trump gave the nation an “honest history lesson” during the speech. Again, this should be offensive to any serious classroom teacher who is working to give American young people honest history lessons. In one of the more comical moments of the interview, Ellis praises Trump for his love of the nuclear family and commitment to the institution of marriage.

Wait a minute, I thought Biden was working with Black Lives Matter to undermine America?:

Richard Land is spewing Christian nationalism:

There is a lot that is wrong with this thread. I don’t have time to respond directly right now, but if you want to dig deeper:

  1. Read this blog. It has subject tags, category tags, and a search engine. I’ve been addressing this stuff for years.
  2. Read Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction
  3. Read my post on Os Guinness’s similar claims about the American and the French Revolution.
  4. Read two books on American exceptionalism: John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea and Abram Van Engen’s City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism.

Jack Graham issues a warning:

Graham’s words remind me what I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump about the Election of 1800 and the evangelical response to the threat of the Deep State Illuminati in the early republic.

Until next time.

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

cc

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

trump_wallace.jpg.CROP.hd-large

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.