A dialog on civility

George Caleb Bingham - The County Election, Wikimedia Commons

George Caleb Bingham – The County Election, Wikimedia Commons

We all want a civil society, but what does civility actually mean when describing today’s bombastic rhetoric to each other.

No matter which side, liberal or conservative, one can easily find comments on the internet that show no desire to find common ground, and remaining cordial is a useless exercise to some.

We have all seen it.

There is so much anger today, and finding ways to extinguish that fire can seem to be a daunting task for anyone that believes that we will have to find ways to work together, to move forward.

Unfortunately, it appears there are some that believe the fight is worth fighting, and being civil is needless and unwanted. Their efforts extend to trying to eradicate the opposing political parties views.

We are in a new kind of civil war that is dividing family and friends. This has become more prevalent since so many have turned to Facebook to air their differences. 

The new norm is an us versus them mentality, if you will. Winning this fight has gotten everyone so worked up, that I wish everyone would take a collective deep breath to see how we are talking to each other, and to find ways to heal the wounds that have been inflicted.

What is not seen or heard though is the fact that there are many that think politics is not worth losing friendships with their family and friends, so they go underground with their beliefs to keep the peace. I am in between. I believe strongly in my political ideals and I want to be able to express my values without fear, but I have lost friendships too, and I have become tame compared to some.

In my community, I have totally different political values to many, but I grew up in the same environment that they did. I know the same people that they do. I went hunting at a young age, like many, and went to the same churches, festivals and events. I am a part of the community and the community is part of me, as it is with them.

Sometimes, I feel they can be hard-headed and refuse to back away from their positions, but I find that I am just as adamant about my own positions. The difficulty is if they get into a huff, they just walk away for good, and let me tell you, they have long memories.

I have learned that I have to be very diplomatic when talking to my friends, and I know there are some people you just can’t reach, but I do believe it is possible for them to at least accept that my ideals should be on the table and not disqualified out of hand as so often happens today. At the same time, I don’t want them to think that I am discrediting their thoughts as well.

Because of all of the heated rhetoric, I understand what it means to feel like a stranger in my own community, and that I am only tolerated, because I was born here. I know that this isn’t true, but the feeling is the same. The ground beneath my feet still feels like home though, and nothing will persuade me to think otherwise.

One fact still remains the same, I am just as much an American as any other, no matter my beliefs. But is the fight worth it?

Being from Kentucky, the Hatfield and McCoy feud comes to mind. The fight between them lasted for generations, and back then, they could have never envisioned a day when they wouldn’t be fighting, but today, they only battle each other to see who can bring in the most tourist money for their communities. Their feud has faded away.

Will this feud that we are in today, that is causing so much incivility and harm, do the same? I hope so.

 

The Overview Effect

Astronauts return to earth with a message that makes everything down on earth seem small.

They want to tell us about a new way of thinking. The ‘Overview Effect’ is what they call it, and when one understands, they will have a new perspective for everything that happens down on earth. With this new way of seeing things, all of the divisive discourse and hyper-partisanship in our country means little when it is seen that we are all in this together.

Planetary Collective created this short film, and I think it’s a message more people need to see and hear:

On the 40th anniversary of the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph taken of Earth from space, Planetary Collective presents a short film documenting astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect.

The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is an experience that transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

‘Overview’ is a short film that explores this phenomenon through interviews with five astronauts who have experienced the Overview Effect. The film also features insights from commentators and thinkers on the wider implications and importance of this understanding for society, and our relationship to the environment.

A liberal dissident in Republican lands

Flood wall mural of the Market House from yesteryear and it is still in existence today in Paducah, Kentucky. (Photo by John Cashon)

In my neck of the woods, if I believed that I could not be friends with any Republican because of their beliefs, then I would have no friends. Friends that shared adventures with me, shared their stories with me, and most importantly, their time. Friends that were there for me when I needed them most, which I still do sometimes. How could I ever think that way?

Reading the comments on local news boards throwing hyperbole and hate at each other, like a messy food fight where everything is rotten, and seeing all the people fussing at each other on television with nothing to show for it and nothing being resolved, I can see how one could believe an answer can never be found. An endless game that continues to bring ever increasing profits to the media outlets. In other words, it’s big business.

Hostile crowds scream and protest the other sides values, demonizing them to the electorate and trying to show their lack of patriotism and morals, while questioning their need to have a voice altogether. Family members grow bitter towards each other and co-workers ostracize opposing viewpoints. A nationwide intervention is needed to reduce this division and hate.

All the while, everyone is forgetting those times in our nation’s history where we stood together or died fighting for our freedoms. Bigger issues were dealt with in the spirit of unity and community, and where great events were shared by a proud nation, when everyone remembered that most important lesson of all, we were all Americans.

It goes on and on daily if you have the stomach to watch, but the drumbeat continues showing only the differences and conflict. There comes a time when the game will have to be exposed and for everyone to just take a breath and relax for a second. If it seems bad now, it was probably worse at another time in our history, even though one politician or another would tell you differently.

Watching politics today is like following the intrigue of the ‘Game of Thrones‘ on HBO. The tactics and strategy overwhelm every thought of every player in the grand campaign of our political institutions. It consumes morals and good will to each other, eliminating the common bond that holds our communities and nation together. In today’s political climate, it is the game that counts the most and not the people, and Machiavelli would feel right at home.

The Market House today in Paducah, Kentucky. There were originally three Market Houses built on the same spot. The first was built in 1836 and it was a log structure. The second was built after the original burned, and this was used as a hospital after the Battle of Paducah on March 25, 1864. The third, the one seen here, was built in 1905 and ceased to be a market in the early 1960′s. It took a community for this site to be in continual operation since 1836. (Photo by John Cashon)

A game that draws fans to both sides and appears to be fun for a time while venting differences at each other and winning or losing debates. Most debates continue on and on without one side or the other able to land that final rebuttal that will quiet them into agreeing. At some point, the debate has to end and compromise begin. When we cannot come together in our own communities, how can we expect our politicians to do the same for the purpose of governing?

It appears the politicians have watched and learned that when the tempers flare and partisan rhetoric flows, it is easier for them to continue with their need to win the ultimate battle. Stoking the fires within their base by creating a fear of the other side winning, so visceral, that the only answer is the complete destruction of the other political party. This is the goal that is most highly prized. Complete power of one party in the government institutions.

Moderate voices from both parties have lost the ability to appeal for reasonable debate using common sense and compromise, but the extremes have decided that it would be much easier to use their influence and money to remove those moderate voices from the argument.

I hear this anger directed at me where, in the past, it did not exist, and I see the distrust in their eyes. Gone are the days when my political views were tolerated and the conversations were a good-natured banter, but I have faith this will be only a short-lived period of disagreement. Our country has had plenty of times when events caused ripples in the water of the pond, but, with patience, the water has always calmed, over time.

I am a liberal dissident in Republican lands, but I have learned to accept the fact that most of my friends are Republicans in my community, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am proud to call them my friends and perhaps that is what our country needs the most, patience for each other and possibly, a pride in the fact that we are all Americans even if we do have differences.

A dialog on cultural traditions and understanding

Annabel Park Film Maker

A quote by Annabel Park.

My friend, Annabel Park, an activist and documentary film maker,  tried to begin a dialog on the gun control debate after the mass shootings in Connecticut, but found that the divisions were so deep on this issue, that her faith in dialogue and storytelling was tested.

With her experience with interviewing people for her documentaries, Annabel has been on the front line of the hyper-partisan debates in America. She is now working a documentary called, ‘Story of America: A Nation Divided‘.

Annabel believes in the transformative power of dialog and storytelling, as I do, because  just spouting opinions at those that disagree with you will not achieve good results. It requires listening.

If you listen to the other side’s stories while relating some of your own, the conversation has more of a chance to become civil and dialog may occur. There are some that will never be reached though. Their stance on this issue is so culturally ingrained in their world outlook that advocating for any changes will always be a non-starter.

However, not everyone believes as strongly as they do, and are not as fixed in their views on the second amendment that listening to the stories of other people can be attempted. Many people really do live in different cultural worlds, but within each of those worlds, there are people like me that agree with Annabel’s thoughts on common sense gun measures, even though they believe everyone has the right to own a gun for protection and hunting.

I have been seeking others that believe in the 2nd Amendment but also believe changes need to be made for gun control, because they are the key in helping to diffuse the hostility of the debate. They are fluent in the cultural and religious traditions and can better verbalize the concerns and trepidation of the gun control advocates, as well as those of the gun rights advocates.

If the call becomes large enough for change, real progress may occur, if that call is heard from within each of the gun rights advocate’s own communities.

After Annabel wrote a blog post advocating basic gun regulation to her pro-gun friends, a heated debate ensued, and in response, she wrote this essay:

Annabel Park, a founder of the Coffee Party USA civility group, interviews gun control opponents

Annabel Park, a founder of the Coffee Party USA civility group, interviews gun control opponents

Zombies, guns and confronting my biggest fear

- By Annabel Park · December 27, 2012

Dear Friends,

I have been reflecting a good deal on this past year and why my new project Story of America means so much to me.

It was a difficult year for many of us because, regardless of how you feel about the outcome of the 2012 election, the debates that we witnessed this year were a reminder that we are indeed very divided from each other.

As some of you know, I have deep faith in the transformative power of dialogue and storytelling. Even during the ugliest moments during the election, I maintained the faith that we can heal the divide in our country through dialogue.

We began filming Story of America in the first week of November and documented just how divided we were as voters even down to our experiences of voting. We created videos aboutBattleground Virginia and were featured in the Washington Post for our dramatic coverage of the 5-hour lines at polling stations in Prince William County.

After the Newtown massacre, I must confess, my faith in dialogue was tested. Two days after the shooting, I wrote a blog post, Replying to my pro-gun friends, addressing some popular pro-gun talking points and pointing out that we need sensible gun regulation. My basic point is that gun laws should be regarded as a public safety issue. With nearly 50k likes and over 650 comments, it generated a lot of discussion. Along with hundreds of people, I tried to reply to some of the angry comments on that page and in my inbox. I found it incredibly challenging to engage people in a constructive dialogue.

I get the self-defense argument, especially for those living in rural areas. I’m not someone calling for a ban on all guns — not at all. I’m aware that most gun owners are responsible. I personally know plenty of responsible gun owners.

What I don’t get is the desire and need for military-style assault weapons. The argument that this kind of weapon is needed for defending oneself from home invaders and wild animals or hunting animals for food is not convincing to me. The fact that so many people desire and own these weapons makes me wonder if people approach ordinary life in America as warfare. Why do we need such powerful weapons? Are we in a war of some kind against one another and I didn’t know it?

While trying to talk to people online about gun control after Newtown, I started to wonder if we just live in different worlds and we don’t have enough in common for dialogue. I feared that my critics are living in the Walking Dead, the post-apocalyptic TV show about zombies, and I’m living in a Frank Capra movie. That is, we’re not just divided, we live in such different realities that we cannot understand each other and feel alienated from each other.

I’m not saying that all pro-gun people live in this world. I worry that there is a subset of pro-gun advocates who do live in this world and those are the people who test my faith in dialogue.

This is my fear and this is what some people tried to tell me in the last three years since the rise of the Tea Party: the other side is full of crazy, evil, and horrible people. You can’t reason with them. You can only beat them or eliminate them from the process. I had insisted that this is just not how American democracy works. We need many voices, a diversity of people freely expressing their opinions: E pluribus unum.

Last Friday, Eric Byler and I documented the protest outside the NRA press conference in Washington DC, their first one after Newtown. We captured NRA protesters shouting at pro-gun activists trying to disrupt their protest. I was confronted face-to-face with the specter of that existential chasm — it looked like the NRA protesters and the pro-gun activists were utterly alien and zombie-like to each other.

In fact, when I was interviewing Larry Ward, one of the pro-gun advocates arguing with the NRA protesters, he specifically asked what would happen to us if we declared a zombie-free zone. We’d get eaten by zombies. He started out speaking about zombies figuratively, but then compared people addicted to meth to zombies.

This is my fear about America in a nutshell: Are we feeling so alienated from one another that we see the other as zombie-like and worthless? That is, not deserving of compassion, a voice in the political process, or even life? And, is this alienation creeping into our legislative process? Everything from gun control to the budget, immigration laws, and Stand Your Ground laws?

And if that is the case, what are the ultimate consequences and the remedies?

I do accept the point of my pro-gun friends and perhaps the creators of the Walking Dead that to some extent that civilization (law and order) is more fragile than we’d like to believe it is and there are some truly awful and destructive people out there. I can readily imagine needing to defend myself from chaotic and violent forces in our society.

The problem is that the belief that civilization is breaking down can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The less you trust and value civilization and the inherent worth of human beings, the more willing you will be to live outside it and see the people inside as weak, parasitic and worthless. This kind of alienation from our society just is destabilizing.

I believe we have a big choice to make right now and this is the bigger point that I think the creators of the Walking Dead are making: civilization is a choice not a given. In order to make that choice, we must think about some fundamental questions about our relationship to each other. Do we see value in each other as human beings? As fellow Americans? Do we want to reaffirm the Union? Do we choose to commit to the principles and the experiment that is America? Is so, what does that mean? Do we consent to the social contract? If so, what does that mean? And, how do we (re)commit to the social contract in a meaningful way?

Something interesting happened for me last Friday outside the NRA press conference that helped me answer some of those questions. Despite my fear that Larry Ward and Adam Kokesh (independent journalist who created Adam Vs the Man) lived in a different world, we talked.

After a few minutes of talking, they did not seem alien to me at all. I quickly realized that my initial assessment of them was fear-based and way off. I didn’t agree with them, but I was able to have a civil and reasonable conversation with them. In engaging them on this polarizing topic, I thought it would be helpful if we can begin the conversation with the agreement that guns are already regulated so that discussion is not centered on IF it should be since it already is. Both Larry and Adam readily agreed that guns were already regulated. Now the question is, which regulations are actually helpful from the standpoint of public safety and acceptable from the standpoint of self-defense/gun rights of individuals? Surely, we can have a balance of those two. I do believe there was some progress made. What do you think? I’m curious to hear your opinion on these videos.

Beyond the issue of regulating guns, I realized that my anxiety about our alienation from each other, the Walking Dead problem, can be addressed by talking. Moreover, I think dialogue is itself a reaffirmation of the social contract. If we didn’t care about that contract at all, we wouldn’t be talking; we’d be shooting or eating each other. We would resort to violence much more often than communication. As it is, even though we’re often uncivil and ineffective, we’re still talking to each other. That says something. The more we talk to each other with respect (speaking our minds and listening), the less alienated we will be from each other, and the stronger our nation will be.

I know that’s a lot of pressure to place on talking and dialogue. However, a sophisticated language is, after all, what distinguishes human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.

It’s tempting to think that the main problem with politics in America is extremism. I think it’s a combination of extremism and the silent, browbeaten, apathetic, exhausted, cynical, disengaged and marginalized majority. That majority must now stand together with a roar to reset the course for America by dominating the national dialogue instead of allowing it to be controlled by the loudest and the most divisive few.

This has been a long explanation of why I’m putting my heart and soul into the Story of America. Thank you for listening.

I believe we are ready to have a dialogue about gun control. We must be, because the violence will continue and continue to the point where no one will care anymore when they learn about future mass shootings and the senseless deaths they cause. We are almost there now, but if the dialog can turn to common sense regulations and removing the fear that many have about their guns being taken away, constructive talks may finally begin.

Many staunch second amendment advocates have family and friends that are not as unyielding in their beliefs. They may agree that everyone has a right to own guns, but they also see the devastation caused by the mass shootings using high power weapons, high-capacity magazine clips and armor piercing ammunition.

For those that honestly want to find a solutions to this national debate, we need to seek these people out and begin a dialog. They are the key, because they are the only ones that can influence those that cannot be reached.

Government of the People, By the People, For the People

Teddy Roosevelt in uniform Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-94051

Teddy Roosevelt in uniform Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-94051

It seems that we are going through another cycle of history. With unlimited amounts of money being injected into politics, this could be one of the most important events of this decade, and possibly future decades, if rational minds cannot expose what is happening. Getting the big money out of the elections including those associated with both the democratic and republican parties will only bring a more pure democracy.

Remembering what Abraham Lincoln said, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, I find this one quote from the Gettysburg Address explains what real democracy can be. Not the power that wealth brings with astronomical donations of money and television ads from all the special interests groups, but the power of each individual voter.

Doesn’t a corporation include just single individuals from the top to the bottom? Will each person vote exactly the same within that organization? I wonder how an organization can be considered one voice for every single person working for that organization. If each one of these special interests organizations is allowed to spend unlimited money on elections, then where does each individual stand with their own ability to raise money for their candidate?

Why should my vote depend on how much money I have? This is not rational to me. So this government of the people, by the people, for the people, that we pride ourselves in for its actual realization of a truly free nation, is dictated by money in its elections to control the message. The message that I am hearing from the media is only partisan politics and I don’t want to believe the rhetoric from both sides anymore. I just want the facts and the message should be the truth and not bought like some commodity on the stock exchange as we see today with the meteoric rise of negative attack ads paid for on television.

In this system of elections today, I can donate, let’s say, $100. I would feel good that I contributed to my party but then I hear about one large group contributing millions of dollars to the other party. Would that be a waste of my money? I don’t have a lot to give and there is recession going on too. I guess I will have to trust that some group that favors my ideas about bringing jobs back to the United States will donate to my cause. What’s this? The corporations, who have the most wealth, can invest unlimited amounts of money in the elections. What about my vote? My vote counts as much as a Wall Street banker CEO.

Watching the television, there have been so many despicable and appalling political commercials aired in the past elections. Some were telling me how one of the candidates was “Taliban Dan” and another was saying that she was not a witch. Is this informing the electorate or entertaining them?

Oftentimes I see that people begin to believe these commercials and I consider the millions of dollars being spent on them. I finally understand that my voice isn’t being heard. People’s minds are being made up, not by looking at what the candidates stand for but for what the commercials are telling them about the opposing candidates. The discourse is not civil and is just too exhausting to want to dwell on such negative things.

It is easy to understand why so many people have lost their enthusiasm for the elections and choose not to vote at all.

We have seen before how big business went against the majority of Americans for financial gains in the past. Here is an excerpt explaining Teddy Roosevelt’s fight against Big Business Trusts from U.S. History.org:

He believed Wall Street financiers and powerful trust titans to be acting foolishly. While they were eating off fancy china on mahogany tables in marble dining rooms, the masses were roughing it. There seemed to be no limit to greed. If docking wages would increase profits, it was done. If higher railroad rates put more gold in their coffers, it was done. How much was enough, Roosevelt wondered?

Teddy Roosevelt used the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was passed in 1890, to help with his fight against trusts. For twelve years, the Sherman Act was not effective because the United States courts routinely sided with business. For example, in an 1895 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to dissolve the American Sugar Refining Company that controlled 98 percent of the sugar industry, which allowed them to maintain their monopoly.

John Pierpont Morgan Wikimedia Commons

John Pierpont Morgan Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the only time the Sherman Act was used was when the court ruled against a trade union that it said was causing a restraint of trade.

Roosevelt decided to go against one of the biggest industrialist of the time, J.P. Morgan. Morgan owned a railroad company known as Northern Securities that controlled the bulk of railroad shipping across the northern United States.

When Morgan and Roosevelt met after the notification of the court case, Morgan decried that he was being treated like a common criminal. Roosevelt stood up to Morgan and declared that no compromise would be found and that the matter could only be settled by the courts. U.S. History.org continues:

This was the core of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership. He boiled everything down to a case of right versus wrong and good versus bad. If a trust controlled an entire industry but provided good service at reasonable rates, it was a “good” trust to be left alone. Only the “bad” trusts that jacked up rates and exploited consumers would come under attack. Who would decide the difference between right and wrong? The occupant of the White House trusted only himself to make this decision in the interests of the people.

On December 2nd, 1902, Teddy Roosevelt declared in his State of the Union address:

“Our aim is not to do away with corporations; on the contrary, these big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile unless accomplished in ways that would work the utmost mischief to the entire body politic. We can do nothing of good in the way of regulating and supervising these corporations until we fix clearly in our minds that we are not attacking the corporations, but endeavoring to do away with any evil in them. We are not hostile to them; we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”

We have a progressive President in office but it seems no one is remembering our own history today about a time when corporations went unchecked. It is just as pertinent today as it was then. The American dream is for all us and not just those that can purchase the agenda of the country. They want everyone to lose interest in the elections and not vote. Then while the rational people don’t vote, they can get radical fringe groups out to the polls by pandering to them in the campaign ads but we, the rational majority, will finally have to stand up and see what is happening.

Eventually, the corruption in elections will get so bad that change will occur again and election reform will happen. The question is how long? Will it be this decade, the next decade or generations? I can only hope and believe that the government of the people, by the people, for the people will remember and believe it is their single vote that matters and not the money that makes a true democracy.

The Election of 2012 – When everything changed

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-DIG-npcc-29803

Lincoln’s second Inauguration
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division
LC-DIG-npcc-29803

I am very proud of my country but not just because a Democrat won, but because the people stood up to the money being thrown in elections, while also standing up against those that want to buy legislation that doesn’t help the people but those that believe they can do it alone without the rest of the country.

They stood up to attempts to affect the vote with the legislation for voter suppression and also voter intimidation, but most of all, they stood up against those that would attempt to only obstruct and control the agenda for their own purposes without attempting to balance them with what the people of the United States would want.

The far right agenda has removed all of the moderate voices and this lack of inclusion has hurt them and will continue until they decide that it is more beneficial to reach out to others with different ideas. They will have to accept that the demographics have changed in the nation and they will have to listen to the minorities from now on. They will have to be more moderate with their ideas if they ever want to accomplish anything in the future, and for that, I am most thankful to each and everyone that decided enough was enough.

This election has been a very divisive time for America, and if the country is to heal, we will have to join together, even if we have different beliefs, because the country and its people are what are important. Not Red versus Blue.

We can aspire to be kinder to each other and more inclusive in this country. From the beginning, America’s immigrants have always had a hard time being accepted by the previous immigrants that were already here. Starting with the Scotch-Irish, Germans, French, Jewish, Italians, and so many more that have infused our country with energy and their vibrancy of spirit. We must realize that this is what has always made America great and to never fear this change.

To those that may reject this election decision and choose to continue the fight, I appeal to you to come to a truce so that the country can move forward again and heal. Compromise is still so very important at this time for the country to come together. After this hard fought election, the fatigue is great and there is a desire for everyone to remember what is most important; we are all Americans even though we may have many different cultures, traditions and values.

At the close of the Civil War, President Lincoln, while also trying to heal the nation, reminded America during his second inaugural address, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

He concluded the speech by asking everyone to try to come together, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Let this be a time to achieve a lasting peace among ourselves.

Rhetoric of our fathers: the election of 1800

Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-8195

When one sees the elections of today, they think of the rhetoric that is being thrown at both sides. Every election seems to get worse and worse.

If only we could return to the glorious days of our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Would it surprise you to know that the rhetoric was just as bad, or worse, back then as well?

The election of 1800 was the first election that had two parties where the winner would control the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency. The Federalists selected John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and the Democratic-Republicans selected Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

To get the full story, we would first need to begin by looking at the 1796 election when George Washington, a Federalist, declared that he would not run for President again.

In George Washington’s Farewell Address as President of the United States, he warned about the danger of parties in the State:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to founding them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you, in the most solemn manner, against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes, in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled or repressed; but in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. 1

At this time, under the original Constitution, two parties did choose their candidates, but there was nothing indicating how to handle two parties for the elections.

In this 1796 election, the Federalists ran John Adams and Thomas Pinckney and the Democratic-Republicans ran Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

According to the Miller Center, a nonpartisan institute seeking to expand understanding of the presidency, policy, and political history, and based at the University of Virginia, states:

Each party named two presidential candidates, for under the original Constitution, each member of the electoral college was to cast two ballots for President. The winner of the presidential election was the individual who received the largest number of votes, if it constituted a majority of the votes cast. The person receiving the second largest number of votes, whether or not it was a majority, was to be the vice president. In the event that no candidate received a majority of votes, or that two candidates tied with a majority of votes, the House of Representatives was to decide the election, with each state, regardless of size, having a single vote. 2

John Adams Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-DIG-ppmsca-15705

After the Electoral College delegates cast their ballots, the Vice President, who was the presiding officer of the Senate, had the job to count them. This just happened to be John Adams.

When the votes were counted, John Adams had 71 votes making him President and Thomas Jefferson had 68 votes giving him the Vice-Presidency. This meant the government would be run by a Federalist as the President and a Democratic-Republican as the Vice-President. 3

Saying that the two parties were not fond of the other’s platform for the direction of the country would be a wild understatement. They bitterly opposed each other’s ideas.

The Federalist believed in a strong central government that would have the authority to restrain the excesses of popular majorities. They were backed by the commercial sector of the country favored by the electors in the northern states.

The Democratic-Republicans, containing many members of the former Anti Federalists, wanted to reduce the national authority allowing the people to rule more directly through the state governments. They drew their strength from those favoring an agrarian society which was the strongest in the southern states. 4

Alexander Hamilton Portrait Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-96268

Alexander Hamilton, a leader in the Federalist Party, once stated, “Men are reasoning rather than reasonable animals.” He disagreed with Thomas Jefferson’s view that the general public should control government. 5

Thomas Jefferson believed in universal education and universal suffrage for some white men. According to The American Pageant: A History of the American People: To 1877 by David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen and Thomas A. Bailey:

Above all, Jefferson advocated the rule of the people. But he did not propose thrusting the ballot into the hands of every adult white male. He favored government for the people, but not by all the people – only by those white men who were literate enough to inform themselves and wear the mantle of American citizenship worthily. Universal education would have to precede universal suffrage. The ignorant, he argued, were incapable of self-government. But he had profound faith in the reasonableness and teachableness of the masses and in their collective wisdom when taught. 6

The Democratic-Republican’s ideals may sound familiar today with their arguments against Federal authority, taxes, and the call for stronger states rights heard today by the Conservative and Libertarian Parties as they debate for smaller government. This debate has a long history in the United States.

The Election of 1800

By the time the campaigning for the 1800 Election began, many in both parties were angry with John Adams. The Miller Center describes the situation for Adams:

Timothy Pickering Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-47649

The Federalist Party was deeply split over his foreign policy. Many had opposed his decision to send envoys to Paris in 1799, some because they feared it would result in national humiliation for the United States and others because they hoped to maintain the Quasi-War crisis for partisan ends. Furthermore, early in 1800, Adams fired two members of his cabinet, Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, and James McHenry, the secretary of war, for their failure to support his foreign policy. Their discharge alienated numerous Federalists. In addition to the fissures within his party, the differences between the Federalists and the Republicans had become white-hot. Jeffersonians were furious over the creation of a standing army, the new taxes, and the Alien and Sedition Acts7

The Federalists asked the electors to cast their two votes for John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, but they did not designate which would be President. The Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, but designated Jefferson to be their candidate for President. 8

During this time, the candidates did not actively campaign, choosing to allow their camps to run their campaigns, while they spent most of their time in their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia.

James McHenry Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-54696

As the campaign continued, the Federalist camp painted Jefferson as a godless nonbeliever and a radical revolutionary. They believed if he was elected, he would bring about a reign of terror in the nation. Adams was accused of trying to have his son married off to King George III‘s daughter and was trying to setup a dynasty. 9

It got worse when John Adams was accused by Jefferson’s camp of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” This led Adam’s camp to call Jefferson, “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” 10

Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, wrote, “In short, we are now wonderfully popular except with Bache & Co., who in his paper calls the President, old, querulous, bald, blind, cripple, toothless Adams.” 11

The campaign was getting particularly brutal with Adams being labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant. Adams’ camp followed suit by calling Jefferson a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Martha Washington, after hearing the attacks on Adams, told a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.” 12

One other event transpired that showed one difference between Jefferson and Adams’ campaign styles. Jefferson decided to hire a ‘hatchet man‘ named James Callendar to smear Adams in publications while Adams believed he was above these types of tactics. This proved successful for Jefferson because Callendar’s work helped convince many Americans that Adams wanted to attack France. 13

Jefferson and Burr tied for first in the election with 73 votes each becoming the only time in American history that the President and the Vice President tied for first in an election. Unfortunately, for Jefferson, a tie meant the decision would have to be made by the House of Representatives, according to the Constitution, even though they declared in the beginning that he was running for President and Burr was running for Vice-President. In a close vote and with Alexander Hamilton’s help, because of his animosity towards Aaron Burr, Jefferson won the vote and became the President of the United States. 14

This election was the first of its kind in the United States because it was the first where an opposition party replaced another in running the government. Even after all of the vitriol that was slung in this election, Jefferson’s opponents stepped down peacefully, which is very significant. This two party structure allowed the opposing groups in the government to have a way of transferring power, through elections, without trying to destroy the other side and allowing each to coexist peacefully, and this established a precedent for all of the future elections to follow.

Sources cited:

1 Washington’s Farewell Address, Digital History, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
2 John Adams Campaigns and Elections, The Miller Center, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
3 John Adams, The Miller Center, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
4 The Election of 1800, U.S. History, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
5 Kennedy, D., Cohen, L. & Bailey, T.A., (2009), The American Pageant: A History of the American People: To 1877, Cengage Learning, pgs 220-221.
6 Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), University of Missouri-Kansas City, Retrieved May 24, 2012,from
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/burr/hamiltonbio.htm
7 John Adams, The Miller Center, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
Ibid.
Ibid.
10 Founding Fathers’ dirty campaign, CNN Living, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
11 McCullough, D., (2008), John Adams, Simon and Schuster, pg. 500.
12 Founding Fathers’ dirty campaign, CNN Living, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from
13 Ibid.
14 John Adams, The Miller Center, Retrieved May 24, 2012, from