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.
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
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, 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:
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 Acts. 7
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.
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.
- The Election of 1800: Hamilton’s Role (itshamiltime.com)
- Hamilton and the New York Post (itshamiltime.com)
- Thomas Jefferson (csmonitor.com)
- Democratic Party-A lilttle history lesson (kssunews.wordpress.com)
- To have served under General Marquis de Lafayette (johncashon.wordpress.com)
- A little history – The Revolutionary War (johncashon.wordpress.com)