People with a limited sense of history often struggle to interpret current events in a way that makes sense. Facing challenging times can be terrifying if you believe that no one has ever faced similar difficulties. Understanding that human nature changes slowly and that most events we witness are variations of things that have repeated throughout human history can make the present easier to bear.
I cannot recall a more toxic political environment in the United States. The country is divided in ways that I have never seen before. However, I have personally lived through only twenty percent of the history of the United States. I did not experience the revolution, the civil war, the pandemic of 1918, the great depression, the world wars, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam war, and I was less than a year old when Richard Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace.
Logic and humility would dictate that I should at least look at the nearly two hundred years of American history that preceded my birth before I draw conclusions about what is happening right now. Especially because tomorrow is a historic day — the 59th presidential inauguration, and not just any inauguration but a transfer of executive power between rival political parties that agree on very little.
The Election of 1800
Prior to the ratification of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, the winner of the electoral college became President while the runner-up became Vice President. This resulted in political rivals being forced to serve together in the executive branch as was the case in 1797 when John Adams was sworn in as President and Thomas Jefferson reluctantly took office as Vice President.
Although Adams and Jefferson had been friends as younger men, by 1800 they were bitter political rivals. As much as George Washington wanted to avoid the calcifying effects of political parties, the 1790s had drawn clear partisan lines between the Federalist Party represented by Adams and Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican Party led by Jefferson.
The election of 1800 was absolutely wild — it had everything from slanderous personal attacks, anonymously written screeds in newspapers, claims that Adams was a monarchist, counter-claims that Jefferson was a radical who favored the lawlessness of the French Revolution — and the outcome was eventually decided by the House of Representatives in a contingent election that required 36 rounds of voting before Jefferson was declared the President-elect, with Aaron Burr winning the Vice Presidency.
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked to the Capitol to take the oath of office as the third President but John Adams was already on a stagecoach heading north. Clay Jenkinson’s article examining the reasons for Adams snubbing his successor is an interesting read. Although Adams was grieving over the death of his son a few months earlier, he could have delayed his departure by a few hours to hand over power to Jefferson personally.
America faced its first transition of executive power from one political party to another amid an environment of terrible acrimony. Could anyone witnessing those events believe that the country would go through dozens of peaceful transitions of power over the next two centuries with the incumbent president nearly always attending the inaugural of his successor?
The Election of 2020
Knowing about the election of 1800 does nothing to make the election of 2020 any less momentous in American history. But knowing that a young country went through massive turmoil, found a way to correct course, and then went on to experience dozens of peaceful transitions of power over the next 220 years inspires some hope for the future.
Technology has changed but human nature has not. If you wanted to attack your opponent with disinformation in 1800, you would pen an article under a pseudonym and have it published in various friendly newspapers without any “fact checking” or attribution. In 2020, you would leverage social media to do the same thing, except instantly, and on a much broader scale.
The barriers to entry for entering the political debate have fallen dramatically. This has given voice to more people but has also made it harder to separate fiction from fact. We can either delegate “fact checking” to the media or rely on our own sense of history and current events to judge for ourselves.
Nothing that happened in 1800 normalizes what has happened over the past three months or excuses Donald Trump’s boycott of Joe Biden’s inauguration. It is important for the country to see a peaceful transition occur, in person, from one party to another. It is also important for America’s enemies to believe that a transition of power is not an “opening” to take adverse action against us. The point is that what we are seeing is not particularly new or surprising when viewed in historical context.
Those who know the history of the election of 1800 are aware of the fact that Alexander Hamilton played a decisive role and set an example of putting his country’s interests first.
Hamilton and Adams were both Federalists but they were also political rivals. Adams was a moderate while Hamilton was far more ideological. However, Hamilton was also a patriot and a realist.
The Federalists were soundly defeated in 1800 and Jefferson and Burr were tied in the electoral college. Hamilton and Jefferson agreed on very little, but Hamilton knew Jefferson was a man of character and principle while Burr was morally bankrupt. Hamilton supported Jefferson which influenced his allies in Congress and proved decisive on the 36th ballot:
There is no doubt but that upon every virtuous and prudent calculation Jefferson is to be preferred. He is by far not so dangerous a man and he has pretensions to character.
As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country.Alexander Hamilton to Oliver Wolcott, December 16, 1800
The acrimony between Hamilton and Burr further escalated in subsequent years. The men finally settled the matter in 1804 in the form of a duel in which Hamilton suffered a mortal injury inflicted by the sitting Vice President of the United States.
As for the relationship between Jefferson and Adams, both men rose above the acrimony during retirement. This is documented for posterity in the form of a close correspondence that lasted for over a decade.
Jefferson and Adams both died on the same day, July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty by Dumas Malone
Jefferson the President: First Term by Dumas Malone
John Adams by David McCullough
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis