How the Heated, Divisive Election of 1800 Was the First Real Test of American Democracy

tags: election 2016, Jefferson, Election of 1800, Adams

Sidney Blumenthal is a political journalist, pundit and adviser to both President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has written for the New Republic, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. Blumenthal is working on a multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln. The first book, A Self-Made Man, was published this year.

On a windy afternoon in February 1959, 14-year-old Craig Wade scooped up what seemed to be a crumpled rag that was blowing, tumbleweed style, across a railroad track in his hometown, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He later told a local newspaper that he simply “likes to save things.

Wade had scavenged a one-of-a-kind relic of American political history, identified only when a younger brother, Richard, took the find to his fifth-grade teacher. The victory banner—featuring a crudely drawn cartoon of Thomas Jefferson and an American eagle, inscribed with the motto “T. Jefferson President of the United States of America/John Adams is no more”—turns out to be a precious souvenir from the pivotal 1800 American presidential contest. Designed by an anonymous Jefferson supporter, this piece of political folk art symbolizes a defining test of our fledgling democracy: the ceding of power from one political party to another.

It also speaks loudly to us today because the election demonstrates that partisan rancor was a fact of our national political life from the outset. The founding generation cautioned against the divisiveness of “factions.” But in the absence of fully developed parties, the election of 1800 quickly devolved into a cutthroat contest. The main factions were organized around personalities—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. No small egos here: The stage was set for wide-open war.

Adams had entered the presidency in 1797 professing his “positive passion for the public good.” Yet Adams, who demanded deference to hierarchy and class, was contemptuous of new forms of political democracy. He viewed with alarm Jefferson’s affection for the early ideals of the French Revolution, seeing Jefferson and the growing Democratic-Republican societies around him as a Jacobin menace.

When the French Navy seized American ships carrying British goods, the so-called Quasi-War, which was undeclared, broke out in 1798. Adams became wildly popular. He sponsored the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the president to deport immigrants suspected of disloyalty and to prosecute dissenting political opinion. Adams appeared in public in full military uniform, wearing a sword. ...

Read entire article at Smithsonian Magazine

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