- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

It seems with every presidential election, politicians and pundits alike assert the present one is one of the most important in our history. It is a sort of rite of self-congratulation at being present for the occasion, I suppose. But a generous ignorance of our own past may be a contributing factor as well.

This is not cynicism. What is cynical is pretending no election is more important than others. In fact, observers can disagree but 1860, 1932, and possibly 1980 are presidential contests that mattered then and now, and few would disagree. Often neglected is another: 1800, which historians for decades have acknowledged as central to the formation of the nation.

Now nearly everyone can be let on to the secret.

Two recent books on that election are available and fully accessible to the general reader, despite the authors’ academic credentials. Susan Dunn’s Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism (Houghton Mifflin, $25, 372 pages) and John Ferling’s Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Oxford University Press, $26, 268 pages) both take Campaign 1800 as their focal point of early American political history, an election that would shape our democratic and egalitarian present, warts and all.

Aside from understanding a crucial period of our own history, why is a working knowledge of the period worth knowing? Although both accounts refrain from lessons learned, there is one that is surely implied: namely, building a democracy is difficult and surely not inevitable.

The America of the 1790s was far from the egalitarian democracy we know today. Getting here was difficult and many of the best and brightest of the era (including Washington) would have been shocked at the notion of political equality with all that entailed. Thomas Jefferson (and James Madison) clearly were not, but Election 1800 would settle a number of questions that had divided the nation since the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

The significant exception to that, of course, was slavery. Jefferson for all his well-stated belief in equality could never resolve the issue in his own mind. At best, it was a fudge, at worst — his ill-conceived scheme to send some African-Americans to the West Indies as free men being an example — smelled of desperation or worse.

Jefferson and his fellow Republicans of the South were thoroughly chastised by their Federalist opponents on their support for slavery (fervent or wobbly, it mattered not). They also thought that Jefferson and his supporters were accused of being pro-French and therefore guilty of treason. In the end it did not keep the Federalists from losing in 1800 and ever onwards.

Just why the Federalists failed is spelled out in detail in both volumes and, in so doing, throws a spotlight on a tumultuous era. It began well enough. George Washington was nearly a unanimous choice to be the first chief executive ? a job he did not cherish much, but worked hard at, knowing everything he did would set a precedent.

The Father of our Country also hated his job —toward the middle of his first term he was ready to retire to Mount Vernon. The reasons were largely political. American politics had become extremely fractious with members of his own cabinet (principally Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson) at perpetual war with one another. Washington prized above all unity and harmony and got neither. In his two terms he did manage to keep the infant nation from expiring and letting it grow into something he would neither understand or accept — a two party polity.

His successor, John Adams, was not nearly as successful. He hated the vice presidency and his friendship for Thomas Jefferson had grown cool. Yet, there were many among the Federalists, the prickly Adams despised, Alexander Hamilton, being possibly foremost. In fact, both books are clear as to how many in the Founding generation loathed each other — bitterness not unknown today, but rarely equaled.

John Adams single term was a deep disappointment to him. He endured criticism from the Republicans for being among other things, an “Angloman” which he wasn’t. In fact, he did his best to keep the country from war with either Britain or France that Jacobin monstrosity so much loathed by the Federalists.

The broadsides on both sides were unfair and beyond anything we would accept as civil discourse. In the case of the Federalists, it went beyond that. Wielding the power invested them under the Sedition Act, some 17 Republican newspaper editors went to jail.

In retrospect, Adams’ bid for a second term seemed doomed from the beginning. For all his loathing of ultra-Federalists, he remained suspicious of popular democracy as well ? a cause that Jefferson embraced wholeheartedly. Jefferson believed, if elected, his election would constitute a revolution — or more exactly the completion of the Revolution of 1776. His enemies thought the same, but also thought it would mean the end of the Republic and the rise of a Jacobin of America.

The issue was not trivial, and fear and loathing on this campaign trail would not be equaled until 1860. Not even the later battles between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson could match the gall and vinegar of 1800. But like 1824, 1800 would be decided in the House of Representatives where each state had one vote. It was a charming, but flawed mechanism. Yes, of course. But it is still in the constitution.

A final thought. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in a bitter contest by the narrowest of margins, but managed to heal the wounds and have a generally successful presidency. Two hundred years later, George Bush won by a whisker, which left the nation polarized and glum. How far we have come.

Roger Fontaine was a National Security staff member during the first Reagan Administration.

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