A review of Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling
Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn
We all know the tale and its Hollywood ending: immediately after the newly-constituted American government was launched in 1789, the young republic was rocked by passionate partisan rivalry, between Federalists loyal to Alexander Hamilton's policies, and Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Happily, the regime was soon re-launched by a peaceful transition of power in the electoral "Revolution of 1800." But have historians and political scientists told us all we need to know about the critical decade leading up to this historic election?
The American Founders' partisan quarrels and contentions during the 1790s make even the most malicious partisanship of our day look uninspired, insipid, and lame. For scandals about money, sex, corrupt decisions, foreign intrigues, and personal vendettasnot to mention nuanced and not-so-nuanced genuine policy disagreementsit is hard to beat the first decade under the new U.S. Constitution. Having experienced this up close, John Adams summed up the early republic, in one of his more morose moments, not as an age of reason but as an "age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Fury, Brutality, Daemons…."
The founders' impressive falling out during the 1790s continues to raise doubts among scholars about the wisdom of their earlier words and actions. If they had so many profound disagreements among themselves about governmental forms and policies, did they really know what they were doing when they declared independence and constituted American governments in the 1770s and '80s? Yet no one looking at the American Founding to find lessons for later Americansor for other modern democraciescan ignore the lessons of the early republic.
Much good work has been done on this by historians (most notably in Stanley Elkins's and Eric McKitrick's magisterial The Age of Federalism), and John Ferling and Susan Dunn build on some of that good work in their two new books.
Ferling's book is the more engaging of the two, partly because the author, a professor of history at the State University of Georgia, writes as if he were preparing a script for a television documentary. (He appears in these, so he probably was.) His imagination sometimes brings forth predictable turns of phrase, such as that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were "smoldering" for an absent woman (Adams for his wife, Jefferson for Mrs. Cosway), and occasionally leads him to reconstruct plausible but undocumented scenes to make his narrative more vivid. But his imagination, combined with his intelligence and learning, also helps him offer clear and credible explanations for complicated motives and moves, such as Hamilton's public attack on Adams's character in the middle of the campaign of 1800, or the House of Representatives balloting that eventually selected Jefferson over Burr for president.
Dunn's book, like Ferling's, includes some thoughtful passages on several important topics: for example, the development of the first party system into the second; the need for effective presidents to be partisan; and Jefferson's appointments strategy. ("The president displayed all the mettle of a tough party boss while mouthing congenial words of conciliation," she writes. Ferlinguncharacteristicallyis less cynical on this point.) Dunn, the Professor of Literature and the History of Ideas at Williams College, like Ferling but more emphatically, recognizes the significance of the unprecedented practice of one party peacefully handing over power to another after a deep and bitter electoral clashthough she ruins this insight (which she seems to have picked up from Seymour Martin Lipset) by adding that a good two-party system "would take away any moral right to revolution."
Neither Ferling nor Dunn considers whether the more traditional nonpartisan views of George Washington and John Adams had any merit. Dunn makes some perceptive remarks about Washington's Farewell Address, but inaccurately interprets it as "an attack on parties in general." In fact Washington's premise (similar to Madison's in The Federalist) is that in republics, where all offices are elective, there will never be too little partisanship; his argument here is questionable, but in order to be reasonably questioned it must first be accurately stated.
More generally, two major ailments continue to plague much of the scholarship on American politics in the 1790s, including these two books by Ferling and Dunn.
First is the tendency to forget that the sometimes disunited, desperate, repressive, paranoid, anti-philosophical and offensively elitist Federalist Party of the late 1790s (and later) was not like the Federalist Party of the early 1790s. The Federalist Party changed much more during the 1790s than the Republican Party did, and it did not improve. In the beginning, when they had just won the battle to ratify the Constitution, and before they were challenged by the Republican Party, Federalists were confident and united. Many scholars tend to paint the Federalists unfairly as very dark from the outset, because they painted themselves pretty dark during their later struggles and death throes. Thus Ferling praises Jefferson for having been "among the first to divine the reactionary threat posed by the extreme conservatives in the early days of the new Republic."
This first affliction is often identical with the apparently strong compulsion, which both Ferling and Dunn have, to push the 1790sif not all of American historyinto a crude Progressive mold, and to interpret the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans as part of the great democratic struggle of the masses against deference to wealth and pomp. Of course, some Republicans did sometimes talk as if that were the central issue, and some Federalists did sometimes give them reason to talk that way, but in fact the partisan divisions were not nearly as simple-minded as that. Even if the parties had displayed such a neat class correlation, their policy differences were far more interesting and captivating, and even with no socio-economic conflict at all these differences would still have pushed politics towards electoral competition and realignment.
Both Ferling and Dunn undermine their argument that the party conflict of the 1790s should be understood as part of the battle against deference, when they draw our attention to the Republicans' very effective tactic of nominating party slates of "illustrious Revolutionary heroes" or other "dazzling" public figures as candidates for the electoral college or for state legislators who would then be choosing those electors. The success of this tactic, which brought Jefferson and Burr nearly all of Pennsylvania's electoral votes in 1796, as well as every electoral vote in the crucial state of New York in 1800, suggests that a kind of deference was not entirely absent from the new politics. (Of course, this tactic was complemented by an energetic ground war to get out likely Republican voters, and that was new.)
Dunn is even more inclined than Ferling to interpret all American political history as a progress towards more progress, powered by class conflict. She suggests (a little contradictorily?) that although class conflict drove the discord between Republicans and Federalists, class solidarity between these winning and losing parties explains why that discord did not become very violent. She passionately supports James MacGregor Burns's view (which I suppose will always be with us, no matter how often its poverty is demonstrated) that the Constitution was designed to stop anything from happening; and she therefore sees the party system as a way out of that deadlock. She can't help it if Jefferson and Madison and the others don't quite see it that way. That just shows their limits. They were "fathers," after all, which is pretty well equivalent to "elitists." Anyway, Dunn reminds us, since then we Americans have cleverly managed to combine Hamiltonian means (an interventionist federal government) with Jeffersonian ends (empowerment of individuals to pursue happiness), so all's better in today's party system. And we can be proud that we got where we are in spite our founding fathers.
The second widespread affliction affecting scholarship on the 1790s is the tendency to pass over too quickly the seriousness of the decision made by the leaders of what became the Republican Party to create that party in the first place. In the 1790s the Founders advanced towards the realization that in liberal democracies, a certain kind of principled partisanship deserves a degree of public respectability. However, most historians and political scientists do not see that this realization was largely achieved already in 1792 (insofar as the Founders did achieve it: some of this work was left to the "second party system"). They do not see that foreign wars and their domestic repercussions from 1793 to 1800 temporarily distorted that achievement and delayed its electoral results for eight years. If only Jefferson had spoken of the "Revolution of 1792"!
Ferling accepts the conventional claim that it took American reaction to the French Revolution and other foreign policy events to make most Americans focus on the partisan contest, and although he discusses some of the interesting manoeuvres and publications preceding the election of 1792, he does not accept the Republican leaders' own acknowledgement that they were building a (temporary) political party. Dunn does not discuss the election of 1792, and she moves even more swiftly than Ferling to the foreign policy-related issues and elections of the later 1790s.
In December 1792, after most of the congressional election results were in, Jeffersonanticipating the language of his First Inaugural Addresspredicted that the government "will, from the commencement of the next session of Congress, retire and subside into the true principles of the Constitution," supported by those who felt themselves to be "republicans and federalists too." After 1792, Jefferson came to realize that the Republicans had to win control of the presidency as well as Congress in a partisan campaign (they had already had a go at taking the vice-presidency away from Adams in 1792). However, he and other Republicans made it clear in all of the elections of that decade that their fundamental disagreement with Federalists was over Alexander Hamilton's economic project, which the two parties had fought overRepublicans had thought once and for allin the election of 1792.
Republicans were already confidently and energetically appealing to American public opinionthrough a peaceful electoral campaignto establish the majority's voice in the government, in order to oppose imprudent measures that had been undertaken by that government only because it had not sufficiently consulted the public. Instead of basing its novel policies on any kind of public consultation, the federal government had been running in an unrepublican manner: as in Britain, executive ministers initiated policies, which it seemed they got enacted by improperly influencing the proceedings of the legislative branch.
Thus, much of the outlook and strategy of the Revolution of 1800 appeared in the Revolution of 1792, which set the precedent for principled public partisanship. But what took Republicans so long to establish their electoral and policy revolution? From later American history, we can now see that this delay was not abnormal; in the realigning elections of the 1790s, just as in the 1820s, 1850s, 1890s, and 1930s (and 1990s?), the House reflected the emerging partisan realignment before the White House did. Nevertheless, two special factors explain the delay of realignment in the 1790s. In addition to the fact that George Washington (whom Jefferson diligently tried but failed to get on their side) remained president until 1797, the Republicans' main impediment was the distraction of foreign policy issues. As soon as good prospects of peace with both Britain and France appeared, the Republican Party received a peace dividend. Some Federalists saw this coming, and feared that the Republicans' policy and patronage revolutions would be even more sharply to their disadvantage than they turned out to be. This fear incited their frantic efforts to come to an "understanding" with Jefferson (that he would not fire them and reverse their key policies) before finally letting him emerge ahead of Aaron Burr in the tie-breaking balloting by the House of Representatives in 1801.
What's missing from these two books, and from scholarship on the 1790s more generally, is a good understanding of the actions and intentions of America's first partisans when they were first being partisan, in 1792. We need that understanding in order to judge to what extent those actions deserve praise or blame, and in what manner they deserve imitation or avoidance.
Political science as well as history needs this fuller understanding of the genesis of partisanship in the early 1790s.
In political science, the most brilliant accounts of this genesis have been written by Harry V. Jaffa, starting with essays that he wrote in the 1960s. His latest discussion of the election of 1800, in the first chapter of A New Birth of Freedom, raises the most important question about the 1790s: what did Americans' experience show about the rightful place of partisan elections in good republican government, and about the conditions for replacing bullets with ballots in modern politics?
However, Jaffa does not here discuss the very first partisan elections in America. He remarks on the pre-partisan skirmishing over the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States in 1791, and on the desperately partisan Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 (which were reactions to the Federalists' quasi-wartime sedition and alien acts of that year), but not on anything betweenin particular, not on the Republicans' successful election campaign of 1792, in which they took control of the House (and even organized a partisan challenge to Vice President John Adams' re-election). Jaffa says that for the Republican party the Resolutions of 1798 "defined the issues" of the election of 1800. Yet these issues had already been defined in elections during the six years previous to 1798.
Moreover, it is not clear that it was (as Jaffa asserts) "only in consequence of the voting in 1800 that Jefferson was persuaded that elections could successfully replace revolution." In the elections of 1792 Jefferson and other Republicans were already confident both of the justification for their partisan campaign, and of the success of that campaign in persuading voters to support their opposition to unrepublican (as well as unconstitutional) policies. Their confidence was to be tried, but it existed, and it persisted through the rest of the 1790s, even the darkest days of 1798.
This persistent confidence in the voice of the peoplewhich, as Jaffa teaches so well, is both a strength and a weakness of democratic politicswas first recognized as a necessary element of modern party politics in 1792.
John Zvesper's most recent study of political parties and elections in the 1790s, From Bullets to Ballots, can be purchased from the Claremont Institute for $10. Click here to purchase a copy.