Contentious elections are the founders’ legacy, explains Bill White, the Theresa A. and Lawrence C. Salameno Director of Educational Program Development.
Podcast (audio): Download (2.9MB)
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. The edgy tone of today's presidential elections might seem like a manifestation of modern times, but the bitter election of 1800 set a precedent for American politics. This season's first Electronic Field Trip, "The Will of the People," brings to life this moment in American history, reminding us how often the past is replayed in the present.
Bill White: I’m Bill White, I’m the Theresa A. and Lawrence C. Salameno Director of Educational Program Development. I’m responsible for Colonial Williamsburg’s Education Outreach initiative.
Lloyd: I like the idea of this particular field trip because so many people I talk to say, “Isn’t it a shame that politics is so bitter now?”
Bill: And this, we’re contentious people, we’ve always been a contentious people. We’re always at each other’s throats, it seems, about important issues. These political campaigns, these debates, are the way that we as a country get together and argue out some important issues for ourselves. The election of 1800 was probably the first of those. You’ve got to remember that, of course, Washington is the first president, and he’s pretty much just elected by acclamation.
Lloyd: He could have been king.
Bill: He’s the great man. He is the great American. Of course he’s going to be elected the first time and the second time by wide margins. But, by the time you get to that third election, there’s a little bit more competition. So John Adams doesn’t win by the wide margin that a Washington does. The politics that had started in the Washington administration between Jefferson and the Jeffersonians and Hamilton and the Hamiltonians who then become the Federalists, starts to heat up big time over a series of issues that are absolutely critical to the country.
Lloyd: The people have forgotten, if indeed they ever knew, how personal the elections used to be. I mean, they weren’t arguing over politics in principle only, they were arguing over quite personal things.
Bill: Well, yeah. But personal in a very impersonal kind of way. Adams, Washington and Adams and Jefferson â€“ all through the 19th century, none of these presidential candidates actually go out and stump for themselves. It’s actually unseemly. If it appears that you actually want the office of president, then you probably shouldn’t have it.
Lloyd: You know, that may not be a bad idea.
Bill: So, it’s their agents then who are out there politicking for them. It becomes very, very nasty. So in 1800, let’s see, in 1800 you have the Federalists charging that Thomas Jefferson is an anti-Christian. He had helped foster the resolution for religious freedom in Virginia, so he was anti-Christianity was going to take all the New England Bibles away from all those folks up North. That he was a radical. Remember also that the French Revolution’s going on at the time. So, and he supported the French Revolution, which had become a very bloody affair with guillotines and the whole nine yards. So they’re saying he likes the French Revolution, he’s going to bring that kind of violence and turmoil here to the American shores. Then they start to drag out stuff like accusing him of having the affair with Sally Hemmings, his slave. That’s when that story pops out for the first time. They accuse him of being a coward during the Revolution.
On the flip side of the coin, the Jeffersonian republicans, or the democratic republicans as Jefferson calls them, they accuse the Federalists of being monarchists, that they want to bring the monarchy back to America. They want to overturn the Revolution and bring us to a monarch. So the Federalists were very much wanted to have a strong executive, and at one point, Hamiliton had talked about well maybe an elected kingship is a good thing, but boy, the Jeffersonian folks, they pick that up and they spin it two or three times and they’re accusing John Adams of being a monarchist. Here’s one of the great figures of the Revolution, being a monarchist. So they start throwing these things back and forth, and it’s really personal. You’ve got to remember that Jefferson and Adams, after the election of 1800, Jefferson and Adams don’t speak to each other for 10, 15, probably almost 20 years.
Lloyd: Is that the one where Adams refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration? And left town before â€¦
Bill: He leaves town before the inauguration, that’s right.
Lloyd: That’s angry.
Bill: That’s angry, that’s angry. But at the same time, Jefferson’s inaugural speech, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists, we are all the American people. Let’s draw ourselves back together again. That’s what’s remarkable about Americans, is that election of 1800 represents the first opportunity for Americans to have this really contentious, very divisive debate in our society. In the end, turn back around, peacefully transfer the power in the country from one political party to the next, and pull back together as an American people.
Lloyd: Elections were different then. Vice presidents ran quite independently.
Bill: Well, and this is the other big crisis. This is, the election of 1800 causes a constitutional crisis. Because the notion was that so you would elect these electors who went to the Electoral College, and they’d cast their vote. The individual who got the largest number of votes would be the president, and then the runner up would be the vice president. What happens is the electors cast their ballots, and Jefferson and Aaron Burr are tied. Well what happens to a tied election in our constitutional system, what’s supposed to happen is that the election then goes to the House of Representatives to be decided. Well the federalists are controlling the House of Representatives. They don’t have enough votes, though to be able to actually elect a federalist candidate. But they keep this thing tied up, day after day after day. Voting and the voting turns out exactly the same. Those two candidates are tied. They’re tied, they’re tied, they’re tied.
Finally, in the end, Alexander Hamilton throws his support behind Jefferson because he hates Aaron Burr more, basically. Then finally, they break the impasse. But congress will come back right after that, and they’ll pass the resolution, the amendment to the constitution that says, ok, we’re going to have two separate candidates and two votes in the electoral college, so we’ll have candidates who are running for the president, we’ll have candidates who are running for vice president, and we’ll take two separate votes so we don’t have this problem.
Lloyd: The way we do it, I’m amazed we get it done at all.
Bill: Well a lot of people think that, a lot of people think that somewhere written in the constitution or written in the law somewhere there’s a bunch of laws that tell us how we’re supposed to do these things. But that’s not the fact at all. We’ve been making these rules up as we go along. They were making them up in the election of 1800. We’re still, we’re still making them up today. There’s a lot of discussion today about what should be next. How should we be selecting our candidates to do a better job of it? So, it probably isn’t the best solution, but it also does one other thing that that that early American leaders were concerned about. Most of these guys in 1800 are really worried about the common men and women who are out in the general public. They don’t believe that they’re really qualified to make those decisions.
Lloyd: The democratic mob.
Bill: It really needs a democratic mob. And it’s very fickle. We can’t really trust those common people to make those decisions. That’s why we end up with the representative system, is because it allows them to, it allows us then to elect people who are smarter than us, was the original idea, was to elect people smarter than us to help us make these decisions. Now a lot of folks today are not really sure it worked out that way, but that’s their thinking at the time, they’re looking for ways to make sure that the brightest, the smartest, the best are actually moved ahead. So originally, the House of Representatives is elected by the people. The senate is appointed by state legislators, and the president is elected by an electoral college that is always one step removed from the general public, from that mob of democracy.
What is clear is that the federalists want to have a stronger central government. They believe that having a good strong executive and having a lot of federal control over the states, the federal government exercising control over the states will build the nation and make it stronger for commerce, for all kinds of reasons. For defense. And then you have the Jeffersonian republicans who are saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no. If you do that, then you’re going to suck all the authority and the power away from the states, and away from individuals and their communities. And that’s where government actually happens. It’s down here in the local level, in those communities. And you don’t want to squash that, what we want to do is nurture and encourage that. The federal government should help that. There are certain things that are assigned to the federal government, like a common defense, but you know, you shouldn’t be usurping the power of the individual states or of the local communities. So, it’s a very different picture in how you should govern.
Lloyd: So, the Electronic Field Trip, “The Will of the People,” shows you the election of the 1800s, and gives you some understanding that political dislike between parties, people, is not a new idea.
Bill: Well it’s not a new idea. It shows you just how, it shows kids, just how angry and contentious that discussion was, that debate was. And also makes the point that it is how we as an American people, hammer out the issues that are important to us. We do it in these very public, political spheres.