, December 06, 2008
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The United States gets back on the republican track in 1800 (4.5*s)
While the particulars and the intrigues surrounding the election of 1800 made it the most raucous election held to that point in US history, it was, more importantly, according to Thomas Jefferson, the culmination of the American Revolution begun twenty-five years prior. It was, in his mind, no less than the repudiation of the elitist Federalist era that had lasted the long decade dating from the Constitutional Convention in 1787. More so than the election, the author focuses on the events and decisions of that decade that gave rise to a political party, the Republicans, who opposed the entrenched party of government, the Federalists, all of which did lead to the first Presidential election with identifiable political parties. Some of the most capable political figures in American history were players in the 1790s. While John Adams held the offices of both Vice President and President in the 90s, it was Alexander Hamilton who was the driving force behind the Federalists and their policies of nationalism and commercialism. Both Jefferson and James Madison were greatly disturbed by the power and size of the federal government, the militarism of the Federalists, and their rejection of republicanism, or average citizen empowerment.
Most of the leading figures in colonial society in the decade after the Revolutionary War came to understand that the Articles of Confederation left the United States in a helpless state, almost on the edge of collapse. When those elites met in Philadelphia in 1787, they had no intention of constructing a true democratic republic; in fact, they feared the democratic initiatives of recent years in various states. The design of the US Constitution, with its roadblocks at every turn, virtually guaranteed that popular initiatives could not be realized. However, it was not fully appreciated at the time just how much power some, namely Hamilton, wanted to exert through the central government.
Early on in the Washington administration, both Madison and Jefferson knew that Treasury secretary Hamilton’s initiatives to fully fund US war debts (a boon to speculators in War bonds), to assume the wartime debts of the states, and to establish a central US bank were designed to enhance the interests of commercial elites. However, it was the US involvement in European affairs that engendered the strongest opposition throughout the decade. The official neutrality position of the US towards British-French hostilities in 1793 merely confirmed to many that US elites had far too much respect for aristocratic British society. Democratic-Republican societies (the forerunner to the Republican Party) emerged at this time to denounce the failure of the US to support the French in their efforts to establish a republican order.
When the French began preying upon US shipping in 1796, largely as a result of the US pro-British stance, the Federalist reaction was militaristic. The French refusal to accept US envoys in 1798 caused the Quasi-War with France to reach a fever pitch. Both Hamilton and Adams had to exert a moderating influence to keep ultra-Federalists from forcing a war with France. However, they did ram the Alien and Sedition Acts through Congress which were designed to curtail critical commentary of the policies of the US and its officials. Numerous newspaper writers and editors were jailed under the Sedition Act. It is the black spot on Adams’ presidency that will not go away.
As the author points out, the republican political societies and the partisan opposition press did profoundly impact the perceptions among average Americans who now saw Federalists as social elites and who were increasingly alarmed at their militarism, policies favoring elite commercial interests, including tight-money monetary policies, pro-British and anti-French stances, and their ignoring of First Amendment rights to a free press. The first significant evidence of a shift among voters was the takeover of the New York assembly by the Republicans in 1800, virtually guaranteeing Jefferson all of New York’s electoral votes, since that body selected the electors.
The author describes well the peculiar electoral system of that era whereby the two Congressional caucuses actually nominated two candidates for President, reflecting the fact that electors actually cast two votes for President, one vote of which could not be for a candidate from his state. The top two vote getters became President and Vice President regardless of party. If no candidate received a majority of votes in the Electoral College or the top two tied, then the House of Representatives decided the election with each state getting one vote. In 1800, the vote of nine states out of sixteen was required to win the election. Another variable in the election process was the manner in which electors were selected. In some states the legislature chose, in others popular voting by district or statewide selected electors, with states frequently changing the system between elections.
Into this novel electoral system stepped the candidates for President in 1800: John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina were nominated by the Federalists and Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York by the Republicans. As the author points out, there was far more politicking in the election of 1800 than ever before. In the first place, the Republican press had greatly expanded. If anything, the Republicans were more organized with pamphlets, parades, dinners, picnics, etc. The Federalists, sensing their cause as being lost, mounted scurrilous on Jefferson concerning his alleged atheism and radicalism. And there are the intrigues of Hamilton before the election and of Burr once the election moved to the House of Representatives because of the tie between Burr and Jefferson. Wiser heads did finally prevail in the Congressional contest, averting a potentially dire political crisis. As it was, the election represented the first peaceful transfer of power from one faction to another in US history.
The author captures well the fact that the 1790s and the election of 1800 were very pivotal times in US history. The promise of the American Revolution was slowing ebbing away. Perhaps there are those believe that the direction of US history was firmly cast by the Revolution. This book makes clear that is not the case. The thinking and efforts of Jefferson, Madison, republican societies and newspapers were instrumental in changing the course that the Federalists had set for the US and the greater society. Jefferson was overjoyed that the US had finally been able to cast off the Toryism of the Federalists and hopefully begin anew on the path promised by the Revolution.