This year’s election season has been called personal, vitriolic, and angry in an unprecedented way. Candidates are called out for personal insults. Distrust of government is at an all-time high. How we long for learned, dispassionate discourses on the issues of the day, the way the Founding Fathers would have wanted it.
Take the election of 1800, which featured a cast of characters willing to take on the mantle left by the death of George Washington, who was able to unify a young, rambunctious nation. It was America’s first contested presidential election campaign, and one of its most important, influencing the way elections and government have been established ever since.
The election pitted John Adams, Washington’s successor and the standing president, against his own vice president Thomas Jefferson, whose Democratic-Republicans championed the cause of small farmers and the working man. The Founding Fathers were known as producers of lofty tracts about political theory. Yet Adams and Jefferson, historian Edward J. Larson notes, “could write like angels and scheme like demons.” Newspapers were the medium of the day. Political attacks were common. Both candidates suffered personal attacks; Adams, for his perceived lack of masculine virtues, Jefferson for rumors that he had fathered children with one of his slaves and, enamored with French revolutionary ideas, had plans to install a Bonaparte-like dictatorship in America. His heterodox Christianity also raised charges of atheism.
The issues in the campaign included whether the federal government could be trusted (Adams’ Federalists were known as the party of big government). Adams, beset with opposition to higher taxes to pay for a military response against the French, moved to the center, purging his cabinet of controversial figures, including Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton responded with a published diatribe against his former boss which doomed the Federalists’ chances and ruined any further upward political aspirations for the first U.S. treasury secretary (rendered in the Tony Award-winning musical as “Sit down, John, you fat mother-BLEEP!”). “Hamilton’s strange behavior in 1800 loomed large in Adams’ defeat,” historian John Ferling writes.
African Americans played a role in Adams’ defeat too, even though they were prohibited from voting. The infamous 3/5 rule in the Constitution, which counted slaves in determining electors via that percentage, helped cement Jefferson’s electoral strength in the South. A Virginia slave revolt by an artisan named Gabriel was inspired by visions of liberty. The ill-fated attempt failed after it was clear that Jefferson’s vision of liberty was for whites only and that the tacit support of two Frenchmen in Philadelphia could not deliver a fleet to liberate the slaves.
There was no direct election at the time. Voters instead marked their preferences with candidates for state legislatures, who then selected electors. Flaws in the original constitution (since revised) elevated Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president selection, into a defacto tie with Jefferson himself. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives. There a stop-Jefferson movement (he was seen by opponents as tied to potential mob rule and to the support of the French) failed, eventually leading to the election of Thomas Jefferson as America’s third president. All in all, it was a not-so-tidy process known more for its political machinations than for its sober debates over the great issues of the day.