From Bullets to Ballots

June 15, 2009

From Bullets to Ballots: The Election of 1800 and the First Peaceful Transfer of Political Power

Political Science Professor John Zvesper discusses the critical final stage of the American Founding: the development of a workable party politics. While the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 settled the structure of government in the young American republic, the design for transferring executive authority remained untested until 1800.

George Washington had been the uncontested choice of the Founding generation for our first President, and John Adams, as Washington’s Vice President, had predictably succeeded to the office in 1796. Nevertheless, during the decade of the 1790s, debate over the future of the republic grew sharply divided. The argument between Federalists and Republicans in the Founding generation threatened to become a dispute over fundamental principles, undermining the regime. Showing how the debate was eventually contained as a party contest, Zvesper explains how the existence of factional disputes came to be understood not as a threat to democracy but a necessary mechanism for allowing peaceful changes in policy direction.

The monograph includes a glossary of political and historical terms, an annotated bibliography, links to related historical documents, and two appendices–one discussing Hamilton’s plan for the assumption the states’ war debts, a policy proposal around which roiled much of the factional debate in the 1790s; another giving the text of Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1800.

Read From Bullets to Ballots:

Institutionalizing the American Democratic Process: Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s first Inaugural Address (1801) is a document important not just in American history but in human history. The election of 1800, which resulted in Jefferson’s election as President and subsequent inauguration, was contested by political parties that believed they represented fundamental alternatives. More than a decade after the electoral contest, Jefferson told a correspondent in private something he did not say in public: that in the election of 1800 the very principles of the Constitution were at stake. Yet, the election resulted in a peaceful transfer of power, rather than a civil war. We have only to reflect on subsequent American history and events in the contemporary world to see that such a peaceful outcome is not always the case. In 1800, it was unprecedented in human affairs.

In his first Inaugural, Jefferson both explains this unprecedented peaceful transfer of power and attempts to institutionalize it. He does this by playing down the differences between the parties, Federalists and Republicans, and emphasizing what they hold in common. He accomplishes this not by an immediate discussion of specific policies but, in typical Jeffersonian fashion, by a discussion of fundamentals. He refers to the constitutionality of the electoral process that brought him to office and helps create peaceful acquiescence in its results by stating matter-of-factly that, “all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.” He then immediately articulates the basis of the common good, asserting the “sacred principle that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, that equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Insisting that majority rule that respects minority rights is the only “reasonable” form of democracy, Jefferson imputes reasonableness to both sides of the preceding political debate and suggests that reasonable people will never differ on democratic principles. On this basis Jefferson can then say “we are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” Only after all this, and after recalling to his audience the fortunate circumstances that favor America at the outset of its democratic experiment, does Jefferson explain, in a way that will minimize dissent, what the principles of his administration will be.

David Tucker, Professor of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School

Read the Document:

Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1801)

Master of American History and Government at Ashland University

Ashland University’s master’s program in American History and Government is designed with high school teachers in mind. Courses are offered only during the summers, and you may earn the degree in as little as three summers of intensive coursework. If you already have a master’s degree or would simply like to obtain additional CEUs, you may also attend specific courses for continuing education graduate credit. Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government. All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents. Learn more about the program.

A Core Course in the MAHG program: The American Founding

This course, one of seven required courses in the Masters degree program, is offered several times each summer and taught by scholars who are experts in Constitutional history. It is an intensive study of the Constitutional Convention, the struggle over ratification of the Constitution, and the creation of the Bill of Rights. Students examine such primary documents as Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 and correspondence between representatives to the convention. All sections of the course include a close examination of The Federalist and the anti-federalist papers.

Gordon LloydAs in most other MAHG courses, instructors in the course work in pairs, a system that provides variation in lecture method and interesting opportunities for dialogue. Two of the teaching teams this summer will organize the material chronologically, covering the drama of the debates and compromises among the closeted group of framers, the subsequent public debate over ratification, and the growing consensus to adopt the Bill of Rights. A third section of the course will be organized thematically, moving through such topics as the origins of the Founders’ principles in philosophical discussions of natural law and natural rights, the Founders’ approach to the problem of faction, their understanding of free speech, and their failure to resolve the problem of slavery.

Gordon Lloyd, author of our interactive website on the Constitutional Convention, team-teaches a very popular section of the Founding course.

Interactive Websites on the Drafting and Ratification of the Constitution

Our websites on the Constitutional Convention and the Ratification of the Constitution detail the process by which the U.S. Constitution was drafted, debated, and made the foundation of American law. They allow you to research this history from a range of angles–the themes of the debate over the Constitution, the drama that unfolded at the Convention as its terms were discussed and negotiated, as well as the dramatic debate that occurred as ratification by the states was awaited, the notes, essays, and letters written by participants, the biographies of key figures, even the specific sites where aspects of the document were hammered out.

Visit the Convention site.

Visit the Ratification site.

One way of reflecting on the importance of the Framers’ work in American memory is to explore the page Visual Interpretations of the Constitutional Convention. Here you will find nine different pictorial representations of the scene in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, as delegates debated provisions of the Constitution or signed the finished document. These range from the earliest image, an engraving appearing in 1823, to the most recent, painted in 1987. Each representation is accompanied by commentary on the artist, the date and occasion of the work, and the artist’s interpretation of the Convention. In a number of these images, the artists took care to model the figures in the scene after contemporary portraits of the individual Founders. In these cases you may click on a particular delegate pictured and a pop-up window displaying his biography will appear.

Constitution Booklets Available

A pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. Copies of the booklet are available for $1.00 each. A 10% discount is available for purchases of 25 or more.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit our website.

Abraham LincolnIn celebration of the 200th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, visit our special exhibit: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial

February 12, 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Born to poor farmers in a humble backwater, Lincoln lacked the distinguished pedigree of many of his presidential predecessors. This product of a border state caught between the free North and the slave South, however, represented the last, best chance to ensure, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We present here a collection of resources on Abraham Lincoln. Included are many of Lincoln’s most notable speeches and letters, commentary and lectures by leading historians and political scientists, original lesson plans developed by history professors and master classroom teachers, and links to addition web resources.

Listen to Peter W. Schramm, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center, on “Abraham Lincoln at 200: American, In Words and Deeds”

Dr. Schramm offers a moving tribute to the man so many recognize not only as America’s greatest statesman, but also as the pre-eminent poet of the American experience and the truest American example of the “great-souled man.” This is a President’s Day speech like none you will have heard before.

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