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

Chapter 1:

First Principles

The Significance of the Revolution of 1800

Democratic elections change government office holders and policies. Often the changes in policies represent a change of emphasis. Sometimes they are more significant but not so drastic that the defeated party cannot readily accept them at least until the next election. But occasionally political parties in democratic regimes become deeply and bitterly opposed to each other because the parties are convinced that their opponents threaten to abandon the country’s most fundamental principles.

When political parties have these extreme differences, how can civil war be avoided? Can we reasonably expect those in power before the elections peacefully to surrender their offices to opponents who they know will pursue policies that are not only unwise or unjust but also wholly destructive of the very ends of the political community? Should the government of the day respect the election results, and quietly hand over power to such traitors? Or, if it is the challenging party that has lost the election, should it be content to leave peacefully in office people who are not just partisan opponents with disagreeable policies, but dangerous enemies of the country who do not deserve to be considered as legitimate governing officials? And what if the election result was very close, and perhaps also included (as is generally the way with close elections) some very contestable counting of the votes? Why should either a governing or a challenging party accept an unfavorable election outcome determined by a few doubtfully legitimate vote counts, when such important principles are at stake?

The first ever peaceful transition of power after bitterly contested popular elections fought by principled partisans occurred in America, in the “Revolution of 1800,” after elections that gave the Republican party led by Thomas Jefferson control over both the presidency and congress. Both the Republicans and their opponents, the Federalist party, believed that the fundamental principles of democracy were at stake in the conflict between the two parties.

Today it is widely recognized that the political experience of the United States in the 1770s and 1780s–the winning of independence, the writing of constitutions in each of the new states, and the establishment of the new federal Constitution of 1787–provides useful lessons about constructing liberal democracies. It is less widely recognized but no less true that the American political experience of the 1790s offers useful lessons about setting democracy into motion by developing a publicly respectable role for modern political parties. Without this, democracy is incomplete. The American republic was the first “new nation” and the first “emerging democracy” in the modern world. Its experiences resemble those of later-emerging democracies. The electoral Revolution of 1800 shows how even political parties that deeply distrust each other’s character and policies can nevertheless accept the outcome of an election that replaces one of these parties by the other. This American experience is the first example of a peaceful liberal democratic transfer of political power. Even if studying that experience cannot supply solutions that can be directly applied to later experiences in other times and places, it does tell us much about the kinds of problems that citizens and politicians must expect to have to deal with in contested and divisive transfers. We can also learn much about the kinds of principles that can be at stake in democratic partisan conflicts.

For their part, American citizens, by recalling their own experience in the 1790s, can better appreciate the difficulties that confront new democracies, and can more fully understand some of the facts of human and political life that make democracy a valuable but also a rare and fragile species of government. Indeed, we shall see that, on the subject of political parties, Americans have little room for complacency about their own current theory and practice. On this as on other political topics, the American founding holds up high standards for Americans themselves as well as for democrats elsewhere. All democracies are emerging democracies, in the sense that they are always in danger of sinking into bad habits of thinking and acting.

Some years after the event, Thomas Jefferson described the election of 1800 (which made him president) as “a revolution in the principles of our government” which was every bit “as real … as that of 1776 was in its form.” But in 1776 the revolution to a republican form of government independent from monarchical Britain had been violent–internally as well as externally–while in 1800 the revolution was peaceful. This in itself was a revolutionary change in the way that principled political conflict was normally resolved. But Jefferson meant more than that when he described 1800 as a revolution in “the principles of government.” He meant that the Republican party had introduced a new set of principles by which the government was to be administered, very different from the Federalists’ principles. How could these two revolutionary changes be compatible? How could he expect the defeated Federalist party peacefully to accept reversals of major policies both domestic and foreign?

The Revolution of 1800 was the first time in human history that the long-hallowed appeal to bullets was replaced by the appeal to ballots in such a contest. We shall see that many circumstances contributed to this happy outcome. We shall also see that partisan political conflict can be based on several different kinds of political principles, some more and some less conducive to non-violent resolutions of partisan conflict. This is the most important lesson for democratic citizens and statesmen to learn from the American Revolution of 1800. As Jefferson said in his First Inaugural Address, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Moreover, as his peaceful partisan revolution shows, not every difference of principle is a difference of fundamental political principle. Not every partisan principle is a fundamental principle of democracy itself, for which one must fight unrelentingly, with bullets if necessary. In any lively democratic partisan debate, there is bound to be some confusion between the fundamental principles of democracy and conflicting partisan opinions (also called principles) about what is to be done. But the distinction between these two kinds of principle must be kept within sight by democratic citizens and statesmen who would allow or encourage principled political conflicts, while maintaining the possibility of the peaceful resolution of those conflicts. The Revolution of 1800 shows us that the replacement of bullets by ballots in conflicts of political principle requires that the conflicting parties avoid illiberal principles, embrace shared democratic principles, and identify their parties with principles that present important policy choices to the electorate but do not present the choice of abandoning the fundamental principles of democratic government.

The “Terrorism” of the 1790s: Violent Prelude to Peaceful Change

In the 1790s, the name “Federalist” was taken by Americans who had favored the replacement of the Articles of Confederation (the first United States Constitution, adopted during the Revolutionary War) with the Constitution of 1787 (still in effect today). Federalists were “the friends of the Constitution,” who had labored to get it ratified by conventions in each state, and to get the new government working after the ratification had occurred in 1788. The opponents of the new Constitution were called “Anti-federalists.” The “Republican” party were those who, a few years later, in 1791 and 1792, began to have serious doubts about the administration of the new government, because they suspected it was leading the country to adopt policies and forms of government that were not truly republican, and that threatened to undo the republican achievements of the Revolution and the Constitution.

Given that the Federalists and Republicans came to view each other as serious threats to the country’s future, the scope and the depth of the partisan animosity that appeared in the 1790s are not surprising. They are nevertheless remarkable.

Partisan warfare divided families in every state. It also broke up friendships–perhaps most notably and poignantly the friendship between the revolutionary collaborators Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts. They became rival candidates for the presidency in 1796 and 1800, with Vice President Adams, as the heir apparent, winning in 1796, and Jefferson more convincingly and durably triumphing in 1800. Another notable casualty of party warfare was the political partnership between James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York, who had collaborated in working for the ratification of the Constitution, and were the main co-authors of The Federalist Papers (a still famous series of essays advocating and analyzing the Constitution).

In 1813, Jefferson, in retirement, looking back on the 1790s, recalled that the “public discussions” in this decade, “whether relating to men, measures, or opinions, were conducted by the parties with animosity, a bitterness, and an indecency, which had never been exceeded. All the resources of reason, and of wrath, were exhausted by each party in support of its own, and to prostrate the adversary opinions.”

The partisanship of the 1790s took place in the midst of foreign policy crises, and involved Americans’ very conflicting attitudes to Britain and France, the two superpowers of the day. So it was not surprising that it inspired hostility against recent immigrants seen to be supporting the rival party. But it also provoked incivility between former friends and long-time fellow citizens. In 1796, Jefferson deplored the social atmosphere in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital while the District of Columbia was being planned and built: “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the streets to avoid meeting and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats.” Jefferson and George Washington stopped communicating with each other nearly three years before Washington’s death in December 1799. Jefferson (then vice president) failed to attend Washington’s funeral, and in 1801 John Adams failed to attend Jefferson’s presidential inauguration ceremony (perhaps only because he was not invited).

The poisonous social and political climates in Philadelphia were made more deadly by recurrent yellow fever epidemics. Even the proper way to combat that disease became a partisan issue, with Republicans blaming the disease on local conditions, and Federalists seeing it as a foreign import. (Historians now think that both medical theories were partly right.) Americans were also disturbed by recurrent financial panics during the decade. The first of these, which coincided with the first partisan campaign in 1792, came on the heels of the dispiriting news of the humiliating defeat of a United States army by Indians in the Ohio Territory, who killed more than 900 out of a force of 1400. These events were also linked to the partisan conflicts, because Republicans blamed Federalist policies for speculative financial bubbles, and one of the reasons for the army’s defeat in Ohio proved to be mismanagement of procurement contracts. The man mainly responsible for this mismanagement was a speculator in government debt certificates, who was blamed (not without reason) for setting off the first financial panic, and who spent the rest of the decade (until his death in 1799) in debt and jail.

The partisan conflict of the 1790s brought not only money but also sex scandals to widespread public attention. (Both Hamilton and Jefferson were touched by the latter.) It fed on and encouraged violent taxpayer revolts and the federal government’s armed suppression of these revolts. There were violent public protests against the federal government’s foreign policies. Political conflict was criminalized; each party attempted to weaken the other by prosecuting its supporters for seditious libel. Printers of partisan writings were also physically harassed. Fights broke out in the capital between street gangs formed on party lines. There was at least one scuffle between two congressmen on the floor of the House of Representatives, and the Speaker of the House was stabbed (though not killed) by his cousin after the Speaker had betrayed his Republican party (and family) ties by breaking a crucial tie in favor of the Federalists. The famous pistol duel in which the former Federalist Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was killed by the current Republican Vice President, Aaron Burr, in 1804 was an aftershock of the partisan competition of the 1790s. At the end of the 1790s, there was talk in both parties of disunion in order to avoid compromising with the opposition, and of organizing armed attack or resistance.

After they resumed their correspondence in 1812, Jefferson and Adams wrote of the “terrorism” in America in the 1790s, meaning an attempt by one party to intimidate the other into submission. (The word was introduced into English after the French coinage of it by advocates of such tactics during the French Revolution.) Jefferson claimed that the Republicans had been the only party subjected to terrorist tactics, in the shape of the alien and sedition laws passed by the Federalist-controlled congress in 1798, laws that authorized the President (then Adams) to deport dangerous aliens, and that criminalized “false, scandalous and malicious writing … against the government.” But Adams promptly pointed out to him that Federalists too had felt terrorized, for example by the violence of tax rebels in 1794 and 1799, and by large unruly antigovernment crowds in the capital city, who in 1793 “threatened to drag [President] Washington out of his House, and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution, and against England,” and who in 1799 made Adams’ own presidential household feel so threatened that Adams “judged it prudent and necessary to order chests of arms from the War Office to be brought through bye lanes and back doors” to prepare to defend the presidential home.

After the electoral Revolution of 1800, Federalists and Republicans continued to hammer at each other for some years, rhetorically and electorally. However, the Republican victory of 1800 was never seriously threatened with reversal, so the partisan warfare became muted by the Republicans’ satisfaction that they had won the war and by the Federalists’ grim realization that they had lost it. That realization by the Federalists, and the terrible animosities that had dominated elections for several years up to 1800, make it all the more remarkable that the elections of 1800 resulted in a peaceful transition of power. It would have been less surprising if the Revolution of 1800, like other partisan revolutions throughout history, had been violent in itself, and had been followed up if not by executions and exiles then at least by long-term economic, social and political harassment, exclusion and punishment of the defeated partisans.

The Character of Modern Party Government

Before turning to the political history of the 1790s in order to see why this “terrorism” arose and how the peaceful “Revolution of 1800” came about in spite of it, it will be helpful to reflect on the nature of modern party politics more generally. We can better appreciate the thoughts and actions of the first modern partisan politicians if we look at them in this context.

While political parties are as old as politics, party government–the openly acknowledged and publicly respectable practice of parties organized to compete for office over a long period of time, along with the presumed right of such parties to influence or to control government policy–is a much more recent development, which rose out of English and American political experience in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is also a development that is not nearly as natural or straightforward as its current familiarity might suggest.

Even today the normalization of political parties–the public acceptance of parties as respectable ways of organizing political conflicts and choices–remains incomplete, even though it has become second nature. This has been true in all modern regimes, totalitarian as well as democratic. There are important differences between totalitarian and democratic regimes on this issue of public acceptance of the role of political parties, but there is also this very important similarity: even in modern totalitarian regimes, where the single ruling party is understood and treated as superior to the constitution and the legitimately-constituted government, this party remains more hidden and less public than the government. In liberal democracies, the hesitation to completely identify legitimate governmental power with political party power is even more obvious. In these regimes, even when one party is hegemonic, governments generally remain not only very distinct from but also more dignified and respectable than parties, and there is a public distrust of parties, party politics, and party politicians.

Sometimes–as in many liberal democracies during the last quarter of the twentieth century–this distrust becomes too exaggerated and unhealthy, making parties seem completely useless to many good citizens. In America, this extreme and unhealthy distrust of political parties–which persists in many quarters today–grew out of the “Progressive” reaction to the corrupt conditions of political parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is important to appreciate that this Progressive attitude is very different from the suspicion about parties that the American founders displayed. Today Americans generally have a greater need to relearn the advantages than to dwell on the disadvantages of political parties. But it would be odd if the distrust of parties were to disappear altogether, for in liberal democratic politics there is something inherently suspicious in a party–by definition a part of the community, however large–claiming to have superior knowledge or ability. So while the total rejection of party politics is dangerous, the incompleteness of the public acceptance of party politics is understandable, and can be compatible with a healthy appreciation of the advantages of party for modern democracy.

By acknowledging this continuing questionableness of political parties, we can better understand why the first establishment of political parties as normal and more or less respectable political devices was not easy, and why it has been difficult to initiate party government in many new democracies.

The Paradoxical and Two-Sided Nature of Modern Political Parties

Emphasizing this difficulty in the birth of party government does not mean we have to adopt the condescending view that the partisans of the 1790s were improvising a way of organizing political conflict that they did not understand at all. Historians are generally too inclined to conclude that these early partisans were simply fumbling in the dark, wholly unenlightened about the usefulness of political parties. Historians who come to that conclusion have clearly missed an important fact about the nature of political parties in liberal democracies, today as well as in the past. Today, if we avoid a Progressive or other purist distaste for political parties, we are so much in the habit of accepting them–and we are in any case harangued by political scientists into accepting them–that we easily forget how strange this acceptance is. What has happened is not that we have grown out of the supposedly “immature” anti-party attitudes of the first partisans, but that we have forgotten some of the reasons why democratic citizens continue to be of two minds about parties.

Moreover, by assuming the superiority of our easier acceptance of parties, we forget how the public acceptance of party competition, insofar as that acceptance is shared by the partisans themselves, requires a paradox within the parties. It requires that these parties must have within them two different and potentially conflicting tendencies: a principled tendency, and a compromising tendency. In liberal democracies, there is always something awkwardly contradictory in the basic positions taken by major parties, for they must sincerely uphold and insist upon principles that cannot be compromised, at the same time that they must subject themselves to the democratic rule that their party’s principles can govern the country only if they are supported by the voters. Being a sincere, principled partisan and being at the same time an equally sincere partisan of a party system in which your party might lose is not an easy posture to adopt or to maintain. It is easy enough to be accommodating towards your opponents if there are no principles involved and it is just a matter of compromising among various interests, but once principles are at stake, accommodating the opposition becomes harder to justify. However, it is well worth the effort, and it becomes easier if accurate distinctions are made between the kinds of principles that should and should not be subject to partisan debate.

Successful political parties have two sides: they need organizations–that is, networks of activists and of supporting interests–and they also need opinions, about people, principles and policies. Benjamin Disraeli’s succinct definition makes the point: “Party is organized opinion.” Would-be parties that are merely sets of opinions, without such an organization and without a focus on winning elections by forming coalitions of interests, will be more like debating clubs. Parties without political principles and opinions, however much they might help broker coalitions of interests, will be unable to rise above the politics of self-interested factions, so in the long term they risk losing the interest of the public, and will be despised as mere parties of interest or cliques or cronies. When parties dwindle into mere “accommodationist,” patronage-oriented parties, they can easily miss out on their chance to capture enough popular support to form durable governing coalitions. If their rhetoric becomes “mere” rhetoric, mere lip service, they lose one of their main reasons for being–and risk turning the public’s natural and instinctive distrust of party politics into an unnatural and alienating disgust. So while it is important for parties to learn to accept compromise and to focus partly on the maintenance of their supporting coalitions of interests, it is equally important for major parties to remain parties of principle. If ballots replace bullets by completely reducing the significance of balloting to choices between easily compromisable private economic interests, then some of the purpose of balloting is lost.

Table of Contents | On to Chapter 2

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