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

Chapter 2:

The Lessons of Constitution Making

Between 1776 and 1787, Americans wrote fifteen new constitutions for the new states (one for each of the thirteen states, and second, revised ones in two of these states), as well as the Articles of Confederation (in 1777) and the Constitution of 1787. All of this experience in making constitutions increased the already well-advanced political maturity of the Americans, which by the 1760s had made them so difficult for the rulers of the British empire to manage and even to comprehend. Even before their independence and their constitution-making marathon, the British colonists in North America (which included many non-British immigrants, notably many Germans) had schooled themselves in English “whig” political thinking and had acquired civic institutions and habits that rested on a high level of political competence among colonial politicians, both at the local and at the colonial level. Elections to representative assemblies were based on a relatively broad franchise–much broader than anywhere else in the eighteenth century–and this was extended even more during and after the Revolution. It varied from place to place, but everywhere in the elections of the 1790s it included well over the majority of adult male citizens (and did not always exclude females). At that time, it should be noted, voting was generally a very public act, and how one voted was public knowledge.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the representative assemblies, especially their increasingly powerful lower houses, dominated colonial politics, disappointing British imperial administrators’ hopes that the royally-appointed governors would play the dominant role. The British government’s inability to accept their American colonists’ political competence, and its disagreement with the colonists’ belief in the political claims of their own legislatures, were major causes of the conflict between Britain and America that led to the American Revolution.

The Desirability of Government

In recent decades many historians have emphasized the extreme suspicion of power as a characteristic of American political thinking from the colonial period onwards. It would be a mistake to ignore this strand of American political thinking, but it would also be a mistake to consider it as the only or the dominant theme of American political thinking in the revolutionary and constitution-making period. Immediately upon declaring their independence from Britain, Americans set about constructing new governments, so they were by no means anarchists, and the governments that they constructed were granted imposing powers. After all, the Declaration of Independence itself was not an antigovernment statement. It was not only a statement of individual rights; it was equally a concise summary of good constitutional arrangements that the British government had violated or abandoned. Most of the things that the Declaration condemns as sure signs of an intention to establish “an absolute tyranny” are British governmental actions that trampled not on the rights of individual Americans but on the rights and powers of American governing bodies (colonial legislatures and judges).

Between 1776 and 1787, American political thinking became even more receptive to the case for energetic government. We shall see that in the 1790s Alexander Hamilton and some of his Federalist allies developed an interpretation of this case that went too far in their opponents’ eyes, in that it seemed to Madison, Jefferson and their “Republican” allies (as they soon began calling themselves) to threaten to make American government too monarchical, first in its policies and then in its forms. This was to be the point of departure for the battle between Federalists and Republicans. But up to that point, the kind of Federalist thinking (for example, The Federalist) that advanced the case for the more energetic republican government framed by the Constitution of 1787 was not out of step with the kind of thinking that had advanced American independence. There was considerable continuity and agreement between the case for independence and the case for the new Constitution, as to the necessity and desirability of government. 1787 should not be seen as a reaction against 1776. Nor, as we shall see, should the Revolution of 1800 be seen as a resurrection of the thinking of the Anti-federalists, the disparate groups who had unsuccessfully opposed the new Constitution. It is true that the Republicans transformed the case for energetic government into a case for what Jefferson, in his Inaugural Address in 1801, was to refer to as “a wise and frugal government.” Jefferson was no friend of big government. But in that same Address, Jefferson reconfirmed the Republicans’ commitment to the union of the states, and made a point of denying that a “frugal” government “cannot be strong,” or that it must lack sufficient “energy to preserve itself.” So the Republican party clearly did not share the Anti-federalists’ opposition to a firm union and a strong federal government.

The Necessity of Executive Power

To understand the beginnings of party politics in the new nation in the 1790s, it is particularly important to note the lesson about executive power that Americans were beginning to draw from their political experience in the 1770s and 1780s. Here we see them learning from their failures as well as from their successes.

Suspicion about and jealousy of power wielded by political executives had become an almost automatic reflex during colonial and revolutionary politics, because colonial governors had been officers with British rather than American political bases and loyalties, and because American whigs accepted the English whig tradition that had championed the rights of the legislature over a tyrannical executive. However, by the time that Massachusetts politicians (most prominently and vigorously, John Adams) wrote that state’s second constitution in 1780, and even more clearly when the federal Constitution of 1787 was being discussed, it had become evident to thoughtful Americans that it was a serious error to make executives too weak and too subordinate to the legislature. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson, partly on the basis of his experience as governor of Virginia during the war for independence, noted among the “capital defects” in Virginia’s constitution the tendency for all powers–legislative, executive and judicial–to end up being exercised by the legislative branch, thus creating an “elective despotism” in that branch. One of the most striking innovations in the federal Constitution of 1787 was the creation in the presidency of a strong, energetic executive relatively free from close supervision by congress. (The Articles of Confederation had provided for no national executive office at all; congress had simply set up committees of its own members to supervise matters when congress was not in session.) Americans were learning how an energetic executive power wielded by a single person, a constitutional arrangement previously identified with monarchical government, was compatible with and even necessary for republican government.

By 1800, the presidency came to be recognized as the prize for political parties to contend for. And the influences between the presidency and the advent of political parties flowed both ways, because the way in which presidential powers were used was changed by presidents acting as party leaders at the same time as they acted as chief executives. Thomas Jefferson’s use of presidential power was to be very different from that of his two predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, not merely because of personal or stylistic differences but also because Jefferson embraced the open and long-term partisanship that Washington and Adams had distrusted and avoided. His use of the office was not less “energetic,” but–like all presidents after him–he made more out of the possibility of presidential power based on popular opinion and partisan loyalty.

This partisanization of the presidency reduces the contrast between presidential and prime ministerial government, and thereby makes the American experience in developing party government more immediately relevant to modern parliamentary democracies. In parliamentary democracies the executive body is formally selected by and part of the legislative body, but in practice prime ministers resemble American presidents insofar as they too owe their selection and their authority to their leadership of a political party. Parliamentary systems tend to get into trouble when, like some American state constitutions (both before and after 1787), they do not provide for a clearly responsible executive. Whether called prime ministers or presidents, chief executive officers are crucial figures in modern democracies, and their importance and legitimacy are largely based on their partisan ties.

Why Political Parties Were Not Respectable

One very good reason why Americans in the eighteenth century found it less easy than we do today to consider political parties as useful and even respectable devices is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries political parties–and bloody international and civil wars–had been based on religious differences and (as in the English civil war) on conflicts over sovereignty that were inseparable from such religious differences. Before political parties could even be thought of as tolerable–much less as respectable–by reasonable statesmen, parties had to be separated from this type of dispute. We have already noticed the problem that arises if political parties move to the opposite extreme and become completely unprincipled. If they descend to the level (at best) of power brokers and compromisers of economic interests, they can still perform a useful function, but they risk alienating public interest and losing needed support, because of their indifference or hostility to the common good. But that problem can only arise once the other extreme–the extreme of religiously motivated parties–has been removed from the center of the political stage. As long as political conflict was essentially conflict between different religions, or between different sects within one religion, prudent statesmen were bound to encourage citizens to treat political parties with suspicion, because conflict between parties based on religious principles too frequently means persecution, civil war, and misery.

Americans of the founding generation rightly prided themselves on having understood and applied the principle of separating religion and politics, and–as Jefferson said–on “having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered.” The first president, George Washington, acknowledging congratulations on his election from Hebrew congregations and from several denominations of Christians, remarked that American citizens “have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy” by recognizing in every citizen the “liberty of conscience,” and by no longer thinking and speaking of religious toleration “as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

The federal Constitution’s clear separation of church and state (an advance on the situation in several states at the time, as well as on the situation in the rest of the world) was one reason why Americans could have much greater faith in republican government than earlier political thought had encouraged. Republican government meant government based on representative democracy, with no admixture of hereditary offices. As James Madison noted in The Federalist Number 14, the state constitutions established from 1776 onwards had already demonstrated this American invention of “wholly popular” systems of representation and it was this “unmixed” type of republic, a republic with no hereditary elements, that was established by the federal Constitution of 1787 as well. Only after religion had been constitutionally removed as a possible basis of political conflict did it seem truly safe to establish wholly popular government, because it could seem safe to entrust power to public opinion only when the public were willing to abstain from trying to make their religious opinions into political opinions. The secularization of politics made republican politics a safer option.

This secularization was also a necessary step in modifying the traditional hostility to partisan conflict and eventually in making party politics seem not only tolerable but also respectable and even desirable. Eliminating religious differences as a basis for partisanship made it possible to consider changing the ruling opinion about partisanship, to abandon the general hostility and to treat partisanship as a respectable means of reflecting, leading, and organizing public opinion.

Thus, the case for principled parties can be made only after religiously-principled party conflict has been settled. Prudence may well dictate the continuation for the time being of arrangements in which some religious groups are more favored than others. True statecraft always aims to secure the best outcome in the circumstances. Few emerging democracies have enjoyed such an advantageous set of circumstances as applied to America at its founding, when the great variety of religious denominations made toleration seem the only possible policy. Nevertheless, experience not only in America but also in other places shows that there must be a significant degree of separation of religion from politics, and of toleration of all genuine religions, if democratic party government is to work well. If parties are to be respectable, they must be principled; but first they have to be tolerable, and they cannot be tolerable if their principles are those of intolerant, persecuting religions.

The separation of religion and politics usually improves both. Beneficiaries of this separation can easily forget how it continues to form the basis of democratic politics, but when we look at the world around us we can easily see reminders of how important it is (though not easy) to settle religion-driven partisanship. So we must add to our point about the necessity of principle in modern political parties the qualification that the principles must be limited to secular, this-worldly opinions. While parties must not be too petty, they must also not be too grand. They must have principles, at least in the sense that they have the potential for principled action by having a history and a memory of having begun with principles, and by retaining the capacity to revive them. But these must not be other-worldly, salvationist principles.

The experience of the twentieth century taught an important supplement to this point: fanatical atheism can be as intolerable as fanatical religion as a basis for political partisanship. Such atheism, coupled with “sciences” that replace the recognition of human nature with the division of the human species into “races” or classes, can be even more destructive of democratic politics than religious fanaticism.

In practice, fanatical religion and fanatical atheism have each very often combined with a third, more primitive kind of destructive partisanship, that of a tribal barbarism altogether ignorant of human nature and natural human rights.

Given the thuggish tendencies of these three bases of partisanship (fanatical religion, fanatical atheism, and barbaric tribalism), hesitation about granting public respectability to partisanship in democratic politics is understandable. Nevertheless, party systems that avoid these inhuman extremes can enrich and perfect democratic politics, so it is important for us to see what kinds of principles can be disputed in healthy democratic politics. Studying American politics in the 1790s is a good way to do this.

National Politics Without Partisanship

The story of the 1790s is the story of the invention of the first truly modern political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, the first publicly respectable party of principles and interests. How had the founders expected politics to work without such a party?

Parties of interest. James Madison’s Federalist Number 10 makes it clear that political parties of a kind were (as one would expect) anticipated by the experienced politicians who favored the new Constitution. However, what Madison, like other Federalists, expected to see in American national politics was not parties of principle, but “factions,” that is, parties motivated by passions and interests that, if they could have their way, would surely enact policies that are unjust or unwise. In free countries these inevitably try to exert political influence. Madison noted that one way to prevent such “parties” from acquiring undue legislative influence would be by expanding the sphere: having a political arena sufficiently large and diverse that every party will be a minority. Even if one of the factions is a majority, at least that dispersed majority will find it more difficult to discover this fact and to act in unison.

Madison also argued that in a larger polity, the relatively small size of legislative bodies and the relatively large size of electoral districts would enlarge the pool of potential candidates. This would therefore make more likely the election of representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Madison’s optimistic argument was that elected representatives at the national level would be “men who possess the most attractive merit and the most established and diffusive characters.” Moreover, these legislators would be able to count on a relatively faction-free zone in congress, so that they could be largely resistant to unwise or unjust constituency pressures. Madison’s view of congressional lawmaking was optimistic, and (as we shall see) would soon be revised by him. But it was not wholly unfounded or implausible. Many important laws throughout American history have been products of non-partisan or bipartisan efforts. Party is important in modern democracy, but it is not everything.

Parties of principle. As for parties of principle, Federalists made the assumption, which turned out to be incorrect, that, at least once the campaign to get the Constitution ratified had been successful, the nation would no longer be troubled by parties of principle, since everyone would then be committed to the Constitution, and there would be no further disagreements on the principles of government. The Federalists themselves would have little reason to maintain their partisan networks, once the government got underway and the opposition to the Constitution by disgruntled but defeated Anti-federalists died away. So the new government would not only be above parties of interest, it would also be untroubled by parties of principle.

In support of this assumption that there would be no recurrence of great public parties of principle, we could say that the conflict between Federalists and Anti-federalists over the merits of the Constitution, a conflict that The Federalist itself was participating in, had not really been an instance of a national contest between political parties, and therefore was neither a harbinger of nor a precedent for the national party contests of the 1790s and beyond. In the first place, the ratification struggle was a series of state-level conflicts rather than a national partisan conflict. In the second place, it was a brief, single-issue disagreement about the proper arena for American politics: the immediate question was where political decisions should take place, rather than what principles should guide the decision makers (although of course there were many assumptions and discussions about what the policies of the new government would be). Finally, the situation of the winning sides was significantly different. In contrast to the political conflicts in the Revolution, as well as those in the 1790s, in the ratification contest of 1787-1788 there was no unified enemy that had taken a threatening initiative: no British government, no crypto-monarchist Hamiltonians, just a poorly-organized assortment of nay-saying “Antis.” The Federalists had taken the initiative. For all of these reasons, the ratification contest was unlike those party-driven revolutions in England and America (including the American Revolution) that had invariably resulted in very harsh treatment of the defeated party by the victors, until what was accurately seen at the time as the precedent-breaking Revolution of 1800: Anti-federalists were not executed, exiled, dispossessed, or otherwise excluded from the regime.

In further support of the Federalists’ assumption that principled party divisions would not trouble the new republic, it should be added that there was a clear chronological and logical break between the ratification contest of 1787-1788 and the first party contests of 1791-1792. It is true that the principled policy disagreements that sparked the party contest of the 1790s would rejuvenate some of the alignments and revisit some of the disagreements that had appeared in the ratification battles of 1787-1788, and both Federalists and Republicans would find rhetorical reasons to claim that there was much continuity between the two periods of party division. Federalists found it convenient to argue (as they never stopped arguing, even after their defeat in 1800) that the Republican party was merely a tool of Anti-federalists intent on weakening the federal government and the union, in order to make the states once more the main arenas of American politics, thereby snatching back from Federalists their victory of 1788. For their part, Republican leaders were often content to allow the distinction between their cause and that of the Antifederalists to be blurred, because they were anxious to have electoral support from the defeated Anti-federalists. However, the leaders of the Republican party knew there were important distinctions between the two causes; for example, in spite of the mollifying tone that would be adopted by Jefferson in some parts of his First Inaugural Address, he there would strongly assert that Republicans were good federalists (with a small “f”), and were certainly not disunionists.

This clear break between the ratification contest and the partisan quarrels between Federalists and Republicans means that during the years from 1788 to 1791–a brief but very important period, during which all the participants and observers knew that weighty precedents for the new government’s future were being set–the assumption that there would be no principled partisan disputes to trouble the newly-constituted federal government was perfectly plausible. Very few who had been opposed to the new Constitution were elected to the first congress (no more than 11 of 59 Representatives and 2 of 20 Senators). In the first session of the first congress, there was rapid agreement on constitutional amendments to form a bill of rights, which several states had formally recommended, and which had been informally but crucially promised to critics of the Constitution during the ratification debates in the several states. This agreement stymied the mischievous suggestion by some Anti-federalists that these amendments should be discussed in a second constitutional convention, where it would have been possible for the work of the convention of 1787 to have been undone. The swift congressional agreement on a bill of rights, managed by Congressman James Madison, effectively served Madison’s and other Federalists’ primary purpose of “satisfying the minds of well meaning opponents” of the Constitution. The Federalists could then count on being reasonably free from principled challenges to their administration of the new government. The Anti-federalists posed no credible challenge, and the Republican challenge did not appear until 1791 at the earliest. An admirable political unity, led by friends of the Constitution, seemed to be the order of the day, and falsely promised to endure.

The Importance of George Washington

In a letter written in 1814, Thomas Jefferson, who had not always seen eye to eye with George Washington, and who, as an impenitent optimist, still felt at odds with Washington’s tendency to “gloomy apprehensions,” nevertheless described him as “in every sense of the words, a wise, a good man and a great man…; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.” It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that in the history of the founding and the early republic, all roads of enquiry lead to the breathtaking magnanimity of George Washington. It would certainly be difficult to overstate the importance of Washington in explaining the appeal of the assumption that parties would play such a minimal role in American national politics, as well as in understanding the way that the party conflict unfolded from its outbreak in 1792 until just after Washington’s death in 1799. Here we can see parallels with other new nations that have been created by revolutions and that have focused much attention on one large figure in the center of the political stage.

In 1787 and 1788 the widespread belief that Washington would be the first president had helped both to secure ratification of the Constitution and to encourage the assumption that national politics could and would be above parties of interest, and untroubled by parties of principle. Washington’s wisdom and attachment to the public good, if never matched by those elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate, were nevertheless expected to set the tone of national politics in the legislative as well as the executive branch, so that “factions” or interest groups would not be able to dictate unwise and unjust legislation. At the same time, Washington’s patriotism made the idea of any principled challenge to the new government over which he presided seem unthinkable. His devotion to the union and to the republican form of government was unquestionable, so there seemed to be little reason to think that principled challenges to his administration would be considered either desirable or possible.

Washington greatly respected the rule of law and was unremittingly just: there was nothing in him of a Caesar or a Bonaparte. Washington’s attachment to republican government was also undeniable. Although he served in executive as well as legislative capacities, in both his political and his military experience he had developed a habit of great deference to legislative authority. He had seen that it was the British government’s attacks on the authority of colonial legislatures that had provoked the American Revolution. In leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, he had constantly and patiently negotiated with state legislatures and with the Continental Congress. His republicanism meant that–even quite apart from the fact that he had no children–the idea of becoming a hereditary king, or even president for life, would have been absurd to him. He wanted to retire after his first four-year term, but the outbreak of partisan quarrels persuaded him to stay on until 1797, when, in spite of the continuation of the quarrels, he did retire, thereby setting the informal but powerful precedent (formalized in the twenty-second amendment in 1951) for presidents to be limited to two terms in office.

In spite of Washington’s strong and undeniable republicanism, it can be said that his two presidential terms served a monarchical function in the sense that they made political partisanship more difficult to contemplate and to carry on. In republics–as Madison pointed out in The Federalist Number 10, and Washington would remark in his Farewell Address in 1796–there is a natural tendency for factional partisanship to flourish. However, no one was more disappointed at the outbreak of party quarrels in the new American republic than Washington was. He intentionally used the presidency to discourage the excesses of partisanship, because he believed that in republics, where all governing offices were (directly or indirectly) elective, there would never be too little partisanship, and therefore that the fire of party spirit “demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.” It was difficult for Washington to discourage the excesses of partisanship without discouraging all partisan opposition to his administration, which seemed “always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.” Although Washington was in fact remarkably open-minded in his attempts to understand why Congressman James Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had chosen to launch a partisan attack on Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, in the end he agreed with Hamilton and other Federalists that the Jeffersonian Republicans had no justifiable grounds for mounting a principled opposition to the administration. In other words, Washington continued to believe that there was no case for troubling the American republic with principled partisanship. He knew better than anyone that the war against Britain had been won only by national unity, and he thought national unity was still needed for the young republic to survive. Patriotic partisanship against the British government and against loyalists had been justified, but such principled partisanship was no longer needed. So while Washington was president, the energetic executive office created by the Constitution would be used not alongside partisan organization but against it.

Electing the Executive

The story of the United States in the 1790s–like the history of many another new nation–is in part the story of finding a way of transferring the executive power of the national government from one person to another without impairing the government’s legitimacy. As in other revolutionary regimes, there was bound to be some kind and level of rivalry for the country’s executive office among the leading revolutionary politicians; or at least this was inevitable once the first leader of the revolution was no longer available for the office. Since this meant finding a way of choosing a successor to George Washington, it required coming to terms with replacing a hero, who was twice unanimously elected president, with someone of lesser stature and less universal popularity. One of the functions fulfilled by the party system begun by the Republican party was to help make acceptable and legitimate the presidency of men less great than Washington.

In 1775 John Adams’ suggestion that Washington be made commander of the army had helped secure the collaboration of the southern states with New England in the war for independence. In a comparable political calculation, when Washington later became president, it was logical for a New Englander–and therefore for John Adams, the most respected revolutionary politician from New England–to be elected vice president. In 1796, when Washington decided he would retire, Adams was elected president, but by then the new partisan rivalries of the 1790s had made Adams a less apparent heir than he had seemed to be earlier in his two terms as vice president. Thomas Jefferson had come (a very close) second to Adams, and therefore rather strangely served as a Republican vice president alongside a Federalist president, in accordance with the electoral rules that operated before the twelfth amendment (1804) eliminated this possibility of party government “cohabitation,” which the advent of partisanship had made not only possible but also highly probable without such an amendment. During the four years of Adams’ single-term presidency, the partisan animosities between Republicans and Federalists became even more bitter than they had been during Washington’s second term, in part because it was easier to oppose an administration headed by Adams than one headed by Washington. Washington’s retirement posed a great difficulty for Federalists, who had come to rely very much on popular respect for Washington as an essential means of preserving their own popularity.

The story of the 1790s was also the story of developing the constitutional methods for choosing the president and vice president. At times there must have been a certain awkward consciousness at the constitutional convention in 1787, when the secret and wide-ranging discussions about the election and powers of the president were quietly being chaired by Washington, the man who it was known would almost certainly be the first to hold that office. This expectation, coupled with the reassuring consciousness of Washington’s virtues, made it more possible for the convention to entrust great powers to a unified executive. At the same time, certain details of presidential electoral politics were necessarily left a little vague in the Constitution, because it was really not clear to anyone how things would work once Washington was no longer there.

The presidential electoral college was designed to encourage the election of nationally-known figures as presidents, but without relying on congress to elect the president (a reliance that would tend to make that office more like a prime minister in a parliamentary system). Thus, each state chooses a number of electors equal to the total number of its national representatives and senators, and each elector casts two votes, at least one of these votes for someone who is an inhabitant of a different state. (The twelfth amendment in 1804, which changed the electoral college to the system that still operates today, kept this provision for outof-state votes for at least one of the persons voted for by each elector, and simply added that the two votes by each elector were to be separately cast, one for the president and the other for the vice president.) The electors from every state meet to cast their ballots on the same day, although they do this geographically quite separately, with each group of electors meeting in their own state, unable (at least until the invention of the telegraph) to communicate on the day with electors in other states.

Before presidential electoral partisanship arose in the 1790s, it was difficult to see how the electoral college could be relied on to produce a majority choice for president. In the 1787 constitutional convention, some members thought this difficulty was so great that they expected the choice would generally be made by the Constitution’s fallback system, election by the House of Representatives, voting by state. However, other members of the convention (including its prime mover, James Madison) indicated that they expected some kind of informal management of the electoral college to occur in each presidential election, so its voting would be decisive and election by the House would not be necessary. This backstage, ad hoc management was not a step towards advocating open partisan control of presidential elections; in fact, if and when it worked, it would have the effect of making such open partisanship unnecessary, since it would remain out of sight of the public. It would be part of the private constitution, the way things actually worked, but not part of the public constitution, the way things were seen to work. This is not a cynical, Machiavellian way of looking at politics; it is a sensible observation: there is a world of difference between a constitution in which partisan activities take place only behind the scenes and one in which they–or an important part of them (rarely if ever is it going to be all of them)–routinely and intentionally take place in the glare of publicity.

In the first presidential election, although there was no doubt that everyone wanted Washington to be elected president, it was still necessary for such an informal management to be used. Management was needed to produce some understandings and agreements among electors around the nation, to ensure (1) that some, but not too many, electoral votes would be cast for “third” candidates (in the event, there were ten of these), thus avoiding a tie between Washington and Adams, and (2) that Washington did indeed come clearly first, and John Adams clearly second, so that the right man would win each office, and Washington would not be embarrassed by Adams coming in too close behind. (In fact, it was Adams’ pride that was wounded, as he received fewer than half of the number of votes received by Washington.)

One general lesson of the history of the 1790s is that Federalists were just not as good at party politics as Republicans were (for reasons that we shall be looking at, and that are applicable to partisanship in other modern democracies). However, although the Republicans would soon prove to be more successful than the Federalists in the public theatre of partisan presidential electoral campaigns, in this pre-party, behind-the-scenes management of the electoral college voting in the first four presidential elections, the Federalists were more successful than the Republicans. In 1800 the Republicans faced the nightmare scenario of beating the Federalists but having their victory take the shape of an electoral college tie between their presidential and vice presidential candidates (Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr)–which moreover, in accordance with the Constitution, had to be decided by the House of Representatives immediately, while it was still under the control of the outgoing Federalist majority!

After 1800, the role of political parties in presidential elections, combined with the twelfth amendment, made such ad hoc management of the electoral college unnecessary. When party organizations decide which candidates to present for election as president and vice president (by one method or another: congressional party caucuses, national party conventions, primary elections), there is no longer any need for informal understandings and agreements among members of the electoral college in order to make sure that their separate meetings produce a president without recourse to election in the House of Representatives. The previous, ad hoc management had not been easy or certain, and it probably would have become even more difficult as more and more states used popular elections to choose presidential electors instead of having them chosen by state legislatures. (Five of the thirteen states already used the popular election method in 1788, and by 1832 all states but South Carolina had adopted it.)

The rise of party politics and party campaigning in presidential elections allowed the electoral college to work more smoothly, but also eliminated one of the main difficulties that the electoral college had been designed to address. This was the difficulty (after George Washington’s presidency came to an end) of not being able to depend on having any presidential hopefuls who were well known throughout the nation. Nationwide parties made their candidates nationally known.

However, parties began because of principled disagreements about policy, not about institutions or the electoral system. In fact, the new partisan system first appeared in elections to congress in 1792, rather than in the presidential election of that year (in which Washington was unanimously re-elected). Principled disagreements that had arisen in the executive branch, between Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, were the focus of party attention, but the first electoral objective of the Republican challenge to Federalists was the House of Representatives, not the presidency. It would take the Republicans some time to learn, or to face up to the fact, that they had to aim at controlling the presidency as well as congress. Even if the presidency had not been occupied by the unchallengeable Washington, if the principled policy disagreement raised by the Republicans had been settled by congressional elections, then all these changes that we have come to see as essential developments of the presidential electoral system might not have happened, or at least might not have happened as soon as they did, because it was only the extension of the partisan conflict to the presidential elections that brought these changes in its train.

In parliamentary systems, treating the executive as the main target of partisan competition is more obvious; it goes with the territory of controlling the legislative body. In presidential systems, electoral contests for control of the executive and legislative bodies are separate, however well coordinated. In the 1790s, American partisans learned that it was necessary to have a significant amount of coordination of these separate contests, if the main (policy) purposes of partisanship were to be served.

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