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

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by John S. Waggoner

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West suddenly emerged from the dark shadows of a long, cold war to the light and warmth of a new day. The prospects at the dawn of this new day were suspicious. Liberal democracy had, or so it seemed, withstood an aggressive assault both on the battlefield and in the academy. The totalitarian alternative was definitively routed. The ground was now clear. Deeply rooted in Western Europe and North America, liberal democracy would now spread unimpeded. Good news was the order of the day.

But within a decade, we were witness to staggering violence and barbarism on a scale not seen since the wars of the first half of the last century, humanity’s cruelest. Scenes at Srebrenica seemed to trump the scenes of unity and euphoria at the Brandenburg Gate. Pessimism was now the order of the day. Instead of peace and prosperity, the specter of a new dark age hovered——a clash of civilizations and long dormant ethnic rivalries. The former Yugoslavia stood both as precursor and microcosm for the world to come. At the least, the prospect of democracy was more troubled than originally thought in our brief moment of optimism.

Significantly, after September 11, 2001, Americans looked out upon another, even more ominous world, a new “new” world, as it were. It ended the period of mere “theorizing” about the future and will orient practical politics for an unforeseeably long time to come. It made what could be called “the democracy question” one of urgency and even national survival. Failed states have been shown to have repercussions beyond the sorry consequences for their inhabitants. They are sanctuaries of terrorists targeting civilized life per se. Democratic nation-building in such areas and liberal reforms elsewhere cannot be left to hopes in the long-term workings of a benignly destined historical process.

John Zvesper’s From Bullets to Ballots is a practical meditation on the “democracy question,” with particular salience to the post-9/11 situation. It can be appreciated on two levels. First, it is a superb historical analysis of the evolution of responsible party politics in the United States——the first example of a modern democracy to solve “the crisis of succession” and to endow popularly elected partisan candidates with legitimacy. Moreover, it is also a meditation on this American experience for guidance, if not imitation, for the transformation of existing nondemocratic regimes to liberal polities.

Zvesper’s history concentrates on Jefferson’s project to establish principled party opposition in the American republic. The oftentimes grimy political world that Jefferson introduced to America is motivated by a cold calculation, as however the most benign and effective way to treat the inevitable conflicts that would embroil the country as it rose to power. He had understood that the unity occasioned by the war of independence and a successful founding moment would pass and indeed had done so. Effective ways to define the future and lead the country had to be devised. His project is ultimately redeemed by high principles of republican statesmanship——to defend and deepen the democratic polity in the United States and to ensure its effective perpetuation by providing an alternative of ballots to bullets in deciding important political questions.

In treating the Jeffersonian project, Zvesper also brings judicious light to the Hamiltonian project that inspired the Jeffersonian “counterrevolution.” There is special emphasis in an appendix on the “debt issue” that evinces greater sympathy to the New Yorker than to his Virginian antagonists. The point is that Zvesper is not out to grind axes in the Jefferson-Hamilton historic dispute but to assess the lasting impact that this confrontation and era brought to the American polity.

In the context of his discussion, clear and penetrating analysis is brought to such matters as the Alien and Sedition Acts; the Kentucky Resolutions; the manner of choosing presidents prior to the twelfth Amendment; the status of George Washington as a boon and drawback in rooting American democracy in responsible partisan politics; Madison’s role in the “counterrevolution”; as well as other topics. Zvesper’s forte is his sure-footed contextualizing of the matters he treats. As a measure of this, interpretive problems of complex issues and ambiguous texts (Jefferson’s Inaugural Addresses, for example) dissolve in the clarity he brings.

But Zvesper is not interested in “mere” history but history as a lesson. The frame of the work——its introductory material, a helpful glossary and appendix——intend to extend the range of his readership. Friends of liberal democracy in turbulent and unsettled areas of the world can profit from Zvesper’s study. Americans, too, were once in a “post-colonial” situation, buffeted by a superpower from which we had recently liberated ourselves. At our founding, we too had to confront the dilemmas of discarding what was bad in our experience and political culture and retaining what was good.

From one point of view, then, there seems nothing exceptional to the American experience; this experience can usefully serve other peoples and statesmen. On the other hand, there is something “miraculous” about American experience. This Ronald Reagan reminded us in his First Inaugural, referring in particular to what is the subject of Zvesper’s work——the orderly transfer of authority that has taken place every four years for well over two centuries now. Americans need periodic reminding of the miracles they tend to accept as routine, Reagan was saying.

Contemplating the uniqueness of American achievements cannot but deepen the appreciation of the founding generation. It also can serve as a cautionary note to a simplistic optimism that presumes an easy passage for others to a democratic future, unaware of the difficult, existential choices that are in play (as in Muslim regimes) and the oftentimes contingent circumstances that provide statesmanship with even bare opportunities.

An awareness of both the possibilities and limits of generalizing the American experience seems an appropriate beginning point in addressing the vexed questions that face our world. We can approach such questions enriched and deepened by Zvesper’s book.