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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 Ken Masugi

As part of its continuing efforts to promote the challenge and blessings of self-government around the world, the Claremont Institute is pleased to present John Zvesper’s monograph From Bullets to Ballots to a world-wide audience. While the book doubtless will inform many American readers, its primary audience is intended to be sophisticated advocates of liberal democracy in the developing democracies abroad. In this fact-packed history of the development of and threats to American democracy in the 1790s the discerning reader can note and anticipate the threats to emerging democracies in our time and at any time. American political history is not only the history of great heroes of the stature of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as Zvesper notes, but is also an account of the follies, greed, base ambition, and stupidity that one finds exhibited by human nature throughout all history and in all parts of the world. Yet, in some nations what founding father and fourth president James Madison called “the reason of the public” can prevail and the rights fundamental to and productive of democracy are protected.

Friends of democracy correctly note the importance of institutions, such as the separation of powers and federalism, in the new democracies; others emphasize processes, such as voting; and still others point to character, such as the trust necessary for a free market to thrive. Those who rightly emphasize the “liberal” in liberal democracy will insist that a core of rights not only be protected but flourish: freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and religion, together with property and other legal rights, at a minimum. In a just regime, all these aspects of democracy will obtain, in some form or other. While most of the new democracies will be parliamentary forms, they might nonetheless draw significant lessons from American political history, especially the history of its political parties. Parties, we will see, must avoid being factions or unjust groups injurious to the common good. After all, it is one thing to write a constitution, quite another to live by it—an idea that great French friend of America, Alexis de Tocqueville,remarked upon. How is it, then, that America was able not only to produce a constitution that defined the polity it became? How was America able to make its theory become its practice? Zvesper here points to the success of American political parties.

America has been able to determine its political future, with the towering exception of the Civil War, via elections whose results are respected—–by the victors with restraint and by the losers with unquestioned deference to the decision of the people. The election of 1800 marked not only the test of America’s success on this question of principle but also the standard for all democratic elections in the future. It was, as Zvesper illustrates, the first election of its sort in modern world history. For all the fury at the contested presidential election of 2000, both sides accepted the results as arrived at under procedures supervised by the judiciary, ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. The partisan outrage was a trifle compared with what the competing parties felt in the 1790s. Just as Abraham Lincoln would reflect on the Gettysburg battlefield, each side in the 1790s thought that the issue was whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people could long endure.”

Jefferson’s success had its limitations, as the Civil War proved only 60 years later. Propositions about the basic American ideals of equality and liberty proved to provide actual political practices, in basic liberties as well as defining the structure of the government and elections. That the evil of slavery would not be resolved by this founding generation was its tragic flaw. Following Lincoln, Americans still need to refine their understandings of equality and liberty—how they are principles generative of self-government, how they limit the power of government, how they protect fundamental freedoms, and how they encourage a culture in which debate and reason have weight. It is to that debate that we offer John Zvesper’s insightful scholarship.

The source for Zvesper’s argument here, the comparison of the crisis of the Civil War with that of the election of 1800, is Harry V. Jaffa—–Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. We unhesitatingly recommend these writings, along with his essays in Equality and Liberty.

John Zvesper’s work is superbly introduced by John S. Waggoner, translator and author of a lengthy commentary on The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (1864) by Maurice Joly. He has taught abroad at the Sorbonne and the American University in Cairo.