The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change
Freeman, Joanne B., The Yale Law Journal
To an extraordinary degree, early national politics operated in a climate of crisis. The spirit of political experimentation that fueled the nascent American republic was as disquieting as it was invigorating; keenly aware that they were creating the first polity of its kind in the modern world, politicians believed that anything could happen. This crisis mentality is essential to understanding the logic of political change in the early republic, yet the detachment of hindsight makes it difficult to recapture. Aware of the eventual emergence of an institutionalized two-party system, we search for its roots in this period, projecting our sense of political order onto a politics with its own distinct logic and integrity.
In We the People: Transformations, Bruce Ackerman discusses the broader implications of this present-mindedness, suggesting that it has blinded us to the true nature of American constitutional governance. As he explains at the opening of his argument, "the professional narrative" propounded by judges and lawyers--a story of declining constitutional creativity--has cut Americans off from "the truth about the revolutionary character of their higher lawmaking effort."(1) By using the present as a standard of measurement, Ackerman suggests, this storyline depicts constitutional change as a downslide from the creative to the familiar, the entrenched, the now, obscuring the spirit of "unconventional adaptation" at its core.(2)
The same insight holds true for the early republic. By using our present two-party system as a standard of measurement, we have obscured the distinctive and often unexpected features of early national politics, thereby blinding ourselves to the logic of political change. For rather than building a party system, politicians were struggling to prevent one from forming--particularly national politicians, who assumed that a nationwide conflict between Federalists (largely New Englanders) and Republicans (largely Southerners) would inevitably destroy the Union. An institutionalized two-party system seemed to strike at the heart of the Constitution, renouncing the process of accommodation and compromise that fueled republican governance.(3) Yet, increasingly in the 1790s, political developments seemed to generate such polarized combat. In the absence of a legitimate system of opposition, Federalists and Republicans alike assumed that there was only one answer: They must unite temporarily to eliminate opponents who seemed bent on destroying constitutional order. Their political ideals at odds with the demands of the moment, public figures engaged in the same "unconventional adaptation" that Ackerman places at the root of constitutional politics. What we see as the inevitable construction of our contemporary political system was, in truth, a series of pressured, hasty compromises forged in an atmosphere of crisis and intended solely for the task at hand. It is in the precise nature of these individual compromises that we can discover the logic of political change.
Yet, a full understanding of early national politics requires more than this core understanding, and it: is here that Ackerman's argument does the period an injustice. Ackerman views American history as a cyclical alternation between "normal politics," when the political process goes largely unnoticed, and transforming moments of constitutional change, the three most significant being the Founding, Reconstruction, and the New Deal.(4) Yet, in the Founding period--however broadly defined--there was neither a single defining "constitutional moment" nor a prolonged period of "normal politics." Rather, there was an ongoing series of political crises, any one of which seemed capable of transforming--or worse, destroying--the constitutional order. With the Constitution yet untried and untested, "normal" was a relative term, and any political controversy had potential constitutional significance. This pervading, persisting sense of crisis profoundly shaped the logic of early national political change.
We must take an additional factor into account if we are to understand early national politics, or for that matter, the politics of any time past: culture. In evaluating political acts and decisions, it is vital to consider the impact of a period's prevailing cultural imperatives. Ackerman hints at this idea by praising Gordon Wood for his attention to early American culture, the "distinctive symbolic universe of late-eighteenth-century America."(5) But I am speaking of more than political culture. Early national Americans viewed their world through a distinctive cultural lens; they had particular codes of conduct and distinct assumptions, expectations, values, and fears quite different from our own. When they made decisions, political or otherwise, they did so within this cultural framework. In essence, cultural imperatives have a profound shaping influence on politics and public life. As we shall see, an understanding of the early republic's prevailing culture offers important insights into the process of political change, revealing an ongoing series of personal compromises, rather than a single, transforming "moment" of constitutional change.(6)
This essay applies these three insights--the importance of a crisis mentality, "unconventional adaptations," and distinctive cultural imperatives--to the early national political narrative. Using the crisis-ridden presidential election of 1800 as a case study, it explores the logic of political change. Part I describes the crisis mentality of early national politics. Part II discusses the political context of the election of 1800 and examines three political adaptations born of the pervasive sense of crisis. Part III focuses more closely on the period's distinct culture, revealing the importance of honor to the process of political change. Part IV discusses the link between political and constitutional change by analyzing the election's ultimate crisis, the electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Part V follows the spirit of constitutional adaptation into the decades after the 1800 election, explaining its importance to our understanding of early national politics and its evolution.
I. THE TURBULENT 1790S: A LONG CONSTITUTIONAL MOMENT
To participants in the presidential election of 1800, its significance was clear. Long after the election, in his retirement years, John Adams had little trouble recalling its broader implications. Adams opened the topic for debate in the spring of 1813, in the midst of a conciliatory correspondence with his former political opponent, Thomas Jefferson. Adams had been reading the Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, including an "Analysis of his Works; together with Anecdotes and Letters of eminent Persons, his Friends and Correspondents."(7) Featured among Lindsey's "Letters of eminent Persons" was a March 21, 1801, letter from Jefferson to renowned Unitarian thinker Joseph Priestley.(8) "I wish to know, if you have seen this Book," Adams wrote to Jefferson, "I have much to say on the Subject."(9) Adams remained true to his word, two of his next three letters (written within five days of each other) opening with the phrase: "In your Letter to Dr. Priestley."(10) Particularly irritating to Adams were Jefferson's claims about the presidential election of 1800. "The mighty wave of public opinion" that had "rolled over" the republic and raised him to office was new, Jefferson had claimed.(11) A "new chapter in the history of man" was opening on American shores.(12) To Adams, this was egocentric nonsense. "[T]here is nothing new Under the Sun," he countered; great shifts in the tide of public opinion had been washing over peoples and civilizations throughout recorded time.(13) Such was the nature of historical change.
Jefferson's election to the presidency was not revolutionary. Nor had he been swept into office on a wave of popularity. Speaking of the election's moment of crisis--the tie vote between Jefferson and Aaron Burr for the presidency--Jefferson had written that if the tie could not be broken, as seemed likely at the time,
the federal government would have been in the situation of a clock or watch run down. There was no idea of force, nor of any occasion for it. A convention, invited by the Republican members of Congress ... would have been on the ground in 8. weeks, would have repaired the Constitution where it was defective, & wound it up again. This peaceable & legitimate resource, to which we are in the habit of implicit obedience, superseding all appeal to force, and being always within our reach, shows a precious principle of self-preservation in our composition, till a change of circumstances shall take place, which is not within prospect at any definite period.(14)
To Jefferson, a constitutional convention and the spirit behind it--"a precious principle of self-preservation"--would have bridged this moment of crisis. Adams, however, was less optimistic. "I am not so sanguine, as you," he responded. "Had the voters for Burr, addressed the Nation, I am not sure that your Convention would have decided in your Favour."(15) In other words, Jefferson had no popular mandate. Burr easily could have won, his defeat resulting from one congressman's willingness to alter his vote and break the tie. Jefferson, infinitely more self-restrained than the impulsively confessional Adams, chose not to respond to this assertion, instead writing a long disquisition on political parties and their role in American politics, responding to Adams's queries only enough to insist that the two men were too old to "become the Athletae of party, and exhibit ourselves, as gladiators, in the Arena of the newspapers."(16) Adams revisited the subject in his next few letters. Jefferson's next letter, written over a month later, spoke only of religion. For the present, at least, the two would agree to disagree.
They agreed, however, on one fundamental point: In 1801 the constitutional clock had almost run down. As suggested by Jefferson's letter to Priestley, the contest tested the republic's durability, revealed a constitutional defect, and raised important questions about legitimate modes of constitutional change. Contrary to Jefferson's rather rosy depiction of its resolution, there was talk of disunion and civil war, and indeed, two states began to organize their militia to seize the government for Jefferson if Burr prevailed.(17) Throughout the election, politicians agonized and improvised their way through a maze of conflicting motives and complications; in the end, they learned much about the status of the Constitution and its impact on practical politics. Why, then, has this crucial election received short shrift in the scholarly literature? In part, for the same reasons that Bruce Ackerman cites concerning modern-day misreading of the Constitution. By looking at the past to justify the present, we blind ourselves to "the genuinely distinctive features of earlier interpretive practices." (18)
To recapture the contingency of this historical moment, we must look through the eyes of our historical subjects: "[W]e must learn to see the Founders as they saw themselves."(19) Context is vital in this endeavor. So Ackerman reminds us throughout his volumes: Not only the political context--the chain of causes and effects that define the politics of the moment--but also the intellectual context--the inherited ideas and customs that shape political life. In the case of the Constitution, such considerations take us deep into the very heart of its creation, revealing assumptions about the new government that might otherwise escape us. Rather than propounding a cut-and-dried amendment process that follows a series of inexorable rules, the Founders built their process of "unconventional adaptation" into the Constitution, Ackerman tells us. For example, the use of the word "convention" in Article Five is telling, when put in the proper context. The idea of a convention was tied up with illegality, its inclusion in America's founding document raising interesting questions about the role of "formal illegality" in the Founders' conception of constitutional politics.(20) Likewise, Ackerman reminds us that for a generation of revolutionaries, "law-breaking does not necessarily imply lawlessness. It is sometimes seen as a civic gesture indicating high seriousness"(21)--raising similar questions about the role of "mass energy" and "public-spiritedness" in the constitutional political process.(22)
When we apply this contextualized mindset to the early national political narrative, what do we see? In part, we see fear. National politicians were constructing a machine of governance that was already in motion--a machine for which there was no model of comparison in the modern world. A national republic was supposedly superior to its Old World predecessors, but the reality of this assumption had yet to be determined. The stability and long-term practicability of such a polity was likewise a question, every political crisis raising fears of disunion and civil war. The Founders had no great faith that the Union would survive, a prevailing anxiety that could not help but have an enormous impact on their politics. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two driving forces behind the Constitution, went to their deaths with the Union's vulnerability on their mind. Both men wrote final pleas for its preservation on the eve of their demise, Madison composing a memorandum entitled Advice to My Country,(23) and Hamilton writing one last letter on the night before his duel with Aaron Burr, urging a friend to fight against the "Dismembrement of our Empire."(24) Indeed, Hamilton dueled Burr, in part, to preserve his reputation for that future time when the republic would collapse and his leadership would be in demand.(25) Virginian Henry Lee's offhand comment in a 1790 letter to James Madison is a blunt reminder of the tenuous nature of the national Union. "If the government should continue to exist," he wrote in passing, evidence of a mindset that is difficult to recapture.(26)
Their reputations bound up with this experiment in government to an extraordinary degree, the first national office-holders were keenly aware that their every act and decision had precedent-setting importance. George Washington wrote eloquently of his anxieties in a 1790 letter to British historian Catherine Macauley Graham: "In our progress towards political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct wch. may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."(27) Madison shared Washington's fears. "We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us," he wrote to Thomas Jefferson in Paris.(28) More obscure politicians who were not in the political limelight were no less anxious. As Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay put it, "[t]he Whole World is a shell and we tread on hollow ground every step."(29) The strikingly similar physical metaphors used by these men suggest much about the almost palpable nature of their fears. They were standing on unfamiliar ground, unsure where to place their next step.
In his 1813 exchange of letters with Jefferson, Adams recalled similar fears in response (not surprisingly) to yet another of Jefferson's partisan generalizations. Speaking of the "terrorism" of the 1790s, Jefferson wrote that "In]one can concieve who did not witness them, and they were felt by one party only."(30) Adams did not agree. "You never felt the Terrorism of Chaises [Shay's] Rebellion in Massachusetts," he began.
I believe You never felt the Terrorism of Gallatins Insurrection in Pensilvania: You certainly never reallized the Terrorism of Fries's, most outragious Riot and Rescue, as I call it, Treason, Rebellion as the World and great Judges and two Juries pronounced it. You certainly never felt the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793, when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compell it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England. The coolest and the firmest Minds, even among the Quakers in Philadelphia, have given their Opinions to me, that nothing but the Yellow Fever, which removed Dr. Hutchinson and Jonathan Dickenson Sargent from this World, could have saved the United States from a total Revolution of Government. I have no doubt You was fast asleep in philosophical Tranquility, when ten thousand People, and perhaps many more, were parading the Streets of Philadelphia, on the Evening of my Fast Day; When even Governor Mifflin himself, thought it his Duty to order a Patrol of Horse And Foot to preserve the peace; when Markett Street was …
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Publication information: Article title: The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change. Contributors: Freeman, Joanne B. - Author. Journal title: The Yale Law Journal. Volume: 108. Issue: 8 Publication date: June 1999. Page number: 1959+. © 2009 Yale University, School of Law. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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