The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change

Article excerpt

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. …