The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy

The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy

The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy

The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy

Excerpt

For a week in February 1801, America teetered on the brink of disaster. The electoral college had deadlocked, and the job of picking the next president fell to the House of Representatives. Vote after vote was leading nowhere—after thirty-five ballots, still no president of the United States.

Inauguration Day was less than three weeks away. President John Adams's term would end, and the Constitution did not specify what was to happen next if the impasse in the House continued. For ordinary Americans, it was clear enough what ought to happen: the Republican party and its presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, had won the election, and the House should recognize this fact. But the Federalist party was powerful in Congress, and many Federalists were trying to throw the presidency to Aaron Burr, a political chameleon who might well make great concessions to gain the prize. If this gambit failed, the Federalists might have pushed John Marshall, their newly appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, into the president's chair. While Marshall was the nation's most popular Federalist politician, he was utterly unacceptable to the Republicans. Jefferson detested him, despite—because of?—the fact that they were cousins.

Danger signs were everywhere. The Republican governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia were preparing their state militias to march on Washington if the Federalists used a legal trick to steal the presidency. A mob surrounded the half-built Capitol in Washington, D.C., threatening death to any Federalist pretender to the office. Leading Federalist newspapers conjured up the prospect of "the militia of Massachusetts consisting of 60,000 (regulars let us call them) in arms" crushing the force of some "factious foreigners in Pennsylvania, or a few fighting bacchanals of Virginia."

If hotheads had had their way, the 1787 Constitution would have disintegrated. American history would have moved in a Latin American . . .

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