It’s a closely fought race. Civility and rational discourse have been abandoned in favor of dire predictions about what will happen if a candidate is elected and personal, direct attacks. It is undoubtedly the ugliest election in the history of the country. I am speaking, of course, about the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson squared off against John Adams. The country was fresh off the revolution, having overthrown the yoke of British colonial rule. Some wondered whether such a nation, held together only by ideals could long survive. Surely, such a government was doomed to failure without the strong, stabilizing hand of tradition. And, for a moment, this election almost proved them right.
To understand why this particular election, which culminated in the candidates threatening that the other would have “your children writhing on pikes”, got so brutal you have to consider the political landscape of America at the time.
It’s 1800. Slavery is still legal, the population of the US is at about 6 million, which is less people than currently live in Dallas, and everyone older than 40 can remember a time when there was a king. America has only been practicing its form of representative democracy for about 11 years, and there is little precedent for how everything is supposed to work. Meanwhile, in terms of foreign affairs, the biggest issue in the campaign is whether we should escalate our weird quasi-war with France. It turns out France wanted us to pay back the debts we accrued during the revolution, and we didn’t really want to. So they started attacking American shipping lanes, leading to a low grade naval war with the forces of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Candidates are fighting for the White House, which is almost completed. 14 years later the British will burn it down along with the capital and treasury.
The sitting president is John Adams, and he has just managed to get a series of acts passed through Congress that make it legal to deport immigrants for holding views the government found dangerous, and making derogatory false statements against the government a crime. He regarded it as necessary to put a stop to the French immigrants stirring up calls for a second revolution against the new government.
The struggle between Federalists and Republican-Democrats is the defining issue that is dividing the country. Federalists want to strengthen the control of the Federal Government over the state governments. The Republican-Democrats (It’s an academic name, relation to either modern party is tenuous), were trying to ensure that the state governments had more power.
The Federalists were running John Adams, the current president, and the Republican-Democrats (hereafter referred to as Republicans, since that’s what they called themselves) had nominated Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The two had faced off just four years earlier and Adams’ had come out on top. According to the early interpretation of the Constitution, the electoral college cast its votes for President, and the runner up automatically became VP. So, Jefferson had actually been Adams’ Vice President before running against him in 1800. Admittedly, it was a pretty weird system.
So with the nation seemingly tearing itself apart at the seams and two old friends prepared to fight each other for what each considered to be best for the future of the Republic, a high stakes and contentious campaign began. Each party called a caucus to determine its nominee. Fearing that regional differences would lead to schisms in the party, each demanded that their members take a pledge to support the nominee even if they were from a different state.
In the election of 1796, the candidates respected a certain sensibility among the public that to actually go out and ask someone to vote for you or criticize your opponent was ungentlemanly, and so the election was a fairly civil affair. In 1800 that went right out the window. Passions were inflamed on both sides and partisans took to the press and the streets to release every kind of offensive characterization of the other side that they could. It was still considered unseemly for a candidate to campaign for himself and both Jefferson and Adams basically spent the entire election at home.
But Jefferson wasn’t above paying someone to besmirch Adams’ character. He hired a man by the name of James Callender to spread the word that Adams could not be trusted. Callender took to the papers to offer criticisms like this, ” Adams is a blind, crippled, toothless old man. A hideous hemaphroditical character with neither the firmness or force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Yes, that was the third US president calling the second a shemale.
Adams wasn’t one to back down from a challenge and responded with his own attack ads. In one characterization of Jefferson, who I feel it needs to be noted was still his Vice President at the time, Adams camp declared he was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Another prominent Adams supporter, and the president of Yale University declared that if Jefferson was elected, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” While Jefferson’s camp tried to paint Adams as a pathetic old monarchist with aims on making himself king, Adams’ supporters tried to paint Jefferson as a deranged bohemian and alleged if he were elected “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”
Some of the folks at Reason.com put together this little video imagining what the election would have been like if there were television ads during the campaign:
As the campaign reached the electoral college Jefferson ran into a problem. He had won the popular vote, and had the most electors pledged to his party. But because the runner up in the electoral college got the Vice Presidency, the party’s plan was to have everyone cast their two votes for Jefferson and Burr, except for one voter who would cast a vote for someone else, thus giving Jefferson the election and making Burr the runner up. Unfortunately there was some kind of miscommunication, and the all the electors voted for Burr and Jefferson, leaving them tied. Apparently, some northern Republicans had reneged on their promise to support the party’s candidate no matter what, and were trying to sway the election for Burr, who was from New York. So, since there was a tie, they voted again. Another tie. One more vote. One more tie. This went on for another 35 votes before Jefferson was able to get the one extra vote he needed and became President.
Adams and Jefferson, once good friends, would not speak to each other for another ten years after the election. Burr would serve as VP and would go on to murder the secretary of the Treasury and then invade Mexico with a private army. Jefferson, learning of this plan Burr had to set himself up as a king in Mexico, had him tried three times for treason, only to see him acquitted every time. Burr eventually died in relative obscurity.
So just remember, no matter how bad this election gets, it’s all part of the American political tradition.