The Election of 1800 Was Way More Important Than This One

Brian Geddes on 2016-10-13

The most important presidential election in American history was the fourth presidential election. Against this there can be no argument.

The election of 1860 resulted in a four-year referendum where the surrogates of the winner and his opponents gathered together in large groups and fired muskets at each other. The election of 1876 undid much of the great work of that four-year referendum and consigned many of the subjects of that referendum and their offspring to 90 years of not being able to enjoy the fruits of that particular hard-won victory.

The election of 1800 was still more important.

The election of 1932 was an existential question about to what extent the federal government should step in to assist in times of economic crisis. The outcome of that election gave us nothing less than the New Deal. The New Deal, in turn, gave us Glass-Steagall, the FDIC, the SEC, Social Security, legalized unions, took us off the gold standard, gave us a ton of organizations that functioned as the government giving people money for shit, and probably did a bunch of other stuff I’m totally forgetting.

Oh, hell, it even ended prohibition, improbably enough.

The election of 1800 was still more important.

The election of 1800 was nothing less than a referendum on the question, “Do we actually want to do this democracy thing anymore?”

This is not a hyperbolic statement. The nation was only a dozen years on from ratifying the Constitution and that process was anything but easy. The Articles of Confederation were a set of documents that left the federal government extremely weak and ineffective but a lot of people liked it that way because they thought that a strong central government would immediately lead to an American king.

The framers of the Constitution had a few other questions about how to America. Chief among them was the debate over whether or not political parties were a good idea. They initially dealt with this question by doing what any good politicians do: they punted. In 1788 they gave the job of President to George Washington because of the whole being George Washington thing.[1] In 1792 they gave the job to Washington again.

This was not going to last forever. For one thing, George Washington declined a third term on the grounds that eight years was fine but twelve was a bit king-y. For another, in 1791-ish a bunch of fiscal wonks began coalescing around a gentleman by the name of Alexander Hamilton and arguing that the country needed things like a central bank and a system of national debt.[2] A different group formed around James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. This group espoused a strong maintenance of the republican values for which the Revolutionary War was fought. Jefferson summed them up as, basically, the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness bit from the Declaration of Independence that everyone seems to think is in the Constitution.

This, by the way, is one of the biggest problems when it comes to the interpretation of the intent of the men who formed the United States of America. We basically have two different foundational documents in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence is the Enlightenment version of a kid getting mad at his parents for having to eat his peas and not buying him an XBox and declaring he’s going to eat cake for dinner and play video games all day when he grows up. The Constitution is that kid realizing, “Oh, hey, I have to pay rent.” There are a lot of things that happened between 1776 and 1792 that could use a do-over with the benefit of 250 years of hindsight. That’s not how history works. Everything happens because a bunch of people are just kind of muddling through.

Anyway, we have our first political parties. The Federalists have coalesced around Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic Republicans have risen around Jefferson and Madison to counter them.[3] The Federalists have adopted George Washington kind of by default, as Hamilton is in his cabinet. Their biggest champion in government is George Washington’s Vice President, John Adams. In 1796 Adams became the second President of the United States.

There were a few other issues on the board in the 1790s and I don’t want to go into all of them in detail.

A tax was placed on whiskey in 1791. This tax was immensely lucrative for the federal government, as corn was a popular crop and turning corn into whiskey was an easy way to ship it and people drank just a shitload of whiskey. The farmers didn’t like it and the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in 1794. George Washington levied the Pennsylvania militia and led it himself. There was no actual fighting. The larger political conflict here was the Republican farmers getting pissed that the Federalist government was taxing them when all they wanted to do was sell their whiskey.

The Jay Treaty was negotiated with Britain over the course of 1794 and 1795. Washington and Hamilton were the main driving force behind the treaty. They wanted to deal with leftover issues from the Revolutionary War, primarily the issue of war debt. The Republicans weren’t on board with the treaty. They primary focused on the cancellation of war debts, as the payment of those debts would primarily benefit the southern farmers that made up the core of the Republican support.[4]

The French Revolution was a going concern from 1793 on. The French attempted to directly appeal to the American people for support following the Reign of Terror. This whole bit was, honestly, a bit of a clusterfuck and I don’t really understand where all of the lines were drawn. Suffice it to say that the Reign of Terror fell heavily on a bunch of French friends of the American Revolution. The revolutionaries saw themselves as the heirs of the American Revolution and wanted America to materially support them. Some Republicans still did and this ended up with a political proxy battle that also pulled in Republican resentment over perceived Federalist love for Britain.

Various proxies of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican concerns fought this out in the court of public opinion by publishing their own newspapers. This part is absolutely key to understanding everything about the election of 1800. There was no such thing as a free and independent press. There was no tradition of a neutral press. There were broadsheets printed up for the benefit of one side or the other and distributed as propaganda. And it was vicious. I’m not talking about MSNBC v. Fox News vicious here. I’m talking Breitbart v. whatever the liberal Breitbart is.[5]

This part is important. We spend a lot of time now yammering on about how social media has polarized people’s news feeds and is responsible for polarizing the country. This is not new. This is not even remotely new. We are much better off right now than we were in 1800 because even though our news feeds are self-selecting we all have the ability to go read the other side. And we all have that one relative or former high school friend who only posts articles from sites that only post “news” in the form of videos with titles like, “These BlackLivesMatter THUGS Thought They’d Stop a Real American PATRIOT. Then He Gives Them a Reason To Rethink.” And then it’s just some white asshole with a Confederate flag bumper sticker screaming the n-word out of his passenger window while he drives past as quickly as possible.

We are actually relatively well informed of what the people who disagree with us think, is what I’m saying. At least compared to the election of 1800.

This, then, brings us to the reason why this was an important election. Over the course of the 5th Congress the primarily Federalist legislature passed four acts that are collectively known as the “Alien and Sedition Acts.”

I’m going to blow through the Alien Friends and Alien Enemies Act quickly. The Friends act basically said that the government can deport any citizen of a friendly foreign nation if that person is deemed dangerous. The Alien Enemies Act said that the government can deport any citizen of a hostile foreign nation. Full stop. The Alien Enemies Act actually lives on in the United States Title Code. The Friends Act expired in 1801. It’s widely believed that the Alien Friends Act was designed as a measure to allow the expulsion of Albert Gallatin, a Swiss expat living in the United States and an outspoken opponent of the Federalists.

The Naturalization Act was the next one and this one is huge. It extended the time it took for a non-citizen to become an American citizen and gain the right to vote. In 1790 the process could take as little as 2 years. The “notice time” was nonexistent and the residence period two years. That basically meant that you could get off the boat in Boston on January 1st, 1791, go declare your intent to become an American citizen, and as long as you lived in the country for two years on January 1st, 1793, boom. Citizen. The Naturalization Act of 1795 increased the notice time and residence time to three and five years, respectively. The Naturalization Act of 1798 increased them to five and fourteen years. Historians believe that this is because the Federalists were worried that new immigrants would be more likely to vote for the Democratic-Republicans.

The Sedition Act was the smoking gun. It declared that the government was allowed to restrict speech critical of the federal government. This law, not surprisingly, was used to shut down a whole bunch of newspapers that supported Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. The smoking gun? It was initially set to expire at the tail end of the year 1800. Right after the election.

If this sounds familiar to rhetoric used in this year’s election, well, history might not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.

So that’s the setup for the election of 1800. The Federalists were terrified of allowing the Democratic-Republicans to win the Presidency. This was actually something of a legitimate fear. The Hamiltonian system and the very concept of a federal government was a fragile thing. There was a legitimate fear that Thomas Jefferson could step into the office of the Presidency and tear everything down.

He didn’t. Spoiler alert, I guess.

Jefferson actually did the opposite. He doubled the size of the United States by negotiating the Louisiana Purchase with France. No one even knew if the Purchase was legal at the time but Jefferson forced it through.

The irony of the whole thing? The Federalists were actually the ones who almost destroyed the United States in their fear of handing power over to the Democratic Republicans.

See, in completely overreacting to the threat posed by Jefferson and passing the Alien and Sedition Acts they forced Jefferson and Madison to respond. They did, in the form of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These resolutions basically claimed that the states had the right to contest laws passed by the federal government that they did not like and nullify them if they saw fit. This was before John Marshall codified judicial review with the ruling in Marbury v. Madison, so there was no vehicle to check the federal government and keep it from passing blatantly self-serving, partisan, and unconstitutional laws. So the idea of the several states as that check was not far-fetched and in the environment of a fight between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans it made a great deal of logical sense. It was also a lit fuse beneath the very foundations of the United States of America.

John Calhoun would later attempt to use nullification to stop the Tariff of 1832. President Andrew Jackson threatened to intervene militarily. Henry Clay managed to negotiate a compromise. This pushed the specter of nullification off by about three decades.

When it emerged again it was as the justification for the Civil War.

[1]He invented the peanut, I think. Wait, no. That was Jimmy Carter.

[2]Which, at the time, was literally “the nation assuming the Revolutionary War debts incurred by the individual states.”

[3]And now I wish I’d seen Hamilton so I can know if this story has recently been told as a snappy rap battle.

[4]With the benefit of hindsight we can now see the beginnings of the political divide that would lead up to the Civil War.

[5]Us Uncut? Occupy Democrats? They always strike me as being rather uncharitable.

Once again, and as usual, thank you for reading. I hope this is an enlightening lesson on American history. If you’ve learned something please like and share. Then come back later. We still have the election of 1860 to discuss.

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