Power  /  Book Excerpt

The Immigration-Obsessed, Polarized, Garbage-Fire Election of 1800

A madman versus a crook? Unexpected twists? Fake news? Welcome to the election of 1800.

The monumental presidential contest of 1800 was, until the election of Abraham Lincoln, unrivaled for its historic importance and heart-stopping drama. Not for another sixty years would electoral politics exhibit such urgency or the stakes of a presidential campaign bulk so large. At issue in the minds of Americans in this bitterly polarized contest was nothing less than the survival of their infant republic. Absent was the comfort of George Washington’s commanding presence. Unheeded were his pleas for national unity. Americans clashed over the scope and administration of government, the roles of leaders and followers—indeed, over the very words and meaning of the Constitution. The race became a battle for the country’s soul, whether the people would continue to accept the guidance of a paternalistic ruling class determined to establish the supremacy of the federal government or place their trust instead in representatives striving to protect and advance liberties won in the Revolution—“friends of the people” rather than “fathers of the people.”

No shortage of partisans on either side feared that the election could erupt in civil war. In the dire event of a Federalist triumph, Republicans stood ready to defend the doctrine of states’ rights championed in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Following their passage, Alexander Hamilton had written of moving the army toward Virginia “to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the test of resistance.” Should Republicans lose the election, a state resident forecast that “chains, dungeons, portation [to Australia], and perhaps the gibbet” would follow. Just as apocalyptic, in the eyes of Federalists mindful of the French Revolution, would be a Republican victory, dooming the country to unbridled anarchy. “The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes,” predicted a Connecticut Federalist.

Of the two camps, Federalists enjoyed marked advantages. The party controlled the Senate and the House of Representatives as well as the presidency; and in the summer of 1799 seats it had picked up in both houses of Congress included ten in southern states, a Republican stronghold whose political strength, it bears noting, was inflated by the three-fifths clause in the Constitution allowing a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning presidential electors as well as congressmen in each state. Moreover, by 1800, the Adams administration, in the spirit of redeeming national honor, had conducted an undeclared war against France, supported by appropriations for a new navy and an expanded army commanded by Hamilton himself, and laws aimed at the suppression of domestic dissent and foreign subversion—all redounding to the government’s strength notwithstanding Republican protests. But Adams’s reelection was scarcely a foregone conclusion, not least due to fractures in Federalist ranks stemming from the president’s decision to dispatch to Paris envoys who helped to bring an end to the quasi-war with France. In October, Timothy Pickering had written bitterly of his “indignation, chagrin, and distress.” Of the “eastern people,” John Marshall observed to his brother-in-law, “perhaps this ill humor may evaporate before the election comes on—but at present it wears a very serious aspect.”