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U.S. History

Too Close to Call

Reviewed by H.W. Brands
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page BW03

ADAMS VS. JEFFERSON

The Tumultuous Election of 1800

By John Ferling. Oxford Univ. 260 pp. $26

JEFFERSON'S SECOND REVOLUTION

The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism

By Susan Dunn. Houghton Mifflin. 372 pp. $25

The drafters of the Constitution ran out of energy and imagination when they got to the method for choosing presidents, and their lapse has haunted America ever since. The historians John Ferling and Susan Dunn -- partially motivated, one presumes, by the latest breakdown of the presidential election system, in 2000 -- each decided to examine the first such failure, in 1800. The results of their independent labors provide a fascinating and sobering perspective on presidential politics then and now.

The Founders initially hoped to craft a government above parties, which they considered evil manifestations of the corruption in British politics that had provoked the colonies to separate from England in 1776. And because they wanted a government without parties, they expected the electoral college to serve as a screening committee for the numerous favorite sons the states would doubtless put forward -- as well as a check on the popular passions that might give rise to partisanship. The electors, Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 68, would be the men "most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations," and by employing them, the country would "afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder."

But parties emerged almost at once, and they coalesced around the contest for the presidency. A single election, however intriguing, can make for thin books, and both Ferling and Dunn flesh out the story with histories of American politics in the 1790s. Ferling, who has written several other books on the 18th century, is better on the domestic roots of the struggle that spawned the Federalist and Republican parties; Dunn, whose work includes research on the French Revolution, develops the international and ideological angles more fully. Together they demonstrate that politics in the age of the Founders was not for the timid or the overly scrupulous.

Modern Democrats (the heirs of Jefferson's Republicans) complain about conservative bias on the Fox News channel; modern Republicans (the closest surviving kin to Hamilton's Federalists) accuse the rest of the media of having a liberal slant. But nothing in today's newspapers or television approaches the unabashed partisanship of newspapers in the 1790s. "A despicable impartiality I disclaim," boasted a Connecticut publisher. "I have a heart and a country." One Baltimore editor asserted that it was as unimaginable for a newspaper to be politically neutral as it was for a clergyman to preach "Christianity in the morning and Paganism in the evening."

Such partisanship produced a vitriol that makes today's attack ads appear downright delicate. When Jefferson challenged John Adams for the presidency in 1800, the issues -- bigger government versus smaller, Britain versus France -- were overwhelmed by the ad-hominem offensives. The Federalists slashed Jefferson as a "fanatic," a "spendthrift" and a "libertine," whose election would unleash an orgy of "murder, robbery, rape, and incest." Jefferson's unorthodox religious opinions especially incited the Federalists. No one knew, a Connecticut paper asserted, "whether Mr. Jefferson believes in the heathen mythology, or in the alcoran [the Koran], whether he is a Jew or a Christian, whether he believes in one God or many or in none at all." The choice for every American, another Federalist paper proclaimed, was simple and stark: "Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD -- AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson and no god!!!"

Adams was handled almost as roughly. A Republican paper in New York called him "a person without patriotism, without philosophy, and a mock monarch." A Philadelphia editor declared him "old, bald, blind, querulous, toothless, crippled." Yet the sharpest blows against Adams came from his fellow Federalist, Hamilton, whose jealousy of the president prompted him to write a 53-page pamphlet condemning Adams for "vanity without bounds," "disgusting egotism," "ungovernable temper," "ill humours and jealousies" and additional "great and intrinsic defects in his character" that rendered him unfit for high office. (Adams reciprocated the distaste and derision. He referred to Hamilton as "Caesar" and asserted that he was consumed by a "delirium of ambition" that caused him to hate "every man young or old who stood in his way." Adams's wife, Abigail, said of Hamilton that she "read his heart in his wicked eyes" and discovered that the "very devil is in there.")After four years of this -- campaigns in those days weren't simply nastier but also longer -- the 1800 balloting yielded 73 electoral votes for Jefferson and 73 for his running mate, Aaron Burr, against 65 for Adams and 64 for his second, Charles C. Pinckney. (At that time each elector had two votes, and no formal distinction was made between presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The first-place finisher would become president, the second-place finisher vice president.) Ferling is especially adept at revealing the bare-knuckled partisanship that lay behind this vote, and the maneuvering between Burr and Federalists in the House of Representatives that might have made Burr president rather than Jefferson. Dunn devotes greater attention to the meaning of Jefferson's ultimate victory, elaborating on the Virginian's assertion that the election of 1800 was a second "revolution" that perfected the first.

Whether or not it was a revolution, it certainly was a mess. And though the 12th Amendment, drafted and ratified in hasty embarrassment after the 1800 fiasco, has spared the country a repetition of this particular scenario, it has left us saddled with the underlying problem, the electoral college.

The good news is that the problem is fixable. The electoral college isn't going to vanish; too many small states take comfort in their overrepresentation to allow another constitutional amendment on this point. But as both Ferling and Dunn demonstrate, the states control the method of choosing electors, which was true for the election of 1800 and remains true today. If non-battleground states tire of being ignored by presidential nominees, they merely need to switch from a winner-takes-all mode of converting popular votes into electoral votes to some kind of proportional formula. The method employed by Maine and Nebraska is the most obvious one. There the electoral votes are awarded by congressional district, with the two additional electoral votes for each state (corresponding to its number of senators) going to the statewide winner. This wouldn't discriminate against small states, but it would effectively re-enfranchise voters in states that aren't evenly split. (Colorado is considering an alternative method, awarding electoral votes to candidates in proportion to their popular statewide totals.)

Will the republic survive without such change? Yes. It survived the election of 1800, and it survived the election of 2000. It would probably survive a similar fiasco this year. But at a time when the promotion of American democracy around the world is an American priority, we ought to set a better example. •

H. W. Brands is the author of "The Strange Death of American Liberalism" and other books on American history. He is working on a biography of Andrew Jackson.


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