It is not that Bush has been entirely silent during 2020. He offered a statement on the coronavirus pandemic that called for an end to partisanship. “Let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat,” he said. He also addressed the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and declared: “It is time for us to listen. It is time for America to examine our tragic failures — and as we do, we will also see some of our redeeming strengths.”
But Bush has avoided the issue of the 2020 campaign, with his chief of staff emphasizing that he is “retired from presidential politics” with no “plan to wade in.” According to the Atlantic, Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey who served in Bush’s Cabinet, lamented that Bush so far has not spoken out because “there’s been significant damage done to our democracy.”
Whitman is right that there is good reason for Bush to break his silence. The views of leading politicians matter. Having served in prominent positions, they understand what is required to do a job effectively and well. Their constituents certainly will make up their own minds, but politicians, whether former presidents, congressmen or Cabinet members, have the standing to help shape choices and outcomes.
This was the case in the election of 1800, when Alexander Hamilton exercised his influence with House members who would resolve a deadlocked electoral college competition between two candidates: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, his political opponents. In the end, Hamilton chose to act on behalf of nation and not party.
He did so even though he despised Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. As a leading Federalist who supported a strong national government, Hamilton saw the opposing party as too wedded to unchecked principles of liberty. To him, Jefferson’s radicalism helped spark the French Revolution, and his views were “subversive of the principles of good government.” When the question of George Washington’s successor emerged in 1796, Hamilton wrote, “all personal and partial consideration must be discarded and everything must give way to the great object of excluding Jefferson.”
Jefferson felt the same way about Hamilton, calling him “the evil genius of this country.” As secretary of state in Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson bitterly opposed Hamilton’s plans to fund and assume state debts and create a national bank. In a letter to Washington, Jefferson complained that Hamilton’s actions were “a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country.” In Jefferson’s eyes, Hamilton’s policies were “calculated to undermine and demolish the republic,” and he believed that the secretary of treasury sought nothing less than a return to a monarchical form of government.
These feelings could have made the situation in 1800 easy for Hamilton. But he didn’t hold Burr in high regard either. Although once friendly with him, Hamilton came to see Burr as “unprincipled both as a public and private man.” In 1791, Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, in the New York Senate race, launching what Hamilton called a “religious duty to oppose his career.” This feud, which continued for more than a decade, was marked by each denouncing the other and infamously ended with a duel on July 11, 1804.
Hamilton’s reputation on the eve of the election of 1800 was at its nadir. In 1797, he had publicly admitted to having an extramarital affair. The following year, he became inspector general of the U.S. Army, and his actions led to fears of a military coup. Abigail Adams called him a “second Bonaparte,” while John Adams, a member of his own party, said “the man is stark mad.”
In fact, during the election of 1800, Hamilton opposed Adams and privately encouraged Federalists to support the president’s running mate Charles Pinckney. He even published a letter that denounced Adams for “vanity without bounds” and “extreme egotism.” His efforts went nowhere except to alienate him further from his own party.
In the end, Jefferson and Burr each gathered 73 electoral votes, while Adams received only 65. The Constitution stipulated that electors cast two votes and that the runner-up would serve as vice president — a flaw that the 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, would fix. Democratic-Republicans, whose choice was Jefferson, failed to arrange for one of the electors to vote for someone other than Burr and the tie ensued.
With no majority winner in the electoral college, the vote went to the House with each state delegation casting one vote. Ballot after ballot for six days yielded no majority (nine votes were needed). Rumors circulated of deals being made to elevate Burr, which some Federalists saw as an opportunity to maintain political power.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Hamilton first tried to manipulate the rules to benefit the Federalist Party. Dismayed that New York went to the Democratic-Republicans, he suggested that new rules for choosing electors in New York be applied retroactively.
But when this effort failed, Hamilton ultimately put aside his personal feelings and party politics and supported Jefferson. In a letter to a Federalist senator he wrote, “in a choice of evils, let them take the least — Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but Hamilton had in mind who would be best for the nation that he had worked to stabilize during Washington’s administration.
Jefferson, he said, was known in Europe and would help serve American interests there. Jefferson, though too radical for Hamilton, “is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly government.” And Jefferson had property and fortune enough to put public policy above private pursuits.
In short, he had integrity, even if Hamilton disagreed with his ideology.
Burr, by comparison, “loves nothing but himself — thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement — and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.”
In the end, James Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, submitted a blank ballot and, by removing the state from Burr’s column, helped deliver the presidency to Jefferson. For two months, Hamilton had showered Bayard with letters that expressed his unequivocal opposition to Burr. While that was only one of several factors that led to Bayard’s decision, Hamilton’s involvement no doubt played a role.
Hamilton’s support of Jefferson was a remarkable act of statesmanship. He put the interests of country above personal enmity and the interests of party. By doing so, he took steps toward redeeming a reputation that had suffered from political intrigue and scandal. He demonstrated something that matters today: being retired from politics isn’t the same as being retired from citizenship. And citizenship demands that leaders take a principled stand that can make a difference and benefit their country. If Bush believes what has been reported, he, too, possesses the capacity to make a difference and safeguard the public good.