The method of selecting a President for the newly established United States of America was designed to fit the conditions which were anticipated to exist once George Washington left office. When he could not be persuaded to accept a third term, the battle which set the course for modern political contests ensued.
John Adams, Washington’s Vice President represented the Federalists. Though he was a recognized founder of the nation, Adams was painted by the Democrat-Republicans represented by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, as favoring aristocracy and monarchism.
Jefferson was considered by the Federalists to represent a disruptive faction which was being tied directly to the extremely violent French Revolution. It was an interesting connection in so far as Jefferson was still considered a liberty-minded founder but his foreign adventurism in the name of his principles was worrisome.
For the first time in the history of the new nation, political parties and factionalism made its appearance on a national scale. But it played itself out at the state level since that is where the electors, under the system in place at the time, did their work.
It was still a new nation of independent states and the concept of national unity was clearly still in the “getting to know each other” phase of marriage. Distrust and competition between states was the mood of the day.
As it was then set by the newly enacted Constitution each state had a pre-determined number of electors who were chosen according to the rules of that state. Once so determined, the electors each cast two votes for president, only one of which could be for a person from their own state.
By a process which involved the potential for the choice to be made by the House of Representatives, the person receiving the highest number of elector votes became President, the recipient of the second highest vote became Vice President. For the first and only time in history, the election of 1796 resulted in each of the offices being held by members of competing parties.
Still, in the conduct of the process, most of the battles were being waged by agents of the candidates rather than by the candidates themselves. Because the entire process turned exclusively on the votes of electors, the concept of a campaign intended to win the favor of the general public was considered undignified. The men contesting for the Presidency felt that the public was fully aware of their contributions and character. What was needed was arm twisting and negotiations to win the support of electors.
Over the next 60 or so years this process of using the party apparatus to choose the nominee and then using efforts to convince electors looked like it would become the norm. But the election of 1800 took a decidedly nasty turn.
It was a bitter rematch between the Federalists represented by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the Republican-Democrats represented by Thomas Jefferson. Not only did the feud between them change the face of politics into a nasty snarl, but it ushered in a new role for the Supreme Court of the United States which completely changed the political landscape.
Tomorrow I will discuss how the election of 1800, sometimes called the “Second Revolution” set a course for American political contests that created a deep divide in political thought and set the stage for the American Civil war which began to build and exploded in our midst just a few years later.
And I will tell you a somewhat forgotten story about how the power of activist judges got its start. You see, but the time John Adams was ending his second term in office, the echoes of the last shots fired in the American Revolutionary War had only been faded a short 17 years earlier, but the struggle to define who we were as a nation was just getting started.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.