In 1800, an event occurred that changed the world. It was not as dramatic as the “Declaration of Independence,” but it was as revolutionary, and like that document, it provided a worldwide iconic moment for those who believed in representative government! For the first time in history, a government was changed by ballots, not bullets. The nominee of the Federalist Party, the incumbent President John Adams, was defeated and replaced by the nominee of the Republicans, Thomas Jefferson.
This did not come easily; I am, of course, aware of the tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, which was decided by the House of Representatives. The election of 1800 was also one of the most rancorous confrontations in history, with each side having a different vision of America and accusing the other of malfeasance, improper foreign entanglements, and sexual indiscretions. In that way it is eerily reminiscent of the election we have just lived through, but the orderly transfer of power occurred, and was accepted by all.
The America of 1800, we must remember, was a one-of-a-kind experiment in representative government. England at this time only had about 166,000 people qualified to exercise the franchise, and the prime minister was accountable to the king, not to Parliament. France was going through the throes of revolutionary upheaval, complete with a reign of terror. America was unique, and the election of 1800 could hardly have occurred in any other country in that era. Even more, it demonstrated, perhaps even more than the Declaration, that freedom was a viable and responsible alternative to both anarchy and autocracy.
Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others were too close to our Revolution to allow political passions to threaten the republic they fought so hard for. Their partisanship only went so far, which is a lesson we all must learn. As the new President Jefferson said, “Today we are all Republicans, today we are all Federalists.” Before the recent election, this call for unity had its echo in modern times; as one president famously said, we are not “‘red states’ or ‘blue states,’ but the United States of America.”
Maybe I am mistaken, but I don’t know anyone of consequence in 1800 who ever said that “Jefferson will never be my president.” I am sure that many were upset by the results back then, but not at this point did anyone question the legitimacy of the election, block roads, attack opposition partisans, damage private property, or argue for the retroactive altering of the accepted rules, or call for summarily throwing out the Electoral College.
Philosopher and Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa argued that those who didn’t embrace the election of 1860 formed the Confederacy. Unhappy with the president-elect, the South wanted to, in effect, invalidate the results. Lincoln in fact did not win the support of the majority of voters; he was a minority president who assumed office according to the accepted rules and the Electoral College. Donald Trump certainly is no Abraham Lincoln, but he, too, was also elected according to the accepted rules and the Electoral College.
Those who have read my previous writings in this paper know I am not enamored by Donald Trump, and I still have grave doubts (Sorry, Mayor Giuliani. “Genius” is not the descriptor that comes to my mind when classifying Donald Trump!) While demonstrations and freedom of expression are sacred, efforts to void an election are not.
Harry Jaffa points out that we paid a high price in the past when those who lost a national election refused to accept the results, and we would be in uncharted territory if it occurred again.
If such destabilizing efforts were ever successful, the precedent that Jefferson, and yes, his opponents Hamilton and Adams, won together would no longer be applicable or valid. Overturn our recent election, and perhaps, future elections would also be subject to reversal, and the precedent of 1800 would be lost forever. It matters not if you were happy or unhappy with our president-elect; are you ready to cavalierly dismiss the wisdom and experience of the Founders?
Larry Koch, Ed.D.