An inexperienced and boastful New Yorker is running for president amid a rambunctious political campaign that involves radical partisanship in the press, charges of vote rigging, a sense that at worst, national collapse is imminent and at best, a hotter ration of the moribund same, and a tumultuous to-ing and fro-ing about who has the final say in government matters: the offices of Washington, D.C., or the capitals of the states?
Welcome to the tumultuous election of 1800.
To better understand how that distant time isn’t that far away after all, Preservation Virginia’s Summer Open House Salon occurs tomorrow, Wednesday, May 25, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., at the John Marshall House, 818 E. Marshall St., cattycornered from City Hall, see here.
Marshall House interpreters stationed in the rooms will talk about the various aspects of the 1800 milieu. And you can wander to the cellar for some wine – Marshall liked his.
The event is free, but it is suggested that you register online — though you can sign in at the event, too. You may also engage in quoits — a kind of retro-horseshoes played with doughnut-shaped discs tossed at pegs in addition to playing a little dress-up for the photo booth.
“It’s a mixture of philosophy and fun,” says Jennifer Hurst-Wender, Preservation Virginia's director of museum operations and education. John Marshall was well-known for engaging in extensive conversations to air issues out and allowing people’s opinions to come to the forefront for a larger understanding.
He also liked to party. Political parties, not so much.
The 1800 presidential contest was one of the most vehement in the nation’s history and involved some the last great members of the Revolutionary War generation: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and upstarts like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
“Aaron Burr really really really wanted to be president,” says Hurst-Wender.
The way the young country elected the chief executive in 1800 made matters worse. The 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, translating to one vote for personal favorite with a second vote for the one that stood the best chance of winning. If the candidates tied, or none received a majority of electoral votes, the Constitution — not even 12 years old then — directed that the House of Representatives “shall chuse by Ballot one of them for President.”
And this is what put Jefferson and Burr on either end of the quoits pitch.
A game of quoits (photo courtesy Preservation Virginia)
The deadlock resulted, with each candidate having a valid claim to the presidency. The failsafe of the House choosing teetered on failure. The stalemate ended after six days and 36 ballots. Burr got the second slot under Jefferson. Hurst-Wender says, “His defeat sends him down the road to killing Hamilton and accusations of treason.”
Burr’s 1807 celebrity trial occurred here in Richmond — with Marshall presiding.
“The parallels between the elections are astounding,” Hurst-Wender says. “A lot of them have to do with what happened afterward. This election creates our two-party system. And the Supreme Court was up for grabs, too. You have [Adams and Jefferson] with completely different views about government powers and where they’re supposed to be located. When the side for localized state powers win with Jefferson then you have these midnight appointments by Adams to put his people in power as he leaves.”
One of those is John Marshall. Adams choice of Marshall is arguably the best decision he made while in public office. Marshall, as the longest serving chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, solidified the judicial branch as an equal governing partner and as one historian has said, put flesh on the bones of the Constitution.
And from the Marshall court came the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision, which extended the SCOTUS’ power to review laws passed by Congress and thereby control its power.
The New Yorker Burr was an ally of Jefferson in opposition to centralized federal authority. Hamilton, a “high federalist,” didn’t think Adams capable of carrying the country forward and wrote open letters against him that further split the Federalist cause.
Smithsonian magazine writer John Ferling explains, “Hamilton agreed with a Federalist newspaper essay that argued defeat meant “happiness, Constitution and laws [faced] endless and irretrievable ruin.” Federalists and Republicans appeared to agree on one thing only: that the victor in 1800 would set America’s course for generations to come, perhaps forever.” (Read here ).
A central dispute is encapsulated in this scene from the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” at a dinner conversation with then-president George Washington, vice-president Adams, Secretary of State Jefferson, and Treasury secretary Hamilton. The crux of the argument: who owes what to whom means who owns the power.
And, well: Here’s the cast of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton” further explaining, “Talk less, smile more.”
So this is lively and heady stuff – and suited for the kind of discussion a salon encourages. Hurst-Wender says, “The whole idea of the salons that we’ve had for the the past few years is in looking to have a place where people can talk about things that happened in the past that remain relevant.” Wine helps, too.
Joanne B. Freeman points out in her online essay for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in 1800 the American system was a “work-in-progress political experiment with no model of comparison in the modern world. A republic was supposedly superior to its Old World predecessors, but this assumption had yet to be tested.”
Indeed, political parties as we understand them were in their fledgling state – the fissures in the country’s political characteristics broke literally in two and ever since we’ve been fighting over the differences. You can and should read about it here or watch Keith Hughes’ quick explanation.
Mark Twain remarked that history does not repeat itself, but how it often rhymes. Freeman observes, “So the dire predictions and overwrought rhetoric that characterized the election were not mere campaign excess; people really feared disunion. They were also nervous about party loyalties. Rather than intense party unity, there was a jumble of suspicions and conflicting loyalties—personal, ideological, and regional, as well as partisan — at the heart of the election. For example, Northerners and Southerners deeply distrusted each other — Federalists and Republicans alike.”
After all the sound and fury when people thought the country might fly to pieces, Jefferson as president ended up governing more like a Federalist than not. Burr shot Hamilton to death in a duel — and now their intertwined fate is a Broadway hit.
The friendship of Adams and Jefferson fractured from the conflicts of the 1800 election and the two old revolutionaries remained estranged for almost 20 years. But the prodding of Adams’ friend Dr. Benjamin Rush restarted a conversation through correspondence.
One hopes that we — their latter day inheritors -- can keep talking after the salon is over.