July 4th, 1800 dawned unusually warm in the western Connecticut town of Danbury where Rev. Thomas Robbins, a recent Yale graduate, looked forward to an afternoon parade honoring American independence. Hardly an hour passed when a shocking, if unfounded, report arrived. "We had news of the death of Mr. Jefferson," Rev. Robbins scribbled in his diary. "It is to be hoped that it is true."
History, Mark Twain is reputed to have said, "does not repeat itself but it often rhymes." Our current presidential campaign, for all of its turbulence, has an equally discordant antecedent in the momentous election of 1800 pitting John Adams, the Federalist incumbent, against Thomas Jefferson, leader of the nascent Republican party.
Apart from its heart-stopping drama, the "Revolution of 1800," as Jefferson later called it, was renowned for its divisiveness. In the minds of many Americans the contest involved nothing less than the survival of their infant republic. Not unlike Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both candidates aroused intense animosity among opponents. Jefferson, architect of the Declaration of Independence, was to Federalists a radical atheist, a levelling democrat sworn to overthrow - by violence if necessary - all order, both divine and human. Nearly as sinister was the Republican view of John Adams as a haughty monarchist, whose despotic presidency, bound by the tentacles of British influence, had betrayed American liberty. At issue, fundamentally, was whether voters would continue to accept the guidance of a paternalistic class committed to the supremacy of the federal government or instead place their trust in candidates pledged to advance liberties won in the Revolution - "friends of the people" rather than "fathers of the people."
The outcome of 2016's contest may well prove unprecedented, with the possibility of the first woman chief executive and the first spouse of a former president. Nor is it easy to identify among major candidates in the past a harbinger of Donald Trump, though the quick-tempered Andrew Jackson, a pro-tariff nationalist who championed the rise of the common man (literally), bears at least a faint resemblance. (Nicknamed "King Mob" by his enemies, he preferred the moniker "Jackass.") Still, a number of similarities exist between these contests, including the principal issues that produced such deep fissures in public opinion, both then and now.
As with print and electronic media today, newspapers, many openly partisan, magnified the bitterness of the 1800 campaign by affording a forum for debate. Their numbers swollen to some two hundred, papers exercised unprecedented influence. "The opinions of all classes arise entirely from what they read in their newspapers," a foreign visitor attested, "so that by newspapers the country is governed." Not quite, for freedom of expression suffered collateral damage. Whereas recent disagreements over political rhetoric have embroiled campaign rallies, Federalists commenced a "reign of terror" by utilizing the Sedition Act to silence criticism of the government by Republican journalists.
And like today, the parties in 1800 suffered internal rifts that gave the press added fodder. Cordial relations between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the other Republican candidate, soured after the Electoral College awarded each an equal number of votes, ultimately resulting in Jefferson's narrow victory in the House of Representatives. More serious, Adams and the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, detested one another. So venomous was their relationship that Hamilton, who commanded a devoted following among orthodox Federalists, condemned his party's standard bearer in a scathing diatribe during the closing weeks of the campaign.
Ultimately, two issues, then as now, proved paramount, effectively rendering the election, in the eyes of many voters, a battle for the nation's soul. Just as nationalism today has intensified in response to globalization, military adventures abroad, and the country's trade imbalance, nationalistic fervor in the late 1790s was fueled by threats to American sovereignty in the wake of war between England and France. Although both countries had violated United States neutrality by confiscating merchant ships in the Atlantic, more perilous to American honor, and to American lives, was Britain's relentless "impressment" at sea of deserters allegedly masquerading as US citizens. A leading cause of the War of 1812, impressment afforded Jefferson's supporters a powerful bludgeon against their domestic foes, tarred already as British sycophants. "Despicable shall we appear in the eyes of other nations," a Virginian railed, "if the idea is to go forth that an American may be robbed of liberty and held in vile bondage."
No less polarizing were fears about the impact of foreign immigration upon the nation's character. During the arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants, especially after the abortive Rebellion of 1798 against British rule, Jeffersonians championed their plight as victims of British oppression in need of America's shelter. Federalists, who viewed Britain as a bastion of order in Europe, enacted three Alien bills, the most draconian extending the waiting period for naturalized citizenship from five to fourteen years. In nativist rhetoric like that applied of late to Mexican-Americans and, more recently, refugees from the Middle East, a Massachusetts congressman declared that he did not wish "to invite hoards of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility" - quite a departure from Thomas Paine's iconic hope in 1776 that America would afford "an asylum for mankind." (Trump and the GOP should take note that the election of 1800 inaugurated a strong alliance between Irish Americans and Jeffersonian Republicans that assisted in the rapid demise of the Federalist party.)
With the choice of this year's candidates almost certain, only the most desperate conservative opponents of Trump still cling to the farfetched hope of running a third party candidate capable of throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Surely a fantasy, but not unprecedented. Far more likely, come January America will inaugurate a new president from one of the two major parties, bruised and battered though duly elected, with the strength of our constitutional democracy intact. The 1800 campaign, with the United States still in its infancy, was only the nation's second contested election. We are currently embarked upon our fifty-sixth. Despite today's worst fears, voters should take heart. "Every difference of opinion," President Jefferson reminded the public in his inaugural address, "is not a difference of principle." More famously he declared, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."
A. Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of
American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution to be published by Pantheon.