1800 and the politics of the absolute

In these days of high-octane political rhetoric and a party system defined more by “voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party,” it’s worth casting back into American history to another time when political tensions ran so high that each side believed the other would lead to the destruction of American ideals. Unlike now, things got so divisive that some states talked about seceding from the union and even stockpiled arms and mobilized militias to achieve their political goals through force.

I speak not of 1860, when all those things happened on the road to a brutal and bloody civil war, but rather of 1800 — when all those things happened but were averted just shy of bloodshed.

This seminal election was held when most of America’s Founding Fathers and drafters of the Constitution were not only alive but were active political leaders. Why were such men willing to risk dismemberment of the Union they had fought so hard to forge? Part of it reflects a tense time, with war in Europe threatening to spill over into America, and part of it reflects the still tenuous American political experiment.

But much of the cause, James Roger Sharp argues in his book “American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis,” was how leaders of both the Federalist and Republican proto-parties viewed the beliefs and activities of their counterparts. There was “no acceptance of the idea of a loyal opposition, nor was there a tradition of political parties sharing and alternating in power.”1

Instead, members of both parties believed that the “public good” was objectively determinable, and that reasonable men would thus naturally arrive at this public good through debate and discussion. When it became evident that deep divisions about the proper direction of the country existed and persisted, the Founding Fathers did not question the idea of a single, easily discoverable public good. Instead, “followers of each proto-party believed that their vision exclusively embraced the public good”2 — and that the opposing party, by process of deduction, was operating contrary to the public good.

The intolerance bred by such attitudes forced the leaders of the proto-parties to cast desperately around for new modes or approaches to vanquish their (antagonists)… Leaders sought to tap, organize, and channel the ultimate source of political strength in a republic — the people — in order to legitimize their own interpretation of the public good.”3

But when elections went against these early American political leaders, they didn’t conclude that the other side’s views had been legitimized. Instead, these elections were “evidence rather that the people had been temporarily misled by unscrupulous leaders outside the republican consensus, leaders who had been animated by crass, self-interested and partisan objectives.”4

This slow march toward civil war picked up steam in 1798, when America was in the middle of an undeclared naval war with France. Federalists, who controlled Congress and the presidency, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, punished anyone who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States… or to impede the operation of any law of the United States… or to intimidate any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States,” and to ban “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government.”5

These extremely provocative laws outraged Thomas Jefferson and other Republicans. In response, Jefferson and James Madison authored the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which asserted states’ rights contra the federal government and even — in earlier versions, before being tempered by moderate allies or in the face of opposition, advocated a right of secession.

During the debate over the Virginia Resolutions, Federalist Virginians hit upon what seemed like a master stroke: though Republicans claimed outrage over the Alien and Sedition Acts, they had passed a Virginia Sedition Act in 1792, and Jefferson was on the record saying that “in preventing the abridgment of the freedom of the press, punishment for uttering falsehoods ought not be inhibited.”

Sharp, however, notes that “the Virginia Republicans were not, in their own eyes, being hypocritical.”

Since they sincerely believed they were the defenders of republicanism, they saw the powers of government in their hands being used to further noble goals, whereas power in the hands of the Federalists, who represented factious interests, was being used to undermine the general good. Politics in the early republic… was the politics of the absolute and not the politics of interest brokerage.6

That attitude about the general good would have far more significant consequences than merely justifying a bit of apparent hypocrisy.

Tensions ran so high in the latter years of the Adams administration that Virginia Republicans didn’t merely debate secession — they appear to have actively stockpiled arms toward that end. Fears ran high “about Federalist plots to use the newly strengthened army led by Alexander Hamilton to destroy domestic opposition;”7 in response, the Virginia legislature voted on party lines “to arm the militia, and to make provision to purchase 5,000 stands of arms.” The purpose, one contemporaneous Republican admitted, was “enabling (the people) to oppose the government of the United States.”8

Federalists, for their part, heard rumors of Virginia stockpiling weapons and took them very seriously. Hamilton proposed a range of measures to destroy sectional opposition to the federalist regime. “‘Vigorous measures of counteraction” had to be adopted, he concluded, for it had become obvious that the opposition had resolved to make the union’s ‘existence a question of force.’”9 He proposed expanding the army and navy, dividing states into districts and appointing federal justices of the peace “to avoid obstruction by local judges,” and tightening sedition laws beyond even the existing Alien and Sedition Acts to “preserve confidence in the officers of the general government, by preserving their reputation from malicious and unfounded slanders.”

Most radically, Hamilton even privately proposed to divide “the great states” into multiple smaller states with the aim of destroying big states’ — read, Virginia’s — ability to resist the federal government.10 Federalists in Congress even proposed a “remarkable bill” that would have let a committee appointed by the Federalist-controlled Congress “decide which votes to count and which ones to disallow” in presidential elections.11 They then pursued criminal charges against a Republican newspaper editor for “unauthorized publication” of the bill. (The measure was ultimately defeated in Congress, and the editor avoided prosecution by hiding until Congress adjourned — to the great annoyance of James Monroe, who was hoping for “the creation of a Republican martyr.”12)

After the Election of 1800 ended in a tie between Jefferson and his ostensible running mate Aaron Burr, “rumors swept Washington, D.C…. and the various state capitals about Federalist plots to deny Jefferson the presidency by a usurpation of power or by throwing support to Burr. Talk was rife about militias arming, a possible civil war and the breakup of the union.”13 In two mysterious — and, to many, suspicious — fires, the War Department burned down on Nov. 8, 1800, followed by parts of the Treasury Department on Jan. 20, 1801. Each side believed the blazes to be arson but blamed the other for setting them.

Tensions swept higher. Federalists in Congress debated ways they could hold on to power despite the Federalist Adams losing the election decisively. Jefferson told Monroe, the governor of Virginia, that if Federalists tried to usurp the government, “the middle states would arm.” The Washington Federalist newspaper dismissed these concerns, arguing that the “militia of Massachusetts… with those of New Hampshire and Connecticut united almost to a man” would easily suppress “factious foreigners in Pennsylvania or a few fighting bacchanals of Virginia.”14

Talk of uprisings in Pennsylvania and Virginia was not mere rumor. Monroe and Republican Gov. Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania “took bold steps under the cloak of secrecy to prepare their states for a possible military confrontation. McKean made arrangements to mobilize his state’s militia force in the event of a showdown. Monroe made plans to use the Virginia militia to block the federal government from removing the federal arms stored in a Virginia arsenal and from transporting them out of the state.”15 Federalist governors apparently took no such concrete steps, but Federalists in Congress did seriously consider a strategy of preventing the House of Representatives from meeting to decide the election — which would let them appoint the Federalist President of the Senate as acting president when Adams’ term expired. When some Federalists despaired of the deadlock and proposed to let Jefferson win, New Englander congressmen allegedly “declared they meant to go without a constitution and take the risk of a Civil War.”16

The crisis was only averted when several Federalists decided the wrong president was better than no president and abstained, allowing Jefferson’s election. (Hamilton’s anti-Burr letter-writing campaign during this time helped lead to the duo’s infamous and fatal 1804 duel.)

During those critical days in late 1800 and early 1801, public men considered violence and the destruction of the union as distinct and even likely possibilities. Both Federalists and Republicans seemed willing to go to the bink to secure an electoral victory… There was a peaceful transition of power from the Federalists to the Republicans in 1801, but the potential for violence was real. The country was in as much peril then as in any other era in American history with the single exception of the Civil War.17

In hindsight the Election of 1800 is seen as a turning point, a peaceful transition of power from one party to another — “a milestone in republican government.”18 But “clearly this was not the way the participants in perceived the transfer of power. For political parties to have ‘come of age’ in 1800 would have required a general acceptance and toleration of an opposition party on the national level. This had not been established by 1800 and indeed evolved only gradually over the next few decades.”19

Jefferson, indeed, saw his presidential victory not as a foundation for the alteration of power, but as a permanent vindication of his ideals and reputation of the Federalists’. “To the victorious men of 1800 and their immediate successors, a ‘band of patriots’ — the Republicans — had saved the nation from the excesses of party, excesses that were embodied in Federalism. And it was up to the Republicans to (ensure) that the Federalists were never handed the reins of power again.”20

Later, Jefferson would declare “that the Republicans were far more than a political party.”

“The Republicans,” he declared, “are the nation.21

It would take another 25 years for America’s political system to evolve into what we know today, when Martin Van Buren organized the Democratic Party (followed shortly in its image by the Whigs) along the principle of parties as “valuable institutions” that kept “strife within manageable limits,” and of organized opposition having “a powerful, beneficial role in forcing the majority party to seek unity and cohesion in order to escape defeat.”22 Fortunately, the dangerous crisis of 1800 did not recur in the time it took for this new intellectual model to emerge. (And of course the even more damaging crisis of 1860, when strife broke free of the “manageable limits” placed on it by the old Jacksonian party system, happened under Van Buren’s model.)

Does the broadening partisan gap in 21st Century American politics reflect a return to the uncompromising late 18th Century ideas that helped take the Founding Fathers to the brink of civil war? However much modern-day Democrats and Republicans hate each other, that seems over-strong. History may repeat itself, but usually in variation rather than an echo. Besides, while the flaws in the Founding Fathers’ “civic republicanism” ideology seem evident today, they certainly didn’t seem evident at the time. So who is to say that we are any more self-aware about our own beliefs and assumptions than Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton were? But understanding the consequences of the “politics of the absolute” can be a helpful corrective whenever modern politics gets too heated.

  1. James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 282 

  2. Ibid., 11 

  3. Ibid., 11-12 

  4. Ibid., 276-277 

  5. Ibid., 177 

  6. Ibid., 198 

  7. Ibid., 203 

  8. Ibid., 204-5 

  9. Ibid., 216 

  10. Ibid., 216-17 

  11. Ibid., 219 

  12. Ibid., 220 

  13. Ibid., 250 

  14. Ibid., 267 

  15. Ibid., 268-9 

  16. Ibid., 271 

  17. Ibid., 274-5 

  18. Ibid., 273 

  19. Ibid., 274 

  20. Ibid., 286-7 

  21. Ibid., 277-8 

  22. Ibid., 285