Tuesday, November 17, 2020

American Politics in 1800 "The Soil Will Be Soaked with Blood"

 From The History Reader:

Robert C. Lieberman is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins. He has received fellowships from the Russell Sage Foundation and the American Philosophical Society.

Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.

As the 1800 presidential election neared, Americans braced themselves. The Federalists, who dominated the presidency and both chambers of Congress, had become convinced that the Republicans, who functioned as the emerging opposition party, wanted to bring down the government itself and undermine the Constitution. A Connecticut Federalist predicted that if the Republicans won, “there is scarcely a possibility that we will escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

To Republicans, on the other hand, it seemed that the Federalists were using their power repeatedly to stifle any political opposition. Since the nation began, the Federalists had been pretty much in control: both presidents had been Federalists, and their faction had held the majority in the Senate continually and in the House in all but four years during the mid-1790s. Moreover, they viewed opposition as tantamount to insurrection, and had launched one action after another to repress it. By 1798, the Republicans found themselves shut out of power completely while the Federalists stacked the deck against them and prosecuted  journalists who dared to criticize the government. The election of 1800, therefore, seemed to represent Republicans’ last chance to gain a foothold—and for the fledgling government to demonstrate that it was not beholden to a particular faction. They believed that if they failed, neither the Constitution nor the Union could survive.

Once the voting got under way, however, and then the states’ electors made their choices, the election yielded an unbelievable result: deadlock. Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for first place with seventy-three electoral votes each, while President John Adams netted sixty-five and two other Federalists, Charles Pinckney and John Jay, earned sixty-four and one, respectively. Though Republicans had intended for Jefferson to be the presidential candidate and Burr the vice presidential candidate, the ballots used at the time did not make that distinction. Burr, moreover, whether because of opportunism or other motives, did not stand down but instead let the ambiguity linger. Without a clear winner, the decision—as dictated by the original language of Article II, Section I—was thrown into the  House of Representatives, where each state would have a single vote in its presidential choice, and the victorious candidate had to attain a majority.

The Federalist majority in the House entertained three possible ways forward....