Negative campaigning, name-calling, lying and smear political opponents… These are things voters in America have come to expect by politicians running for virtually any office. Public polling suggests the public doesn’t like it, yet they respond well to it.
We assume it hasn’t always been this way and yet, it has been worse. Much worse.
In the election of 1800, President John Adams (Federalist) and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) engaged in one of, if not the, most personal and vicious campaigns in American history.
Adams and Jefferson were stalwarts of the American revolution, co-writers of the Declaration of Independence, and extremely close personal friends up until the election of 1796 – the year in which Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson – who became vice-president.
What happened and why was the campaign of 1800 so divisive and personal?
There were several issues that dominated the election of 1800:
The Sedition Act
To this day, the Sedition and Alien Acts of 1798 are two of the most controversial pieces of legislation in American history.
Adams was an advocate for passing the Sedition Act to ensure that what was said about him was true and accurate, or face criminal charges. The first case was against Congressman Matthew Lyon (VT) and eleven others. Lyon was convicted to four months in a Vermont jail for speaking out against Adams. Afterward, he was considered a hero and overwhelmingly was re-elected to Congress.
Unpopular Tax Increases
In rural Pennsylvania Dutch Country, German farmers rebelled by armed force against federal tax collectors. They sought to collect new unpopular taxes on their land in a heavy-handed means. Two farmers were tried in federal court and found guilty of treason. They were sentenced to death. Adams pardoned the men on grounds they did not commit an insurrection. This infuriated Federalists and they labeled Adams as weak and capricious.
Prospect for War and Peace with France
France was in the midst of its own revolution. Adams and the Federalists felt strongly that the new nation could not afford to get in the middle of France’s internal issues or their ongoing feud with England, whom Federalists supported. However, Jefferson and the Republicans felt as strongly that America must come to France’s aid – They were owed that due to their support in helping secure America’s independence.
This would become such a contentious issue the two men would not talk for over a year.
In need to build the army in case France attacked the United States, Adams appointed Alexander Hamilton as a General in the army and soon came to regret it. The two men grew to dislike each other and even though they were both Federalists. Hamilton sought to replace Adams with his own choice for President in the 1800 election in Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
Treachery Within the Federalist Party
From within his own cabinet and the Federalist party, Hamiltonian Federalists conspired together to help elect Pinckney. They used classified information, stories, and of course embellishments to paint an unflattering picture of Adams in hopes that Federalists would abandon Adams.
How Personal and Vindictive was the Campaign of 1800?
These former colleagues and Patriots viciously turned on one another. According to author David McCullough in his biography titled John Adams:
Of Jefferson, Adams and his supporters said that:
- His victory would ensure a civil war.
- He was a Hordes of Frenchmen and Irishmen, “the refuse of Europe” who would flood the country and threaten the life of “all who love order, peace, virtue, and religion.”
- He swindled clients as a young lawyer.
- He was a coward as Governor of Virginia when he fled Monticello as the British Army approached.
- He was a godless atheist who mocked the Christian faith and that Bibles would have to be hidden if he were elected.
- He cohabitated with his female slaves.
Of Adams, Jefferson and his supporters said:
- He was a monarchist who was more British than American, and therefore a bad man.
- He was ridiculed as old, addled, and toothless.
- That he was corrupt and attempted to swing a deal with Republicans.
- He was insane and quite-mad.
The Hamiltonian Federalists Were the Final Nail in Adams Re-Election Coffin
In October 1880, an angry and bitter Alexander Hamilton wrote a 54-page pamphlet that excoriated Adams to their fellow Federalists. He said Adams had:
- “Great intrinsic defects of character.”
- “Disgusting egotism”
- “Eccentric tendencies”
- “Ungovernable temper”
- “Bitter animosity” towards his own cabinet.
The Tipping Point
Adams lost the election. Jefferson secured 73 electoral votes, Adams 65, and Pinckney 63. Hamilton ended up helping Jefferson win – the outcome he did not want as warned about by fellow Federalist Noah Webster.
It was not Jefferson who had defeated Adams. It was the Federalist faction and Hamilton that was the difference in the campaign.
While these things sound trivial to us, in their time the campaign was scandalous and set the stage for the elections to follow. It was the first time two parties coalesced around a candidate and a party divided within itself.
Worse, the campaign and events that preceded it almost destroyed the relationship between two of the Founding Fathers who were close personal friends.
Today’s campaigns pale in comparison to the campaign of 1800. However, we’re always one campaign away from besting Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton.
By Don Purdum, Freelance Contributor
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