As a historian, I thought the defining moment in last night’s third and final presidential debate came when moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Donald Trump if he was prepared to accept the outcome of next month’s election should he be defeated. “I will look at it at the time,” Trump equivocated. “I will keep you in suspense.” In that one brief exchange the Republican nominee turned his back on centuries of American history and proved beyond doubt his utter unfitness for the nation’s highest office.
The thirty-nine men who signed the final draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 did not foresee the development of permanent political parties and would have been distressed by the prospect. In Federalist #10, James Madison famously descried the tendency to divide into factions as a “dangerous vice” that threatened free government. Factionalism produced “instability, injustice, and confusion,” i.e., “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”
George Washington similarly deplored political parties and warned the nation against them before stepping down as the country’s first president. Washington condemned “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and described them at length for his fellow countrymen. He warned that partisan spirit “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and] kindles the animosity of one part against another.”
Yet political parties developed, nonetheless, and when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in the presidential election of 1796, the country understood that they represented two distinct political factions that had morphed into formal political parties–Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. (Due to a Constitutional quirk, the victorious Adams and his defeated rival would serve as president and vice-president, respectively.) The election of 1796 did not involve a “campaign” as we would recognize it today, however. It mostly consisted of elite statesmen writing letters to other elite statesmen on behalf of their chosen nominee, and neither candidate openly sought support for his election, as that was then considered unseemly.
All this changed in the election of 1800. By this time the country was badly roiled by external dangers and internal dissension. Britain and France had been at war since 1793, and the parties differed sharply as to how the infant United States might preserve both its neutrality and its dignity in a world at war. The pro-British Federalists had signed a humiliating treaty with the British just before Washington left office, and then the Federalist majority in Congress had begun to mobilize for a possible war with France. Convinced that the Federalists were bent on war, the pro-French Democratic-Republicans cried foul. Viewing their opposition on the brink of war as a threat to national security, Congressional Federalists responded by passing the Sedition Act of 1798, which effectively made criticism of the government a crime. Refusing to back down, Democratic-Republican leaders Jefferson and James Madison declared the law illegal and urged state legislatures to “nullify” it. At no time other than the Civil War have Americans been so bitterly and so deeply divided.
The genteel, decorous, largely behind the scenes campaign of 1796 devolved into an acrimonious, ugly, public war in 1800 when Adams and Jefferson squared off a second time. This time both parties mobilized a print campaign, enlisting partisan authors to abuse the other party in newspapers, pamphlets, circulars, and broadsides. Democratic-Republican writers castigated the Federalists as closet monarchists and Tories in league with Britain to subvert American liberties. They were the puppets of international financiers whose goal was to reduce the people of the United States to “rags, hunger, and wretchedness.” At best, their economic policies were products of “imbecility and impudence.”
Federalists gave as good as they got. Federalist writers accused Jefferson of being an atheist (false), of fathering “mulatto” children (probable), and of being an unabashed supporter of the French Revolution (undeniable). If Jefferson was elected, they prophesied that America would suffer the “just vengeance of Heaven.” The worst excesses of French radicalism would come to America: “dwellings in flames, hoary heads bathed in blood, female chastity violated . . . children on the pike and halberd.” (Translation: if the other side wins, cities will burn to the ground, the aged will be murdered, women will be raped, and children will be speared. This was hardly a golden age of civil discourse.)
In the end, the Democratic-Republicans won the election by a hair, with Jefferson claiming the victory in the electoral college by a vote of 71-68. (Technically, Jefferson tied with running mate, Aaron Burr, but that’s another story.) John Adams had every reason to view the outcome as illegitimate. Schemers in his own party, most notably Alexander Hamilton, had failed to support him. What was worse, Thomas Jefferson owed his slender electoral margin to the fact that his support came disproportionately from states with large slave populations; thanks to the Constitution’s “three-fifths” clause, those states were entitled to extra electoral votes. Had the Founders not made this compromise with the owners of human property, Adams, not Jefferson, would have gained the victory.
Yet Adams did not contest the election formally, nor openly condemn the outcome. And Jefferson, for his part, used his inaugural address not to castigate his opponents but to seek common ground with them. “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind,” he exhorted. “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. . . . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
So transpired the first transfer of power from one political party to the other in U. S. history. It was, despite the acrimony on both sides, remarkably peaceful. Both parties submitted to it. Both sides respected the outcome, despite the depth of their differences and the magnitude of what was at stake. This was not something the Framers of the Constitution in 1787 could have predicted. It is not something Americans in 2016 should take for granted. It is, in fact, one of the most precious legacies we have inherited from our forebears.
Either Donald Trump doesn’t know this, or he doesn’t care.