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.


In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were opponents in one of the most bitter presidential elections in U. S. history.

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.


  1. Remember Bush v. Gore? If there was any break in centuries of tradition, it was by Al Gore. Remember the leaked e-mails from wikileaks showing how the Democrats rigged the primaries so Sanders would lose? I know Trump cried foul when he lost certain primaries, but the last few weeks have demonstrated the corruption that is practiced by the Democrat party under Obama and the Clintons. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hillary losses, she will claim voter fraud like the Kerry people did in 2004.

  2. Thanks for the reminder and for your perspective. What Trump said last night is unprecedented. And I did yell at the TV when Mrs. Clinton again said her “America is great because it is good,” misquote! I am curious about something your brought up a couple of posts ago. You said, “The Framer’s skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence. The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830’s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.” I’d like to hear more about that, as these days it seems that most people believe the majority is correct, and that the majority should get what it wants. How did that change come about? Was there a change in theology (ie original sin)? What other factors were involved? And what would you say was the moral authority prior to it becoming the majority?

    • Hi, Kerry: I am way behind in replying to comments, and yours was especially daunting because you ask such huge, important questions. This will seem like a cop-out, but may I have some more time to collect my thoughts? Any short answer would be potentially very misleading. My own view is that there is a Christian case to make for democracy, but it cannot rest on a view of human nature as essentially good or lead logically to a view of the majority as carrying intrinsic moral authority. I think there were many factors contributing to the democratic ethos that emerged over the first half of the nineteenth century–including, but not limited to–a practical repudiation of the doctrine of original sin.

  3. “The Donald” always finds a way to through some curve ball that all but nullifies any possibility of claiming the votes of independents. He is like a truck stuck in the mud – just spinning his wheels faster and faster without any progress. Does he have any realization that if he loses (and I think he will) there will have to be a coming together in order to deal with the crucial issues such as our national security, our horrendous debt, threats to religious freedom, and the nature of the Supreme Court? By his own statements Trump reveals that he is all about himself and not about the welfare of the nation!

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