“It was a contest of titans: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two heroes of the Revolutionary era, once intimate friends, now icy antagonists locked in a fierce battle for the future of the United States. The election of 1800 was a thunderous clash of a campaign that climaxed in a deadlock in the Electoral College and led to a crisis in which the young republic teetered on the edge of collapse. Adams vs. Jefferson is a gripping account of a true turning point in American history, a dramatic struggle between two parties with profoundly different visions of how the nation should be governed. Adams led the Federalists, conservatives who favored a strong central government, and Jefferson led the Republicans, egalitarians who felt the Federalists had betrayed the Revolution of 1776 and were backsliding toward monarchy. The campaign itself was a barroom brawl every bit as ruthless as any modern contest, with mud-slinging–Federalists called Jefferson “a howling atheist”–scare tactics, and backstabbing. The low point came when Alexander Hamilton printed a devastating attack on Adams, the head of his own party, in “fifty-four pages of unremitting vilification.” The election ended in a stalemate in the Electoral College that dragged on for days and nights and through dozens of ballots. Tensions ran so high that the Republicans threatened civil war if the Federalists denied Jefferson the presidency. Finally a secret deal that changed a single vote gave Jefferson the White House. A devastated Adams left Washington before dawn on Inauguration Day, too embittered even to shake his rival’s hand. Jefferson’s election, John Ferling concludes, consummated the American Revolution, assuring the democratization of the United States and its true separation from Britain. With magisterial command, Ferling brings to life both the outsize personalities and the hotly contested political questions at stake. He shows not just why this moment was a milestone in U.S. history, but how strongly the issues–and the passions–of 1800 resonate with our own time.”
Kindle Book Review, Adams v. Jefferson
Presidents number 44 in total from 1789 to now. They all see themselves – beginning with John Adams, the first to occupy the White House on November 01, 1800, his last year in office – as first among equals.
Their predecessor George Washington, literally and figuratively, still stands head and shoulders above them. His Farewell Address had portended of the things to come in the electoral politics of the new republic. Political rancor among the ambitious founding brothers concerned the first president who had led them all, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, cohesively from 1789 to 1797, declining a third term to retire in his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson who had not authored The Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Madison and Jay had critiqued both Washington and Adams, one from the south and the other from the north, the Anglophiles.
It is unclear still if Jefferson, who had written the Declaration of Independence with Benjamin Franklin, had done so out of genuine mistrust for his colleagues’ non-monarchical affinity for Britain or because of his vision for United States – a diplomatic skill he had acquired from Franklin, or out of personal ambition to become president.
Clear, however, from the Farewell Address of George Washington is that he saw the merits of the arguments of both Adams, his Vice President and Jefferson, his Secretary of State: the first president was non-partisan, did not encourage partisanship, and pointed out the demographic homogeneity of the new nation as an important factor in its unity while being explicit about not getting involved in European conflicts to protect it.
Washington’s speech of September 26, 1796 was clearly biased in favor of John Adams because Britain was always geographically distanced from continental and contiguous Europe by the Channel. He did not want to become involved in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Jefferson was a Francophile, having served as Ambassador of the United States after 1776 to France during the run up to the French Revolution in 1789 (Adams was Ambassador to Britain).
Jefferson needed to become president to overcome the Anglophilia of the Federalists, led by Hamilton and including Washington, perhaps to consummate his purchase of the territory of Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte which had doubled the size of the United States and expanded the country further west annexing European occupied lands into United Stands after Lewis and Clark: United States of America, as its homogeneous population grew in size, would need land and resources to preserve its idyllic non-European way of life cherished by colonial Americans and which Jefferson had exemplified at Monticello.
It appears Jefferson was more certain than Washington that only in liberty, individual and religious, American unity could be preserved rather than shying away from Europe – a vision of American global presence FDR had consummated after 1945 across the Atlantic.
On balance, but for the internal displacement of American Indians, Thomas Jefferson has prevailed in the debate about America’s promise to the rest of the world.
John Adams, our second president and Thomas Jefferson, third president, had both died on the same day as friends, on July 04, 1826 in Massachusetts and Monticello, on the 50th anniversary of American independence and 26 years after their bitter contest in 1800, at the turn of the 19th century, for the future of the country they had founded together.
We should only hope that Obama and Romney have a vision for the United States looking forward to justify their gratuitous bitterness toward each other.
I see no vision, at least not yet.