Nov 6, 2008

Elections in Revolutionary Times

On election day, my daughter's school was closed because they were using it for a polling place. Since she was home with us for the day, we decided to go to lunch. As we were walking into the restaurant, Emma asked: "Did they have political parties back when George Washington was president?"

I replied something like this: "There were not political parties when Washington was elected, but two members of his cabinet so violently disagreed about the path American government should take that they started the first two American political parties: the Republicans and the Federalists."

Political historians claim that the ideological roots of the early parties can not be directly traced to the modern Republicans and Democrats. What I know is that the Republicans, founded by Thomas Jefferson, favored strong states and minimal federal control while the Federalists, founded by Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central federal government.

We have a tendency to romanticize the founding fathers and the early years of America as an independent nation, but the truth is that politics in that day and age were vicious. Party leaders bought newspapers to attack each other. Our beloved Thomas Jefferson was particularly ruthless in his political pursuits. He paid a journalist to dig up and report dirt on his political enemies (like Hamilton). When the tables turned and the journalist reported that Jefferson (then president) himself had a Monticello slave for a mistress, the journalist was found floating in a river.

The fact is that Jefferson never would have been president if not for Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had a lot of political influence back then. In fact, under George Washington, he was (next to Washington himself) the most powerful man in America. We diminish his role as Secretary of the Treasury as just another of many cabinet posts (using today's standards), but Hamilton played a role in Washington's administration akin to Prime Minister. He created our system of currency, the national banks and the securities markets, among other things -- all from the whole cloth of his remarkable genius. During Washington's two terms in office, Hamilton grew the Treasury Department to a staff of 300 men. Jefferson, as secretary of state, had three guys.

During the election coverage on Tuesday night, one of the pundits mentioned that Washington won the electoral college vote unanimously. Back then, there was no popular vote. Washington was running against John Adams in the first election. Adams had strong support, but Hamilton felt it was important for the unity of our new nation that our first president be elected unanimously -- so he campaigned secretly for a unanimous vote. A few years later, when Adams learned of this, he never forgave Hamilton. When Adams followed Washington as president, Hamilton became persona non grata in the Adams administration. He was briefly made general of the standing national army (at Washington's insistence), but Adams later dissolved the army and with it, Hamilton's post.

But I promised you a story about Jefferson. In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr were the leading candidates. Both were Republicans. The only man Hamilton hated more in American politics of the day than Thomas Jefferson was Aaron Burr. Jefferson was wrong-headed, he believed, about the path the government should take, but Burr was a self-serving devil. The two men tied in the election and in numerous subsequent votes in the house and senate. At the end of the day, Hamilton -- still influential as head of the Federalist Party -- endorsed Jefferson to his allies in the senate. Jefferson won the White House by one vote. And who killed Hamilton in a duel a few years later? Aaron Burr.

I find this all fascinating. I hope you do, too. But I started this post simply to announce that I am being officially inducted into the Martha Stewart Bulloch Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution on Monday!


1 comment:

Bone*Head*Studios said...

BRAVO!!!! Fabulous !!!! Well deserved Nina!!!