It is a truly unprecedented moment in America’s short history. Four years of the current administration have left the people divided across vitriolic political battle lines in a way they never have been before. The current President’s policies have seen foreigners labelled ‘aliens’ and unwelcome on American shores. The President’s supporters have labeled those who write or act against his policies as “seditious,” curtailing the freedom of the press and inciting outrage amongst his detractors. Already, Americans begin to look back with nostalgia to previous administrations and “simpler times” when we were unified by our founding principles and the “Spirit of ’76.”
I am certain everyone can guess the ‘unprecedented moment in history’ I am writing about, and the particular president who remains infamous to this day. I am writing about John Adams, the second president of the United States and the historic election of 1800.
It’s evident that Adams had colossal shoes to fill. In 1789, George Washington received one vote from each of the 69 electors, making him the only president to achieve a unanimous vote in the electoral college. If he had wanted, he could have served four-year term after four-year term until the end of his life. Instead, he stepped down after two terms, a precedent for the president that was followed well into the 20th century when the rule was finally solidified through Constitutional Amendment.
In his time as President, Washington tried to rise above the party politics that arose through the tenure of his administration. He brought dignity to the position. Adams was not so fortunate, although not for lack of trying. Adams was the first to admit he lacked the polish and prestige of the former commander-in-chief. In 1776, as the committee debated whose pen should receive the credit in writing the Declaration of Independence, Adams refused because, as he said, “I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular.” The less-than flattering adjectives followed him all through his career as a sometimes-successful American diplomat in Europe, but he still commanded respect and a place at the table amongst his American contemporaries.
By Adams’s election as the second president, American politics already found itself divided into two rival political parties; the Federalists (with men like Hamilton and Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (with Jefferson and Madison)
Adams’s presidency was wrought with controversy. As fights raged on with the new regime of France, and the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts “a monster that would forever disgrace its parents.” Adams quickly began to make enemies with not only the Democratic-Republicans, but within the ranks of his own party.
America was braced for a powder keg. Old friendships gave way to new mutiny, and no one’s hands would stay clean. Through agents and friends, the two candidates for president, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, slung vicious barbs and sneers at one another and sparked a national conversation of the many ways America would crumble and the few ways it would succeed.
If Jefferson were to win, “In a short time, licentiousness and immorality would meet with the most public approbation, every restraint would soon be thrown off, and men would soon bring themselves to be infamous debauchees, assassins, cheats, thieves, liars, hateful and hating one another, a curse upon the earth.”
“At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is 'Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD - AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON - AND NO GOD!!!”
John Adams was labelled a monarchist, “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
The insults grew more vicious, and America more divided as the Election of 1800 fast approached. In the end, the disgraced Adams would lose the electoral votes needed to win his second term, but the election of 1800 would only grow more complicated. In another unprecedented event, the electoral votes were tied between Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York.
The tie would lead to the decision going all the way to the halls of Congress, dominated by Federalists who had no love for Thomas Jefferson. For six days, and after 35 ballots were tallied, neither candidate had the necessary majority to declare victory. Finally, fearing for the preservation of the union, delegates from north and south would break party lines and, by a slim margin, America had its third president: Thomas Jefferson.
In 1801 John Adams would leave the Presidential Mansion by stagecoach, no longer a prince of America but a common citizen. Thomas Jefferson would walk to his inauguration and say at his address that a “difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
Animosities between the Federalists and Democratic Republicans would continue to pervade Jefferson’s administration, and Madison’s after him. The Election of 1800 would be labelled as ‘the Revolution of 1800’ or ‘The Bloodless Revolution.’ For the present, when party politics continue to divide a people and the presidential election of 2020 proves to find its own place in the history books, there is a powerful lesson and cautionary tale in the contentious fight between Adams and Jefferson. Additionally, there is genuine hope that comes from what happens when Americans put the good of their country, the preservation of the Union in front of their own political beliefs.
Bryan Austin is a professional actor, writer, and interpreter with over 20 years in the theatre and museum world. His presentations as Madison have taken him to schools and audiences across the country along with interviews and articles with TIME and various other local newspapers.
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