Thursday, March 4, 2021

This Day in Presidential History (Jefferson Calms Tensions After Disputed Election)

Mar. 4, 1801—In the newly constructed capital of the nation he had helped bring into being, Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the third President of the United States—and, after a bitterly disputed election, the first to take office in a peaceful transfer of power between rival political parties.

In his own assumption of the Presidency in 1981, Ronald Reagan pointed out the remarkable nature of such an event: “In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”  

That “miracle” has continued without disruption except twice since Jefferson took the oath of office:  In 1861, when Southern states seceded rather than accept their recent electoral loss to a Republican Party committed to containing slavery, and this past January 6, at the Capitol riot that interrupted the formal acknowledgement of Electoral College results, leading to five deaths.

The author of the Declaration of Independence took the oath of office after an election that threatened to tear the United States asunder before it had barely begun. With a Constitution that did not envision party tickets or even political parties, the two Democratic-Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, ended up with the same number of electoral votes.

In spite of the fact that it was clearly understood that Jefferson headed the ticket, the election ended up, for the first of only two times in U.S. history, in the House of Representatives, where the rival Federalist Party seriously considered electing Burr rather than the candidate they abominated, according to historian Richard Hofstadter’s The Idea of a Party System, as “an atheist, a French fanatic, a libertine, a visionary, and a political incompetent.”

Tensions were at the breaking point, with some Federalists scheming to avoid ceding the election to the Republicans at all, while the Republican governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania prepared to mobilize the state militia in case of Federalist usurpation. In the end, with the Federalists accepting the conclusion of the informal party leader, Alexander Hamilton, that even the hated Jefferson was preferable to the unprincipled and dangerous Burr, the House voted to accept the Virginian as the winner.

In his landmark History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams depicts, with wonderful irony, the men around whom controversy swirled that March 4:

*a “retiring President” (his great-grandfather, John Adams) too angry to show up at the inauguration of the former friend who had defeated him in this last general election (John’s son, son John Quincy Adams, reacted similarly in 1829 when an opponent he despised, Andrew Jackson, assumed office);

*a Chief Justice (John Marshall) only appointed six weeks before but already on record as despising Jefferson;

*a Vice-President (Burr) now regarded by Jefferson and his associates as “the certain centre of corruption” for his ambiguous responses to Federalist attempts to sound him out before the recent vote in the House; and

*Jefferson himself, who, unlike later occupants of the White House, arrived with minimal ceremony: on foot, in ordinary dress, accompanied only by militia from a neighboring state and a few close political associates.

In private correspondence, among trusted confidants, Jefferson fulminated against the recent “reign of witches,” or period of political intolerance among the Federalists, and nearly two decades later he remembered the “revolution of 1800.” But publicly, in 1801, he began what has been a tradition of newly inaugurated Presidents since then: a reminder of the unity that exists among Americans despite strongly held political opinions.

Jefferson’s first inaugural address is among the most famous of all his public documents. Indeed, in a 2017 blog post, James M. Lindsay of the Council of Foreign Relations included it on a list of the seven best inaugural addresses.

Similarly to England’s theorist of conservatism, Edmund Burke, Jefferson delivered the most memorable public utterances in a voice devoid of volume or even noticeable expression. So it was with this address. Though many in his small audience that day could barely make out what he had to say, it has reverberated in all the years since, including in this appeal to bipartisan harmony:

“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. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

As with all later occupants of the White House, Jefferson would encounter storms of contention. But on this occasion, he succeeded in calming an anxious nation, including through his assurance—which has gained even greater relevance in light of recent events—to preserve “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.”

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