What issues divided the Federalists and the Republicans in 1800?

The biggest one was war with France. France and England were fighting each other all over the world, and both countries with their vast navies were attacking our ships—hundreds of ships a year. We were under a lot of pressure to align with one or the other. The Federalists were pro-British, and the Republicans were proFrench. By the middle of John Adams’ administration, we had built a navy and were openly attacking French ships on the high seas. The Federalists were also saying that the French were going to invade us not only with their soldiers but also with free blacks from Haiti to foment rebellion among our slaves.

On the other side, the Republicans were saying that the Federalists would realign us with Britain, establish a monarchy and take away our democracy. High Federalists like Alexander Hamilton actually did want to create an American monarchy. Even moderates like Adams and John Jay deeply believed in a strong executive, while the Republicans were for state’s rights and a strong legislature. Those issues truly separated people. No one knew what could work, what was possible. How much could the people be involved in government, or would elites have to run it? That was an open question. We were playing without precedent.

Who was eligible to vote?

It varied from state to state, but compared to anywhere else in the world at this time, it was a remarkably broad electorate. Most free adult white males could vote and, in some states, free blacks and Native Americans. Various states had property qualifications, but they were pretty lax. Turnouts could be very high—higher than they are today. The nation was more politicized, I think, because they honestly thought they could make a difference. Many of them went through the Revolution, and they saw that their participation did make a difference. There wasn’t the cynicism we have now.

Was the survival of the union really at stake in 1800?

Yes. We’d gone through two governments in rapid succession: the Second Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation. Many people thought that the only reason the Constitution was working was the personal force of character of George Washington. There had always been grave doubts about whether it would succeed after Washington died, and they thought national political parties would be the ruin of American democracy. Also, there wasn’t the veneration of the Constitution like we have now, and there was no effective Supreme Court.

If the Federalists had played their cards a little differently, Pennsylvania and Virginia, so near the capital and under solid “big-R” Republican rule, would have mounted their militia. There was no federal military to oppose it. If Adams had not been so committed to “small-r” republican rule, it could well have broken up right there. This was a crucial moment. I see the Founding period starting at 1776—or 1775, if you start with Lexington and Concord—and running through 1800. Until then, you really don’t know how the transfer of power would work. Figuring that out was as critical to the story as the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution.

How does this episode compare to a constitutional crisis like Southern secession?

It’s certainly on the scale of the secession crisis—states were threatening to leave the union— though it’s hard to place it above 1860. Adams’ moderation and the Federalists’ commitment to making the Constitution work, and Jefferson’s tacit agreement to maintain the navy and to pay established debts—his end of the deal—eventually broke the deadlock. Jefferson always denied that, but history shows that as president he complied with every term of the purported deal. Some people say that Jefferson ran as a very radical Republican but ruled as a very moderate Federalist. His extraordinary demonstration of executive power in authorizing the Louisiana Purchase and doubling the size of the country—which is completely outside the Constitution—was just the kind of thing the Federalists loved. John Marshall, as much as he hated Jefferson, called it “that marvelous act.” So the Federalists’ commitment to the system and Jefferson’s moderation quieted down a crisis that could have literally ended the Constitution.

What surprised you most about the 1800 election?

How familiar it is today. These people were as smart as anyone we know today. They were as politically astute, and they could follow the pulse of the country without opinion polls to guide them. The partisanship was as intense, or even more intense, because people were more engaged than they are today. I didn’t expect that sense of chronicling a modern election.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here