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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
“Elections, my dear Sir,” wrote John Adams to Thomas Jefferson after perusing a copy of the new Constitution, “Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror.” One can imagine the shudder with which both men, could they stand amid the bustle of a modern presidential campaign, would regard that quadrennial “carnival of buncombe.”
For the Framers of the Constitution saw the selective process as a dignified affair—a few respected electors, state by state, sifting the merits of the worthiest eligibles. Something like a church council naming a new pastor, or a faculty bestowing a professorship. But the march of democracy changed this planned, orderly process into an unbelievable national jamboree, reflecting the best and the worst in our kind of self-government.
The first President was indeed chosen in the judicious manner planned, mainly because of unanimous consent as to the virtues of George Washington. But by the time of Jefferson’s election in 1800, political debate was already red-hot, from Vermont to Georgia. Forty years thereafter, in Van Buren’s day, the council or faculty theory was dead, for it was clear that the Electoral College merely ratified the will of the sovereign—and partisan—voters. The dignified scheme survived only as a shadow.
From then on, presidential candidates and their managers have had to woo the voters regularly and unabashedly with every trick they know. This purposeful pursuit blossomed into a unique institution, the American presidential campaign. Time and technology have inflated it into fantastic shapes. Yet the oddest thing about the quadrennial Mardi gras is how often it has produced genuine leaders.
Nonpartisanship as an ideal in the selection process lasted no longer than Washington. Even as the Father of His Country stepped down in 1797, an opposition newspaper was rejoicing that “the man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country, is this day reduced to a level with his fellow-citizens.” By 1800, the country’s leadership was already dividing into two parties, a development not provided for by the Constitution. On one hand stood the Federalists, generally favoring nationalism, commerce, and the rule of the rich, the wise, and the well-born; on the other were the Democratic Republicans of Thomas Jefferson, generally dedicated to agrarian virtues and the rights of the sovereign states, and inclined to a flirtatious fondness for the “radical” doctrines of the French Revolution. There was enough violence in the wordy warfare of these contenders to make it appear unlikely that the youthful government would long endure. The Federalists were accused of preparing to establish an Anglophile monarchy on American soil, and Federalist clergymen in turn warned darkly that a DemocraticRepublican triumph would, among other things, “change our holy worship into a dance of Jacobin phrenzy” and turn Yankee boys and girls into “disciples of Voltaire” and “concubines of the Illuminati.”
Yet when Thomas Jefferson was elected, he promptly issued a call for peace, declaring in his inaugural address that Americans were “all Republicans … all Federalists.” His meaning was that the defeated party would suffer no worse punishment than the loss of office, and that it would have a fair chance to reverse the verdict peacefully at the next general election. Power could be transferred bloodlessly no matter how hot the fires of partisanship blazed. The country could survive the passions of the elective process, as it has done in fact, with the one sad exception of 1860. For these reasons orators have felt pretty free to give full rein to their imagination in predicting the calamities that would befall the country should the voters unwisely choose the “enemy” candidate. The campaign became a safety valve for the emotions of a headstrong people who took self-government seriously. The game of politics might be a rough one, and the stakes high, but everyone knew that play would resume, with a clean scoreboard, on the next scheduled date. Precisely because life, fortune, and honor did not hinge forever on the outcome, tempers could be let out of control for a time. The American presidential election contest was—and is—an astounding political and psychological device for utilizing controlled tensions in order to get a national decision made.
Yet even further changes were in store for the constitutional plan of President-making. The earliest political parties were essentially associations of likeminded landholders and business and professional men. These were the economic and social groups to whom the franchise was mainly restricted, and when they sent men of their own kind to the state legislatures or to the federal capital, it was assumed that they embodied the only points of view in the country worth any serious consideration. Hence, when the Federalist or Democratic-Republican members of Congress met in caucus to decide whom the “party” should support for President, it seemed to the voters of the period from 1800 to 1820 a wholly reasonable proceeding.