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When John Adams was elected President, and Thomas Jefferson Vice President, each came to see the other as a traitor. Out of their enmity grew our modern political system.
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
During the first contested presidential election in American history, the voters were asked to choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In this millennial year, voters will choose between George W. Bush and Al Gore. At first blush, the caustic observation of Henry Adams appears indisputable: The American Presidency stands as a glaring exception to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary progress.
But straightforward comparisons between now and then are notoriously treacherous ventures, in part because those statesmen who have been eulogized and capitalized as Founding Fathers enjoy privileged treatment in our memories, in part because the political culture of the early American Republic was a fluid and formative bundle of improvisations. Nothing remotely resembling modern parties yet existed. The method of choosing electors to that odd inspiration called the Electoral College varied from state to state. Voters did not choose between two party tickets; they voted for the two best men, and the runner-up became Vice President. Once elected, the President did not regard himself as the leader of a political party so much as the bipartisan spokesman for the public interest.
Perhaps the most historically significant development during the Adams Presidency was the emergence of party-based politics. This was the historical moment, in short, when the outlines of our modern system first began to congeal, the time when American politics began to move from then to now.
At the beginning of the story, however, no one envisioned the changes that were about to occur, and neither the institutions nor the vocabulary essential for making the transition were yet in place. In 1796 there were no political primaries, no party conventions with smoke-filled rooms. True enough, there were two identifiable political camps: the Federalists, who favored a more powerful central government and who had enjoyed the incalculable advantage of George Washington’s presiding presence as the central figure symbolizing national authority for the first eight years of the government’s existence, and the Republicans, the emerging opposition, who contested the authority of the federal government over domestic policy. But the chief qualification for the Presidency was less a matter of one’s location within the political spectrum than a function of one’s revolutionary status. Memories of the hard-won battle for American independence were still warm, which meant that prospective candidates needed to possess revolutionary credentials earned during the crucial years between 1776 and 1783. Only those leaders were eligible who had stepped forward at the national level to promote the great cause when its success was still perilous and problematic.
Both men realized they were jockeying for position within the vast shadow of Washington, who was inherently irreplaceable.
They were an incongruous pair, but everyone seemed to argue that history had made them into a pair. The incongruities leaped out for all to see: Adams the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander, Jefferson the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian; Adams the highly combustible, ever-combative, mile-a-minute talker, whose favorite form of conversation was argument, Jefferson the always cool and self-contained enigma, who regarded argument as a violation of the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head. The list could go on: the Yankee and the Cavalier, the orator and the writer, the bulldog and the greyhound. Choosing between them seemed like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.
As political rivals and personal friends, both men realized they were jockeying for position within the tremendous shadow of Washington, who was destiny’s choice as the greatest American of the age and therefore inherently irreplaceable. Adams’s strategy was to trade on the famous Adams-Jefferson friendship and to suggest a bipartisan administration. If no single leader could hope to fill the huge vacuum created by Washington’s departure, perhaps the reconstituted team of Adams and Jefferson might enjoy at least a fighting chance of sustaining the legacy of national leadership that Washington had established. Adams began to float the idea in letters to mutual friends like Benjamin Rush that if elected President, he intended to include Vice President Jefferson as a full partner in his administration.