We are all patriots: Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800

To My Fellow Patriots

Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, Progressive or Centrist or Conservative, love Trump or hate Trump or don’t care about Trump one way or the other, male or female or something else, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Evangelical or Mainline, Muslim or Buddhist or Rastafarian, no matter the color of your skin, your native language or your country of origin, if you love America, you must be willing “to fly to the standard of the law.”

We all know there are malign forces afoot seeking to confuse facts, to fill the social air with the fog of untruth, to turn us against each other. We all know. Some are foreign actors, some may be domestic. They are very sophisticated, and they create illusions that manufacture outrage. They convince us that rather than fellow citizens we are enemies. They are especially prevalent on social media: Facebook and Twitter, but they have also poisoned the print and broadcast media.

If you call yourself American, I believe you are a patriot. I believe you care deeply about our country. I do too. I may not agree with you on political particulars, but I believe the system we have devised provides space for constructive dialog if we all agree we are seeking the best interests of all. But it only works if we respect each other as patriots. If I can be convinced you are trying to destroy or take away from me something I cherish, we will never be able to unite.

As citizens and patriots, we owe it to ourselves, each other, and our country to resist the temptation to propagate divisive falsehoods.

To my knowledge there has never been a time in American history when there have not existed deep political and social divisions. The first administration under the Constitution saw the rise of an epic struggle between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the definition of America. What kind of country did the Constitution create? In spite of the claim of some jurists to be “originalists,” meaning adhering to the “original intent” of the founders, in fact the Constitution went into effect without agreement on some of the most basic issues, such as the relationship of States to the national government, the meaning of the stipulations of the Constitution, and even whether the union was perpetual or could be dissolved by the individual States. There was no “original intent,” or there were many, often contradicting each other.

Such was the case with two of two of the original cabinet officers: Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton saw the Constitution creating a powerful central government that would oversee the rise of a great economic powerhouse that would rival Britain. Jefferson was more of an idealist, imagining a country where middle-class farmers could enjoy their lives undisturbed by the vagaries and intrigues of the Old World. Both were absolutely convinced they were right, and both viewed the others’ ideas as destructive to the country. As their conflict continued both gathered like-minded followers, and thus was born what historians refer to as the First Party System.

I think the reason the United States survived the first years of its existence is because of the presidency of George Washington. Washington was the only figure who could command the respect of all and keep the fledgling nation from pulling itself apart. But when Washington stepped aside after two terms the passions of the different factions came forward. The elections of 1796 and 1800 were marked by vicious personal attacks, fake news (Jefferson accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams claimed Jefferson was dead), and foreign intervention.

The maliciousness of these elections was fueled by a belief that if the other side gained or continued control of the government, the country was doomed. In fact, Jefferson had resigned as Adams’ Vice President and retired to Monticello to foment a new revolution. But he threw his hat in the ring for the election of 1800 and ran against Adams again, this time conspiring with an erratic lawyer from New York named Aaron Burr in a bid to ensure that the Presidency and Vice Presidency were not split by faction. The arrangement was that Jefferson would become President by receiving the majority of electors, and Burr would come in second and become Vice President. But the plan didn’t work.

Instead, no one got a majority of the electors, the contest couldn’t be decided by the Electoral College, and the decision went to the House of Representatives. Adams did not have enough support to be reelected. But the House was controlled by partisans who were evenly divided between Jefferson or Burr. The House voted 35 times, each vote resulting in a tie. Tensions rose. The Jeffersonian governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania threatened to call out the militia to march on Washington and install Jefferson as President. The survival of the republic hung in the balance.

Alexander Hamilton, not on the ballot nor in the Congress but controlling events from behind the scene, hated Jefferson. But he despised Burr. He ultimately convinced a number of delegates to change their vote to Jefferson, who became President while Burr was elected Vice President. Adams refused to attend Jefferson’s inauguration and left Washington in a huff.

The political moral of this episode arises from a truth that was denied by both Hamilton and Jefferson: that they had negotiated a hard compromise. The compromise was that Jefferson would be elected President, and as President he would leave Hamilton’s financial measures in place, which Jefferson had fought against as unconstitutional. Neither man could admit the compromise not only because of their own deeply held convictions but because their followers counted on them to stand firm. Nevertheless, both came to recognize that their partisan principles were less important than the survival of the nation. And the nation survived. Democracy requires a willingness to compromise, even when it is painful.

The conflict of ideals between Hamilton and Jefferson has never been fully resolved. These two impulses: economics and ideology, continue to drive American politics. But the battles are waged at the ballot box, not in the streets. The ideology of “my way or the highway” sounds heroic, but it closes the door on constructive dialog. It violates the deeper requirements of union and can’t lead to progress in a democratic society. If persisted in, it leads to civil war, another fact proven by our historical experience.

When Jefferson was inaugurated into the presidency he struck a conciliatory tone. He said,

[E]very 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.[1]

His disagreements with the Federalists were real, but he acknowledged that there was a deeper principle: love of country, that bound them together. And further, he went so far as to say that even those who might wish to dissolve the Union should be left undisturbed. Error of opinion may be tolerated, he said, where reason is left free to combat it.

Such a statement in the midst of the so-called “Age of Reason” carries an enormous weight. Reason was so revered as the standard of truth that the French revolutionaries went so far as to deify it, rededicating the Cathedral of Notre Dame the Temple of Reason. But even today in a post-modern age when “reason” itself is under scrutiny, the larger importance of this statement is the proposition that people may be trusted to rule themselves if they educate themselves on the issues and allow themselves to be driven less by passion than by knowledge. Jefferson believed that democracy is only possible if the electorate is educated. He shared the Founders’ fear that the mob could destroy the republic.

He goes on to state that he believed republican government, thus based on reasoned judgment, is “the world’s best hope” and the “strongest Government on earth.” He said, “I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”

An excellent government indeed, if properly exercised.

The responsibilities of citizenship are hard. As citizens we must be up to date on accurate information about what we have been, who we are, and where we are going. We must educate ourselves on the issues before us. It means we are required to put effort into gathering facts, which is all the more difficult today because they are so difficult to ascertain. A democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry. It is up to us to become informed and to be engaged. I might point out that it is much easier to live under the regime of a monarchy or dictatorship. You don’t have to know or do anything other than what you are told.

Here are some ways we can be informed and engaged citizens:

  1. Assume the person we disagree with is a patriot, even if misguided. If we must respond, do it armed with verified facts. Leave aside personal attacks. It may be true that the person who resorts to insults and name-calling does so because they realize their argument has failed.
  2. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. We tend to want to believe only those things we are predisposed to believe, but before passing on “information” we must make the effort to fact check it. Some ways of doing this are listed below.
  3. Be willing to admit, at least to ourselves and if we are brave publicly, when we are wrong.
  4. Consider the source.
    • Is it a site you are familiar with? If not, check the URL. Watch out for URLs with .co added to what looks like a mainstream news site. For example, many have been fooled by a site that looks like it’s ABC News but it’s not: abcnews.com.co
    • Also watch for sites that end in “lo” like Newslo. “These sites take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy),” according to Merrimack College Professor Melissa Zimdars, who has made a specialty of studying “fake news.”
    • Read the “About Us” section. Does it seem credible? It too may be made up.
    • Is there a way to contact the news organization?
    • Does it have a link to its editorial standards? Like PBS does.
    • How credible does the website look? Is it screaming ALL-CAPS? Are there distracting gizmos for you to click on and win $10,000? Exit, immediately.
  5. Read beyond the headlines.
    • Too often we read an outrageous headline that confirms our biases and quickly pass it on. Don’t. Read deeper into the story and ask:
    • How many sources are there? Is there documentation or links to back up the claim? Could you independently verify the contents? In most mainstream media stories, people are quoted by name, title and where they work (although sometimes they are quoted anonymously), and there are links to reports or court documents.
    • Search the names of people, places or titles in a story. For example, the false story about Clinton being behind an FBI agent’s murder-suicide, said it took place in Walkerville, Maryland. There is no such place. There is a WalkerSville. Tricky.
    • Check out a far-fetched quote by copying and pasting it into a search engine. Anyone else have that?
    • Check out the author’s name. Search it or click on it. Has he or she written anything else? Is it credible?
    • Is there any context included in the story? Does it seem fair? Are there opposing points of view?
    • Drill down to find out who is behind the site —especially if it’s a contentious issue.
  6. Check the date.
    • Too many times, a story is recycled with a new exaggerated headline. You’d be surprised how many times people die. In July, I got an email that famous journalist Helen Thomas had died. I started to forward it but something didn’t seem right. Why? She had died three years ago.
  7. Double check suspicious photos.
    • This is fairly easy to do by right-clicking on a image and the doing a Google search. Photos of Hillary Clinton stumbling back in February were recycled closer to the election to give the impression she was sick.
    • Several other helpful sites can assist:
      • Reverse Image Search
      • Reverse Image Search using Google
  1. Check your biases
    • Know your own biases. Try taking Harvard University’s Project Implicit Bias test.
  2. Learn from a wide variety of sources.
    • Check out Media Matters, which monitors conservative media and the Media Research Center, which monitors the mainstream media.[2]

Here are a couple of other helpful web sites.

I know this seems like a lot of work. It is. Freedom isn’t free. But again, the alternative is to live with the government’s boot on your neck, compelling you to believe and do whatever you are told.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address” (Speech, Washington, DC, March 4, 1801), https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.

[2] #4-9 Alicia Shepard, “A Savvy News Consumer’s Guide: How Not to Get Duped,” Moyers (blog), December 16, 2016, https://billmoyers.com/story/savvy-news-consumers-guide-not-get-duped/.

 

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