Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Past Is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past.

There was a time when the past was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, even bordering on barbaric. This was certainly the predominant view of the Founding Fathers as they fashioned this famous experiment in Democracy. A visit to the Jefferson Memorial reveals that notable excerpts of the Virginia lawmaker's voluminous written correspondence are carved into the sides of the stone rotunda which encircles a statue of the man himself. One such passage mentions this very view. With the turn of the last century, a pessimistic, modernist view now holds sway, intimating that the future promises only continued societal decay and not only that, the times which came before us hold a kind of purity of which we are wholly devoid today and unlikely to experience ever again.

As we are two days away from selecting our next President, I decided I'd give some contrast to this contest and one held a little over 200 year ago: The Election of 1800. Though this time around we have slogged through a protracted primary season, endured nearly thirty separate debates, contemplated the weight of pledged delegates versus superdelegates, and wrung our hands over the results of the battleground states, the results of 2008 will be nothing like the election of 1800. Or at least, we hope not.

And for that, count your blessings. Much is made in this day and age about how power is denied to the people in the unfair process of voting. Though changes are still needed, in two hundred years, significant reforms have been pushed through in an effort to give the electorate a greater say over who will win the highest office in the land. In earlier years, this was not the case at all. In 1800, the Electoral College was comprised of powerful state representatives who selected the President in a convoluted system which produced frequently confounding results. Each state maintained its own system of selecting electors, meaning that uniformity from state to state was a rose-colored dream. Imagine an extended election season from April until October. Such was the nature of Presidential elections at the beginning of the American Experiment. State legislatures dictated who would be selected as electors and whichever party controlled the legislature dictated the political leanings of those who would cast ballots to select both the President and the Vice-President.

Both Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr found themselves tied in the Electoral College at 73 votes apiece, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, which after some extremely shameless electioneering and behind-the-scenes maneuvering eventually proclaimed Jefferson the Third President of the United States. Though many electors feared Jefferson's perceived radicalism and progressive religious views, they mistrusted Burr more.

The Founders, in the naive optimism, never believed that more than one party would exist. They deliberately made no mention of party and partisanship in the Constitution, believing that partisan rancor would obstruct the process and get in the way of proper government. Still, division existed almost instantaneously within the country, going as far back as the struggle between the Federalists, who advocated strongly for the passage of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who feared that the document would establish too strong a central government. Though Washington feigned not to favor one party or the other, he was a committed Federalist and governed as such. Within the four years of Washington's first term, the country became a de facto two party state. Fundamental differences between the Federalist party of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington and the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr arose and would shape the country for the next twenty years.

Partisan sentiment is so omnipresent these days, one would be called a fool if he or she proposed that different parties ought not exist. Yet, that was the hope of those who put this country in place.

I pause also to note how we seem to also have gone full circle in more ways than one. With the rise of cable networks and the internet, less and less emphasis is placed upon even the mildest pretense of impartiality in the media. In the early days of the Republic, non-partisan media sources did not exist at all. Most newspapers supported the Federalist cause, though a highly vocal minority of Republican papers advanced the agenda of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Now we seem to increasingly be going back to the way we were then.

The salvation of this country has been its willingness to undertake willingly the reforms necessary for our survival. I hope whomever wins on Tuesday will continue that tradition.


Utah Savage said...

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful post.

Mauigirl said...

Very interesting analysis of the way government worked back then compared to now.

Anonymous said...

This really is a great post. I fell asleep last night watching the profile of John Adams on The History Channel's The Presidents. It was so interesting to hear a discussion of what it must have been like to be the 2nd president, following George Washington.

Sadly, I couldn't stay awake for it.