An election year like no other. Riots. Arson of federal buildings. Fear of a Black uprising. A Supreme Court vacancy. Immigration issues. Changing voting laws. Lies and slander by both parties. Accusations the president considers himself an untouchable king. The president wanting to lock up the press. A shadowy deep state. An Electoral College tie. Court packing. Improperly completed ballots. A conservative law-and-order candidate vs. a liberal return-to-normal candidate.

Yes. I’m talking about the 1800 presidential election of John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson.

It is easy to assume the tumult we face today is unprecedented. It isn’t. It’s all happened before – and far worse than we’re experiencing today.

In 1800, conservative Federalist John Adams was running against more liberal Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans. Voting started in April and continued to October. During the campaign, Jefferson feared Blacks would rise up to kill whites, and proposed sending them back to Africa. Adams and his party in Congress had passed the Alien and Sedition Act and jailed people like Benjamin Franklin’s grandson – a reporter – for criticizing the Adams administration. Riots broke out. The War Office was burned in a suspected arson attack. Pennsylvania threatened to send militia to arrest congressmen; New England threatened to secede from the Union.

The campaigns were bitter – with Aaron Burr (who later killed Alexander Hamilton) being credited with creating the modern political campaign.

The election results came in. The states made strategic last-minute changes to how their electors were chosen, and the result was a tie – throwing the election to the House of Representatives. Between October 1800 and February 1801 the House held 36 ballots to resolve the tie. Tempers flared and the parties went haywire.

Adams, controlling the House and Senate, introduced and passed a bill creating the federal courts and packed them with conservatives. He reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five so Jefferson couldn’t name anyone to the court. Then, adding to the perturbation, a Supreme Court vacancy opened. Adams named and seated a conservative who is likely our greatest justice: John Marshall, who wrote that the Constitution must “be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.” And it has adapted.

Hamilton, a Federalist, engaged a deep state opposition to Adams swaying the final vote for Jefferson.

While Jefferson barely won the election with 52 percent of the Electoral College, he won a large majority of the popular vote – 67 percent, a theme echoed today.

The transition of power happened without major incident March 4, 1801. Adams wrote a conciliatory note to Jefferson that presaged the hand-written note George H.W. Bush left in the Oval Office for Bill Clinton: “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

Despite the heat of the campaign, Jefferson delivered a unifying inaugural message: “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. … Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”

This was reflected in Barack Obama’s inaugural speech: “My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction. And we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service.”

One hopes that whoever loses this election will take their cue from these sentiments; that “Lock Them Up” will be discarded in favor of good wishes.

Either way, what we are going through today is not new. Indeed, it is arguably far less dangerous than the 1800 election.

So, dear compatriot, go to the polls. Express your view. Vote. And remember – all this will pass. If you do not win, our country is resilient. It has survived civil war.

We will survive this, too.


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