Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Mr Jefferson, Mr Hamilton

My daughter kissing Alexander Hamilton in the National Gallery, 2017

Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it? A. Lincoln, July 4th, 1861

The roots of the United States Constitution can be traced back to the brilliant salons of Paris and the intellectual circles of England. Termed the Age of Enlightenment, the era produced farsighted treatises and essays, that later influenced the principles of American law.  

One discussion pondered the character of humanity. By simply breathing air were all guaranteed fundamental rights? Was every person, by nature, competent to participate in the political process? In other words, if left unbridled, could citizens mutually ensure good order among themselves? 

Philosophers John Locke and Charles-Louis Montesquieu believed in that innate goodness. To their way of thinking, people, left in a state of nature, could be trusted, guided by enlightened self-interest. A limited central government best served in this model, trusting in individual virtue.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson nearly plagiarized Locke, justifying the causes for the break with Great Britain. The “Sage of Monticello” explained that Parliament had failed in protecting freeborn British Colonials, and argued that it was a duty to establish a better system that did.

Jefferson’s interpretation meant free landholders stretching across the vast continent required no political coercion. Government, in this scenario, left all persons in peace, limiting a federal system to foreign policy, tariffs and other national issues.

Jefferson’s political adversary, Alexander Hamilton held a starkly different view. Having come into the world without any standing, Hamilton rose in society by his own wit, and smarts. One had to earn the right to shape public policy. Hamilton championed a strong central government, endowed with enough power to found a stable nation-state. Economic authority, in particular, the power to tax, float bonds, and regulate tariffs was his prerequisite for lasting stability.  

In practice, by 1781, each state functioned as independent fiefdoms, loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. Chaos thrived. The various states battled over countless rival interests. A failure to levy taxes especially crippled the nation’s ability to function. 

From Hamilton’s perspective the nation would collapse if nothing was done to curb mob rule. Violent acts flared throughout the fledgling nation. From credit to taxation, Hamilton understood, without a healthy economy philosophical differences were moot. So with real alarm Hamilton vented to a political foe, “your people, sir–your people is a great beast.” 

What good was victory at Yorktown if America failed to function? The British could bide their time and reoccupy when the country eventually collapsed. In fact, war heroes like Ethan Allen were reaching out to the British in Canada, to protect settlers in Vermont, and land promoters in the south opened similar talks with Spanish. 

Young Hamilton too, borrowed liberally from Enlightened philosophers.The theories of Englishman, Thomas Hobbes especially persuaded the New Yorker that people required a strong central authority. Impetuous citizens and resisting states posed a far greater threat than any adversary.

When the Constitutional Convention finally adjourned in September, 1787, the product of their work, the US Constitution fused Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers of the Enlightenment. A new creation like no other ever.

Jefferson, fresh from Paris, flipped out a bit reading the new framework. He argued that the document must remain limited, exercising narrow authority. Hamilton argued for a much broader reading, insisting that ‘implied powers’ made the Constitution flexible.

This difference established the first political parties: The Democratic-Republicans under Jefferson, and the Federalists under Hamilton.

 Americans still find a home somewhere between the beliefs of Mr Jefferson and Mr Hamilton. Except for the great beasts who overemphasize their 2nd Amendment rights to attack the halls of government, and wage war upon us all..

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Aftermath

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The Constitution was slightly over twelve years old. The rules on presidential elections read precisely on paper, and in 1800 the front runner, Thomas Jefferson looked to enter the White House with ease. However, though designed by the best minds of that era, the flaws built into the Electoral College failed to deliver Jefferson his expected victory. Something had gone terribly awry triggering America’s first electoral crisis. 

New York Republican, Aaron Burr was chosen as Jefferson’s running mate. The thinking was to balance the ticket with a Virginian at the top, and a New Yorker in the second spot drawing Northern votes. Thus the stage was set for a painless triumph over the faltering Federalist Party. However, when the electoral votes were tallied as prescribed by Article 2, the running mates unexpectedly tied for the top spot.

The fault lay in the statute itself, by failing to anticipate such a scenario. Jefferson soon grew furious as Burr passively declined to concede the office, and the tie was forced to the House of Representatives for resolution. In the end the stalemate broke when Alexander Hamilton intervened, persuading the hold-over Federalist majority to choose Jefferson as the lesser of the two evils. (One of the grievances leading to the later duel with Burr). But why?

This was personal. New Yorkers both, Hamilton and Burr had come to detest one another, Though no political friend of Jefferson, Hamilton recognized a fellow patriot, despite deeply held differences. Burr, however was only interested in Burr. Hamilton’s intent was to protect the new nation, and block a scoundrel from assuming the highest office in the land.

Jefferson was sworn into office, and later, in 1804, the Constitution was modified with the Twelfth Amendment, rectifying the design flaws in the original document. 

Twenty years later, in 1824, another impasse materialized that touched off national outrage for decades. The shifting winds of political change found a champion in the person of General Andrew Jackson, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans. Old Hickory had built his reputation as a ruthless Indian fighter, slave holder, and conqueror of Spanish Florida. His feats were celebrated throughout the growing nation, and Jackson’s prospects for election seemed assured. But again, events proved otherwise.

When the Electoral Vote was counted Andrew Jackson had received 99 votes. New England’s John Quincy Adams, son of the Second President, had secured 84 electoral votes. William Crawford of Georgia, though quite ill, earned 41 votes, and lastly, the former Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, 37. The magic number in 1824 to claim victory was 130 votes, so the race was once more, referred to the House of Representatives. Still, Jackson clearly had been the choice of the people.

When John Quincy Adams was unexpectedly named President the public outcry was deafening. In defiance of the people, Henry Clay, the former Speaker used his considerable influence to place Quincy Adams in the White House. When Clay became Adams nominee for Secretary of State, cries of “Corrupt Bargain” blazed across the nation. A furious Andrew Jackson at once began his bid for the presidency in 1828.

Quincy and Clay were stunned. They took actions they believed were best for the nation. They saw the capricious Jackson as a danger to democracy, a man who demonstrated the tendencies of a despot. Still Adams was politically wounded, and the Administration did little of substance in the four years left to them. As for Henry Clay, he never fully restored his reputation.

Other questionable elections repeated through the years. In 1876 with the election of Ruther”fraud” B Hayes, and again in 2000 with the Bush V Gore “hanging chad” debacle.

Today America is dealing with another administration struggling for legitimacy.

The Election of 2016 has left the American public uncertain that  their votes actually count. Russian interference, through social media, and electronic hacking was an exculpatory factor in the outcome. Sinister and new in electoral history, cyber espionage has given America a Chief Executive markedly sensitive to the dark subversion undermining his victory. 

Losing the popular vote by over 3 million ballots, the new president claims those votes were cast illegally, and demanded voting rolls from the states be turned over to a government committee for analysis. Nothing significant came of that effort, and questions continue to swirl around this fishy election cycle. 

Somewhere in the chaos the Russian government has reaped what it apparently wanted: domestic turmoil. A long-standing enemy of the United States, the former Soviet Union aims to re-elevate its international stature. What better way could objectives be met, than by hijacking an American election, causing enough confusion to find a sort of sweet revenge.

Deals have been brokered since the beginning of the Republic, but the players have been competing American interests. We may squabble our political beliefs among ourselves, but that is the messy nature of freedom. Now the arrangements appear to be negotiated by foreign players. This foreign interference cannot be repeated, we have future American generations to protect. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight.

Available on Kindle

Head and Heart

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“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802

President Jefferson did not mince his words. He drew a clear distinction between what is personal and sacred, and what remained secular and public. History had taught Jefferson that invoking the Almighty usually ended in bloody holy wars, rendering effective civil government unworkable. Of all the founders, President Jefferson grasped the importance of detaching faith from law.

If you follow my blog you already know I’m not a big fan of Jefferson. His actions, as well as his writings on race alone, provide a legacy of duplicitous thinking. For example the practice of beating young slaves daily was of no matter to the master of Monticello. But on the issue of natural rights, his Lockean take on the social contract– Jefferson’s views ring with authority.

This morning the Idaho Legislature killed a bill in committee that would “Add the Words,” (protecting the LGBT community) to the Human Rights Act in Idaho. Following three days of impassioned testimony from supporters and detractors, HB2 fell in a 13-4 vote. A significant amount of testimony came from various churches on both sides of the issue. The fearful tended toward the shrill, impassioned by their emotions. One fellow, in particular, ranted that his wife shouldn’t have to share a public bathroom with a transgender individual. He was so riled up the committee chair admonished him to control himself. His answer, “Well Praise the Lord.”

Now the Gay community in Idaho didn’t seek this fight. These folks have done their best get along in society. The term ‘closeted’ comes to mind here. The threat of eviction, job termination, and outright violence has demanded a covenant of silence. However, over time, the preponderance of social, economic, and political mistreatment has galvanized this movement for simple justice. These citizens have had enough. They ask for equal protection under the law in explicit, measurable language to deter the countless harms endured, that were so eloquently enumerated in this week’s testimony.

As a student of American History I understand this disconnect between contending factions. We are a nation founded under the tenants of the Enlightenment. Jefferson actually lifted John Locke’s language when he described ‘natural rights’ which he articulated as ‘certain unalienable rights.’ And at the same time America is one of the most religious nations in the world. Always has been. The trick is remembering to separate these two competing voices of law and of faith. Even my debate students were taught to keep God out of the tournaments. Once invoked, the open exchange of ideas is over. God has spoken.

For the longevity of the American Creed, our law makers must use their heads when shaping legislation. When kneeling to pray, worship with all of your  heart. I do.

But please leave those competing, conflicting, diverse, religious convictions at the door of the halls of law. Contending voices achieve nothing but a counter productive cacophony of discord.

And next time . . . Add the Words.

Gail Chumbley is a retired history teacher and the author of the nonfiction work, River of January