A Mississippi Meditation
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JEFFERSON AM-BUSHED IN AUSTIN
The Difference between Jefferson and Bush's Electoral College Victories
Jeffrey Pasley is an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of the forthcoming The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (University Press of Virginia, spring 2001).
George W. Bush's invocation of Thomas Jefferson in his December 14th acceptance speech was both inaccurate and misleading. In having Bush quote a letter titled "Reconciliation and Reform" from the early weeks of Jefferson's presidency, the Texas governor's speechwriters seem to have mixed up the headline placed on the letter by later editors (and included in an Internet version) with something Jefferson himself wrote. Moreover, the headline seems to be all that Bush and his writers paid attention to, for the real letter, and the real events it was part of, hardly suit Bush's purposes.
Jefferson's letter was written to Elbridge Gerry, a Democratic Republican leader in Massachusetts who later became governor and unwillingly lent his name to the term gerrymander. Jefferson encouraged Gerry to be more partisan, at least temporarily, and lead the effort to take New England away from their political opponents, the Federalists. Jefferson certainly did expect increased harmony -- but only once his own views and party had won the day across the nation. Jefferson did not use the words, but reform would clearly come before reconciliation.
In his speech, Bush cited Jefferson's letter in calling for bipartisan cooperation. But a look at the letter shows Jefferson's characterization of his opponents was hardly a model of bipartisanship:
The aegis of government, and the temples of religion and of justice, have all been prostituted [in New England] to toll us back to the times when we burnt witches. But your people will rise again. They will awake like Sampson from his sleep, and carry away the gates and posts of the city.Elsewhere in the letter Jefferson refers to the Federalists as apostles of toryism. What Jefferson did promise was that no Federalists would have their religious or political rights restricted, as many of them feared.
Perhaps Bush really meant the quotation to contain the veiled ideological threat that he would reconcile with Democrats only after he, Senator Trent Lott, and Representative Tom DeLay have thoroughly reformed the government. But more likely Bush was engaging in the careless use of history (especially regarding the Founders) that is so common among politicians, journalists and speechwriters today.
More serious than this carelessness is the false comparison of himself to Jefferson that Bush seemed to be making. Leaving aside the obvious intellectual mismatch between the scientist-philosopher of Monticello and the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, and the fact that Jefferson is usually considered the founder of Al Gore's party, Bush is in almost the opposite position from the one Jefferson occupied in 1801.
The election of 1800-1801 did result in the first transfer of power from one party to another in our new democracy, as Bush said, and both Bush and Jefferson took office after a long Electoral College deadlock. But the key difference between them is that Jefferson, unlike Bush, was widely understood to have been the popular choice during the voting that preceded the crisis. The behavior of the party that ended up on the short end of the popular voting was also markedly different back in Jefferson's day.
The presidential crisis of 1800-1801 resulted from a flaw in a constitutional voting process that made no allowances for nationwide partisan presidential elections, with each party running candidates for vice president as well as president. The constitutional system also afforded state legislatures nearly complete freedom in choosing their electors. At several points during 1800 and 1801, Federalists had opportunities to use this system to block Jefferson's election, with complete legality and, by their own lights, much justice. In contrast to the massive Republican recount-blocking efforts of November and December 2000, the Federalists could not bring themselves to carry any of these options to their ultimate conclusion.
Federalists in the Pennsylvania state senate could have followed through on their strategy of refusing to pass a law authorizing any presidential vote in that large and clearly pro-Jefferson state. New York Governor John Jay could have followed Alexander Hamilton's suggestion and called that state's outgoing Federalist-controlled legislature into special session and had them arrange the naming of the state's presidential electors before the newly-elected Democratic Republican legislature could do so. Or the outgoing, Federalist-controlled Congress could have chosen the shifty Aaron Burr, or even John Adams, over Jefferson in breaking the Electoral College tie.
Yet the Federalists did none of these things in the end, grudgingly allowing the people to have their apparent choice.The framers of the Constitution had expected the state legislatures, the Electoral College and Congress to play their roles in the presidential election process without reference to any popular voting. Federalists at any of these levels would have had principle as well as constitutional law on their side in blocking Jefferson, since most Federalists were open opponents of mass democracy, a "radically contemptible and vicious" system, as one Federalist editor wrote later. There were also issues of equity involved, since the Democratic Republican strongholds of the South enjoyed an unfair advantage in the Electoral College due to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution (counting slaves as three-fifths of a person), and some pro-Jefferson states changed their electoral laws at the last minute in order to maximize their candidate's electoral vote.
Yet the Federalists did none of these things in the end, grudgingly allowing the people to have their apparent choice, even though the lack of a nationwide popular vote made that impossible to finally determine. Pennsylvania compromised and split its electoral votes eight to seven in favor of Jefferson. New York's Governor Jay rejected Hamilton's scheme as "a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt." (Imagine Katherine Harris or the Florida state legislature taking that attitude!) In Congress, enough Federalists eventually stood aside for Jefferson to win on the thirty-sixth ballot.
Thus actual opponents of democracy, the Federalists, were more willing in the end to let democracy work than the Bush Republicans of 2000. And this was in an age when vote-counting was a lot more chaotic and unaccountable than assessing punchcards on national television.
Though George W. Bush referred to "our new democracy" in his speech, he has departed sharply from the democratic norms established in 1800, preferring an institutionally and personally damaging court victory over a thorough investigation of who actually won more votes in Florida. What is more frightening for our old democracy is that Bush seems supremely unconcerned that he may have become president-elect without actually winning the election.