The Amend Corner

Founding Fathers had contested elections, too

By Don Amend
Posted 8/24/21

My own health, and the health of the nearly 8 billion people that I share this planet with, has given me considerable time to pursue one of my favorite hobbies: studying American history.

As I …

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The Amend Corner

Founding Fathers had contested elections, too


My own health, and the health of the nearly 8 billion people that I share this planet with, has given me considerable time to pursue one of my favorite hobbies: studying American history.

As I write this, I have just finished “Six Frigates.” It tells the story of the birth of the U.S. Navy and the political struggle between the Americans who believed a navy was necessary and those who were afraid of a permanent military force, which they felt would give the federal government a force that might be used to take away freedom. 

I also finished “The Vineyard of Liberty,” the first of three volumes about the development of America by historian James MacGregor Burns. It covers our history from the rebellion against Britain to the Civil War — a period when Americans were actually debating what “liberty” is, and during which they were only slowly coming to see themselves as Americans rather than as Virginians, Pennsylvations, New Englanders or Southerners.

As I’ve read these and other books over the years, I’m struck by the fact that issues of those years often have echoes in today’s politics. While the issues more often gave rise to angry debate and sometimes violent protest in the 19th century, they usually don’t today (although recent events may be evidence that violence could again become part of our politics).

As one might expect, taxes were a major issue, especially if the taxes were levied directly from the people. Twice, President George Washington called out the militia in response to tax rebellions. In both cases, the protesters backed off when confronted by the militia. So far there has been nothing to compare to those two rebellions, but there is plenty of anger out there today about taxation.

Two elections, 1796 and 1800, revealed flaws in the electoral process set in the Constitution that raised questions about the elections. In 1796, John Adams won by one vote over Thomas Jefferson, and as the second-place finisher, Jefferson became vice-president. Adams, a Federalist, and Jefferson, a Republican (not to be confused with today’s Republicans) represented widely different notions of how the nation should be governed, and the division caused disagreements that led to difficulties in governing.

In 1800, this problem was avoided by directing electors to vote for two candidates. Political parties had developed by then, and electors were to cast one more vote for their party’s presidential candidate than they did for their vice presidential candidate. The Republicans failed to do that, so Jefferson and Aaron Burr, their candidate for vice president, both had the same number of votes. That meant the election was sent to the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote, and Burr campaigned to take the presidency away from Jefferson. The representatives voted 35 times without deciding the issue before Alexander Hamilton convinced a number of Federalists to change their vote to Jefferson, giving him the election.

The 1800 election had one troublesome result: It created and nursed enmity between Hamilton and Burr that led to a duel with pistols that killed Hamilton in 1804. Dueling was common in those days, but thankfully, nothing like that has happened in the 22nd century, at least so far.

After those elections, the Constitution was amended to fix the problem, and since then there have been only a few elections when the Electoral College raised issues. The first was the 1876 election, when a special committee was formed to decide how the electors from two southern states should be awarded. The other came in 2000, when the Supreme Court stopped a recount of votes in Florida to settle the issue. Though we are currently involved in a controversy about the election, the issue is with popular votes, not with the mechanics of the Electoral College.

Three wars in the early 1800s put Americans at odds with each other. The first two, the Barbary pirates war and the War of 1812 were opposed by large sections of the country, but in the end, both had a positive effect on the nation. The first two offered proof that the nation required a strong navy, settling that controversy, and the War of 1812 showed leaders that the nation could not depend on state militias to fight their wars; the country needed a national army with professional leadership — something that was still opposed by many Americans.

The third, the war with Mexico, split the nation between the North, where the war was opposed, and the South and West, where it was popular. The war was justified by some who believed in our “Manifest Destiny” to extend the nation to the Pacific Ocean, but General Ulysses Grant said he did not believe “there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.” In the end, the Mexican War set in motion events that culminated in the ultimate violence of the Civil War.

Today, as in 1800, we are in the middle of controversy over the last election and the efforts in some states to make it harder for people to vote. There have been many threats of violence by those who aren’t happy with the results of the election. They insist the election was “stolen,” while others have determined the election was conducted properly and Joe Biden won it. 

I sincerely hope that we can resolve this disagreement without violence, because I certainly don’t wish to see another Civil War — or even the practice of settling disagreements by fighting duels.

The Amend Corner