Ethics & Public Policy Center

If Only Elections Were More Like 1800!

Published in Commentary Magazine on May 24, 2011



The 2012 election will be another nasty affair, with the media lamenting incivility and trivial debates even as they do all they can to elevate them. But as the political debate intensifies, we need to keep things in the proper frame.

One of the more extravagant claims we hear is that politics has never been as vicious and personal. In fact, there have been plenty of elections that were much uglier—and perhaps none as much as the election of 1800, which pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams. It’s regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history and nearly tore apart our young nation.

What’s less well known is the remarkable arc of friendship between the two men. They first met in 1775 as delegates to the Second Continental Congress. But differences over the French Revolution and, later, the bitterness of the election drove them apart. After a dozen years, the process of reconciliation (through letters) began, thanks to the intervention of America’s most eminent physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush.

According to the late Professor Merrill D. Peterson, author of Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue:

The correspondence continued without interruption for fourteen years, until they were both ready to die. A marvelous vindication of the spirit of friendship over the spirit of party, it also carried symbolic meaning for the nation at large. Adams and Jefferson were well aware of this. As their revolutionary comrades fell away one by one, they became the last of the founders, the great patriarchs of the nation’s heritage, and it almost seemed that renewal of the ancient friendship was the highest service they might yet render their country. The correspondence … was an expression of the late landscape of the philosophical genius that had guided the early steps of the republic. It testified to, and in time became a testament of, the intellectual spaciousness that distinguished the founders’ generation and would not be seen in American statesmanship again.

This account bears upon our era in two respects. The first is that American politics has been characterized by angry, fractious elections since our founding. That is more or less a constant, and it’s unlikely to change very much.

Perhaps the most we can realistically hope for are elections that are much more than mud-throwing contests. What separated elections at the founding of America from many others wasn’t that the former were more genteel; it was the quality of argumentation. The debates were carried on by philosopher-statesmen about the true meaning of the American Revolution. It isn’t that the ugliness of politics was cast aside; it’s that there was something else competing with, and overshadowing, the ugliness and triviality.

The second thing take away from the Adams-Jefferson relationship was what Peterson called “the vindication of the spirit of friendship over the spirit of party.”

This is harder than it seems, in part because there’s a perfectly understandable human tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way. InThe Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. We’re naturally drawn to people who affirm rather than constantly challenge our worldview.

In addition, if two people look at the same set of facts and events in entirely opposite ways, it puts a strain on things. It’s easy to say we should separate out our political views and personal relationships, and for those who are disengaged from politics, it may well be. But for those of us whose political/philosophical views aren’t incidental but are fundamental to who we are, such disaggregation is more difficult than we like to admit.

All of which makes the Adams and Jefferson relationship so remarkable. A friendship that was forged in the crucible of the American Revolution, it became a casualty of the French Revolution. But time and distance from the intensity of partisan politics helped restore perspective and renew their bonds of affection. Adams and Jefferson famously died within hours of each other, on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, their lives having reminded us that partisan affiliations are not proxies for human character, that honorable people occupy every point on the political spectrum, and that political differences need not lead to lasting personal estrangement. Reconciliation is possible, even in politics, even across ideological divides, even after many years.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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