The Magazine

Act I, Scene Two

Following George Washington was a complicated business.

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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The importance of this book stretches beyond the subject it addresses. 

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson

That subject, the oft-forgotten presidential election of 1796, which pitted the candidacies of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams against each other, is of no small significance. If the election, contrary to Pasley’s subtitle, did not exactly inaugurate American political democracy, it did kick off our robust, unpredictable, and not-always-seemly history of combative presidential contests—and it deserves close attention for that reason alone. What this book also brings to the fore is the richness, as it is being written now, of the political history of the first 50 years of the United States under the Constitution of 1787.

We’ve become accustomed, in recent decades, to jeremiads condemning the purported death of “political history,” a kind of shorthand term for the subjects at the heart of the classic, early 20th-century history curriculum: politics, public policies, institutions, foreign relations, warfare, and the figures (mostly men) who were their agents. Consequently, the continuing and increasing strengths of written political history have gone unrecognized. 

Since the 1970s, vast new subjects, organized under the general headings of “social” and “cultural” history, have broken the earlier monopoly of political history in school and college classrooms. Preferment in academic appointments has tended, since 1970, to go disproportionately to scholars and teachers who pursue topics of gender, race, and class. And yes, political history has had to vie for curricular space with these newer subjects and has lost some of its earlier near-monopoly of curricular listings.

But even if you accept, perhaps even celebrate, the accommodation of scholarly interest in the gains of women, minorities, and other overlooked groups, you might well have been unaware—as many social and cultural historians themselves have been unaware—of the transformations taking place in political history, transformations exemplified by this superb new study. 

The sustained strength of political history is explained, first of all, by the fact that, despite claims to the contrary, college and university history departments have continued to prepare, appoint, and advance men and women who pursue their interest in the political past. Second, publishers have continued to offer works of political history—and not only of the events and figures of which and whom the public can’t seem to get enough. One such publishing house is responsible for this book. Kansas is a stalwart university press that has emerged to high admiration for making a specialty of books about political and other traditional topics—and sponsoring a series of works (such as this one) on presidential elections.

But most important, political history has prudently absorbed and adjusted to new scholarship and thinking about gender, race, class, public action, symbolic expression, and the like without being overtaken by the forces of Continental theory coursing through literary and cultural studies. And much of that influence, and resulting richness in understanding, has found a home, more so than among other scholars, with historians of the early nation. As a result, the political history of the young republic has surpassed that of any other era of American history.

Early American history can best be characterized by its insistence on two axiomatic principles: first, that the world of politics includes most people and most forms of expression; and second, that all politics are carried on in the cultural metaphors and behaviors of their particular day. 

In this respect, the politics of neither our time nor the 1790s are any exception. Yet for decades, historians wrote as if politics could be understood without consideration of religion, ideology, art, public celebrations and fêtes, newspaper editorials and squibs, even the actions of those unable to vote—as if political debates and the policies resulting from them were somehow sterilized of cultural and social content. Only race and, occasionally, class intruded into a focus on institutions and candidates. But that is no longer the case. Politics is now seen as embedded deeply into all parts of society and reflective of an entire population’s hopes, fears, aspirations, beliefs, language, and mental images—and vice versa.