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.

The First Presidential Contest is an exemplary product of this new political history. You get a sense of what’s fresh about it from the very start, when Pasley asks us, in thinking about the political realities of the 1790s, to give up our “visions of cigar-chomping party bosses running centralized, militantly nonideological organizations based on political patronage.” Instead, he argues, the parties of the early nation were “loose but intense communities of political ideology, emotion, and action that took form among politicians, political writers, and their audiences, especially but by no means limited to the adult white males who could actually vote.”

Pasley is known for his deep knowledge of newspapers, newspapermen, and printers in the early republic, giving him an easy feel for the elements of politics that we too often take to be extrinsic to the political world but are, in fact, integral to it. Not surprisingly, the role of newspapers in the run-up to 1796 plays a central role in Pasley’s tale. So, too, do “festive politics,” the use of public rallies, parades, banquets, toasts, and songs to create and marshal political sentiment where it hadn’t existed and focus attention on candidates and what they stood for. It is by the adoption of such means that nonpartisan organizations like the Society of the Cincinnati (retired officers of the Continental Army) and the Tammany Societies (a group of fraternal organizations) took on partisan colorations in the 1790s. 

Also, in Pasley’s telling, it was in 1796 that many of the metaphors and symbols we still recognize as integral to our politics first took root. Thomas Jefferson was taken to task for his lack of “manly” virtues—being often thought of as (in Pasley’s words) “an effete dilettante and annoying smarty-pants”—and for his sympathy for revolutionary France. John Adams and even George Washington himself took brickbats for their monarchical bearing and British-like formality. Symbolic language about a “man of the people” and the “father of the state” vied with each other for the first time. And for the first time, too, foreign policy penetrated deeply into the presidential campaign.  

It is in its emphasis on such public politics that Pasley’s tale finds its center. While great men file through his story, the two candidates themselves rarely step onto the stage. They hover in the background and leave politics to their surrogates. The political rules of the day forbade the expression of ambition to gain political office, and since Washington followed that rule to the last, no one was going to venture to break it—at least until Aaron Burr boldly stepped forth to do so in 1800.  

So how do you write the history of an election that lacks its main characters? You write, as Pasley does, about the larger political culture of the day and about the local notables who fueled the day’s politics.

One of Pasley’s achievements is to deal, about as well as can be expected, with local Federalist notables who, behind Adams, were coalescing (like their opponents) into a party that would contest elections only into the 1820s before dying out. “About as well as can be expected” because it has always proven difficult, even for scholars who understand the Federalists more clearly than others, to see them whole and give them the benefit of the doubt. The Federalists were often politically ham-handed; they were nativists; they frequently seemed more favorably disposed to the British than to their own nation; and they flirted with interposition, nullification, even secession. Pasley had to struggle to make these actors worthy of being taken at their own measure: They were bested right and left in newspaper wars by their innovative opponents—and Pasley, the foremost scholar of newspapering in the early republic, is bound to give these journalistic winners their due.

That said, he nevertheless brings some of the Federalists to light as no one else has. His passages on the great Massachusetts Federalist congressman and orator Fisher Ames, and especially his interpretation of Ames’s celebrated defense of the Jay Treaty, are without equal. If you’ve never heard of the South Carolina Federalist William Loughton Smith, Pasley gives to this important but unappealing figure the attention he has long deserved. He does the same for Leven Powell, an overlooked Virginia Federalist whom Pasley credits with doing more than anyone else to keep Jefferson from the presidency. In fact, where other scholars have sometimes praised the Federalists for their proto-abolitionist and anti-slaveholding views, Pasley uses Smith and Powell to caution us against seeing the Federalists “as a northern-dominated and antislavery party, the ideological and literal fathers and grandfathers of abolitionists, Conscience Whigs, and Radical Republicans.” 

In such caution lies the exemplary balance of this book.

The book is exemplary in one other way as well. It is a monograph—a work focused on a comparatively limited topic and based on command of the most specialized scholarly literature. Monographs don’t usually earn applause or followings for their style or breadth. They’re intended to be tightly focused on specific subjects, the aim being to bring as complete and authoritative an understanding to those subjects as possible, not to draw a wide readership. Yet Pasley’s monograph is distinctive in being written (as so many are not!) with clarity, verve, and wit. 

 

Because so much of what he relates about this first partisan presidential election seems to be the Big Bang from which American national politics has since drawn its energy, readers will find it tempting to seek parallels between the 1790s and today. It’s hard to believe that Pasley wasn’t tempted as well, for such parallels are hard to miss, as occasionally he allows himself to acknowledge: 

What is striking is how quickly certain tendencies and patterns of the country’s democratic electoral system emerge, long before there was an institutional national election or party system to organize them.

In 1795 and 1796, people argued about Jefferson’s and Adams’s characters. In bravura displays of negative campaigning, they tore down the candidates’ motivations, dredged up their previous writings, and had at their earlier careers. It was in every way what today we call a cultural war—Pasley calls it precisely that—as they battled over religion and other values and beliefs. In Pennsylvania, the state that even then was a battleground and a sure thing for neither Democrat-Republicans nor Federalists, local politicians engaged in “voter suppression” as partisan and purposeful as any we see today. But Pasley sticks to the 1790s, and resists making an election of two centuries ago the template from which all future ones were drawn. 

In 1796, American electoral politics were only in the birth pangs of what they would become, and as the presidential election revealed, it was not going to be simple to throw off the expectations and practices of Anglo-American elite politics or to give up the ideal of calm, deliberate electoral contests among white male members of the gentry. That process would take generations—never yet, in some particulars, to be completed. This first presidential contest was one of ancient ways: competition by surrogates, with the major candidates scarcely lifting a hand on their own behalf and discountenancing even an interest in the outcome; a tiny electorate; and no party discipline—in fact, there were scarcely parties at all in any conventional sense of the term.  

And yet, as Pasley insists, the presidential election of 1796 was fully reflective neither of colonial politics nor of the modern politics that would emerge in the 1820s. It was a transitional election. If this seems a weak interpretation among possible stronger ones, it also seems entirely justified by the history Pasley relates. For we can now see that the election portended much that was to follow: its boisterousness; the engagement of state legislators, local voters, newspaper editors, and opinion makers; the permeation of questions about the candidates’ characters and their previously written convictions—by such developments the election contributed to what would prove to be the emergence, however slow, of American political democracy. 

James M. Banner Jr. is the author, most recently, of Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History.