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.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.”