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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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.