Wednesday, April 14, 2021
First Election Could Have Hijacked American Democracy, Historian Says
Tuesday, November 3, 2020


The notion that American presidents automatically hand off the presidency to their successor is so deeply ingrained that many have been surprised to hear President Trump suggest that he might not go peacefully if Americans decline to give him a second term.

But this election is not the first time America has been through trials and tribulations, says Dr. Joanne Freeman, America’s foremost expert on Alexander Hamilton and author of “The Field of Blood: Congressional Violence in Antebellum America.”

Freeman recently gave those tuning into the Alturas Institute’s virtual Conversations with Exceptional Women a primer on previous elections that evidenced elements of high anxiety. And she shared what one of America’s founding fathers said could preserve the nation’s fragile democracy.

The first election of 1800—the one to replace the beloved George Washington—was highly fraught, Freeman said, in a conversation moderated by David Adler, founder of Alturas Institute, which promotes civic discourse.

Both sides painted each as un-American. Conspiracy theories abounded in the leaflets that served as the newspapers of the day. And everyone wondered whether the opposing parties would abide by the rules set forth in the young country’s Constitution or do something illicit.

In fact, governors of two states stockpiled arms in case they were needed.

But, in the end, Freeman said, the political system that had been forged won out. Both of the presidential contenders--John Adams and Thomas Jefferson--had taken part in creating it. And both were committed to it.

“They understood that they had started a government that was unlike other governments at the time,” she said. “They understood the fragility of the experiment they had embarked upon. They understood how easy it would be to topple it. And, their own policies aside, they understood that what was really important was the system itself.”

Asked what would have happened if things had gone awry, Jefferson replied that we would have probably had to start all over and write the Constitution again, Freeman said.

Freeman said she is not comfortable saying the current election “is not that bad.” Nor is she comfortable saying, “this is the worst it’s ever been.”

“What I do know is that what you choose to do to take action right now matters. And we’ve taken our democracy for granted and I don’t think we should in the future,” she added.

Jefferson repeatedly espoused the need for white men—the only ones who could vote in his time—to be educated so they would recognize threats to the Republic, Freeman said.

“If we don’t understand what democracy is, how it works, what the Constitution means, we’re on dangerous ground,” she said. “A lot of people have forgotten what democracy is. And they’re beginning to realize democracy is not something you can do from the sidelines.”

Freeman added that she hopes the nation comes out of the 2020 election with people getting more involved and realizing that they can make a difference to ensure democracy. She hopes the system wins out.

“Some people think nothing bad could ever happen to our democracy. When our democratic system is in trouble, people need to stand up, to not think that their voice doesn’t matter. What we do matters,” she said, listing such actions as contacting congressmen.

Look no further than the Post Office to see how ordinary citizens can make a difference, she added, noting how Americans reacted when they learned mailboxes were being removed and mail delivery slowed.

“People said: Wait a minute! What are they doing to the Post Office? People rose up and it made a difference.”

What we love about democracy is its vulnerability, and that’s why we need to stand up for it, Freeman said.

“All of us care about this country. All of us care about the United States and all of us care about democracy,” she said. “And this is a moment that calls for awareness and action.”





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