Crucial Presidential Elections

Several U.S. elections have profoundly affected the national agenda

The 1800 election had a double significance: It produced the first peaceful, albeit spiteful, passing of power from one party to another and led to a constitutional amendment electing presidents and vice presidents as partisan teams. It concluded a decade of bitter wrangling between Federalists and Republicans, parties with very different short-term policies and long-term visions.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who led the Federalists, advocated a strong national government led by wealthy gentlemen, fiscal responsibility and stability embodied in a national bank, a generous interpretation of federal constitutional power, and a pro-British, anti-French foreign policy.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who led the Republicans, were determined to keep federal power in check. They feared a government dominated by the urban wealthy, and endorsed friendship with revolutionary France. Few believed political parties to be desirable in a republic. George Washington’s Farewell Address stressed the perils of partisanship. Each party saw the other not as a legitimate opposition but as a conspiracy to destroy the basic character of the government. Therefore, 1790s’ politics were nasty and often personal.

The 1800 election pitted the incumbent Adams against Vice President Jefferson. Tradition dictated no campaigning by the principals but each candidate’s partisans led campaigns characterized more by ad hominem attacks than by discussion of the issues. Federalists asserted that Jefferson was a deist, or, marginally worse, an atheist, who would introduce the violence and anti-religious excesses of the French Revolution. He would destroy the carefully constructed Federalist edifice of sound credit and monetary stability, and place power in the hands of uneducated farmers and artisans. Republicans denounced the Federalists as secret monarchists who raised taxes to fund a "politically correct" and oppressive military force and who, using the Sedition Act, had jailed Republican editors and officeholders merely for criticizing Federalist officials.

In 1800, state legislatures chose most Electoral College members. Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, each received 73 electoral votes; Adams, 65; his running mate C.C. Pinckney, 64. This result exposed a serious flaw in the Electoral College: no difference existed between votes for president and vice president; therefore, whoever had the most votes became president and the runner-up, vice president. No candidate having won, the election moved to the House of Representatives where members voted by state delegation choosing from among the top three vote getters, a majority of the 16 states being necessary for victory. After considerable machinations and multiple ballots, Jefferson emerged the victor.

About to lose control to the detested Jeffersonians, the Federalist Congress and President Adams packed the judiciary and bureaucracy with partisan appointments. Adams fled the capital, snubbing his successor’s inauguration. But despite the bitterness and Federalist paranoia, Adams did not use the Army to arrest Jefferson and retain power. Control of the government passed to Jefferson, who attempted to soothe tensions by stating, somewhat disingenuously, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

His administration showed a preference for co-opting the opposition by moving to the "vital center" rather than silencing the opposition. A quickly proposed constitutional amendment accepting the inevitability of parties altered the Electoral College; presidential and vice presidential candidates ran as a team. This crucial election showed that the infant republic had achieved a surprising degree of political maturity.

1828: John Quincy Adams vs.Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson’s biographer, Ro-bert Remini, quotes a North Carolina wo-man who, upon learning that Jackson was a presidential candidate, said: "Jackson up for the president? … The Jackson that used to live in Salisbury? … Well, if Andrew Jackson can be president, anybody can." She perfectly captured the importance of the 1828 election.

John Quincy Adams was the last of a breed of gentlemen presidents, gentlemen in an increasingly outmoded sense: men of wealth and learning who understood political leadership as an essential responsibility of their favored status as a natural aristocracy.

Adams was a lawyer and diplomat, painfully self-reflective and dutiful, who had spent his life in the drawing rooms of Boston, European capitals and Washington. Jackson represented a new type of self-made man: of common background, not formally educated, dueler, land speculator, Indian fighter, and hero of the War of 1812 and the illegal invasion of Spanish Florida.

Personal attacks dominated the campaign. Jacksonians denounced Adams as a Harvard intellectual who had bought a billiard table for the Executive Mansion and who had pimped for the czar while American ambassador to Russia. They attacked Adams’ brazen challenge to the rising democratic ethos reflected in his suggestion that the Congress "not be palsied by the will of constituents." They scorned Adams as the icon of a corrupt Washington establishment out of touch with the people. Adamsites broadcast the irregular nature of Jackson’s marriage, which had taken place before his wife’s divorce became final. Jackson was described as an uncouth violent roughneck, declared unfit for the presidency by the aged Jefferson, "a barbarian who can barely spell his own name," as Adams later said.

"Anybody" won the election handily and the common folk surged into Washington for his inauguration. Political parties, even the anti-Jackson Whigs, learned a lesson from the 1828 election that they quickly applied: success required an attractive candidate (a military hero is particularly good), money, good local organization, newspaper propaganda and avoidance of the issues. Elite presidents did not end with Adams, but later elite presidents had to demonstrate a "common touch" by such devices as cowboying (Theodore Roosevelt) or eating fried pork rinds (George Bush).

1936: FDR vs. Alfred Landon

From the 1890s until the Great Depression, a Re-publican coalition of voters had usually dominated the federal government and controlled the White House. Republicans took credit for saving the union, freeing the slaves, presiding over unprecedented economic growth, and creating an economic and territorial empire in Latin America and the Pacific. In the 1920s, the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover virtually merged the party with the business community.

When the economy collapsed between 1930 and 1932, voters ousted Hoover and the Republicans and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a canvass that was more repudiation of Hoover than endorsement of Roos-evelt. By 1936, however, Roosevelt’s New Deal had destabilized traditional political alignments, causing some voters to switch to the Democrats and other voters to be activated for the first time, creating a coalition that would dominate until the late 1960s.

This coalition formed by FDR’s 1936 sweep began with the traditional Democratic voting blocs of Southern whites and the political machines of the urban North. Three new groups of voters also joined.

The first was Northern blacks, the only blacks who could vote relatively unhindered in the 1930s. Tradition-ally Republican, Northern blacks benefited from the New Deal’s economic recovery and federal relief programs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s public association with black organizations and advisers also influenced black political loyalty. A black editor advised his readers in 1936 to "turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall, that debt has been paid in full." FDR won 70 percent of the black vote. Black voters have retained their strong support of his party ever since.

A second group newly activated by the New Deal included the descendants of the southern and eastern European turn of the century immigrants. Many had shown little interest in national politics. They voted in local elections that they believed affected their lives. But did it matter who sat in the White House? The New Deal — government jobs for the unemployed, the Wagner Act, Social Security and FDIC — demonstrated it made a difference. They rallied to FDR and the Democrats in 1936.

Finally, many intellectuals, academics and opinion leaders joined the FDR coalition, attracted by FDR’s use of professorial advisers, his pragmatic approach and his vision of a humane activist government. This was a diverse coalition indeed, one that contained the seeds of its own breakup as seen in our last crucial election.

1968: Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace

The three-way presidential contest of 1968 took place within the context of one of the most chaotic, violent and divisive years of the 20th century. No wonder that the election’s winner, Richard Nixon, chose "Bring us Together" as the theme of his inaugural.

It was a year of ironic outcomes. A battlefield defeat for Communist forces in South Vietnam during the January Tet offensive turned into their victory when many Americans, who had backed Lyndon Johnson’s 30 months of escalation, concluded that the war was unwinnable and a way out was necessary. What might ordinarily have been seen as a landslide victory for Johnson in New Hampshire’s primary was interpreted as a defeat, when a Minnesota senator and former St. Thomas professor, Eugene McCarthy, captured about 40 percent of the vote.

On March 31, Johnson announced his decision not to seek re-election. Less than a week later, Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis sparked racial disturbances in nearly 100 places. Protesting students seized control of Columbia University in April. A bitter series of primary contests between McCarthy and New York Sen. Robert Kennedy ended with Kennedy’s assassination minutes after claiming victory in the June California primary. Divisiveness over the war and the civil rights movement plagued even family relationships.

It appeared that the country was fracturing along racial and generational lines. The turmoil culminated in televised battles in Chicago streets and parks between police and protesters while a bitterly divided Democratic Party nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon rose from defeats in 1960 and 1962 to claim the Republican nomination.

Those who sought victory at any cost in Vietnam and a rollback of the civil rights movement turned to the candidacy of Alabama’s George Wallace. The political system created by the New Deal destructed as Southern whites and Northern ethnics deserted the Democrats in what was called the "white backlash." The more reactionary turned to Wallace, the more moderate to Nixon. Nixon revealed little of his intentions during the campaign; he promised an honorable end to the war through a "secret plan" which he could not reveal before assuming office. He signaled subtly to whites disenchanted with the violence and the "black power" rhetoric that had become linked with the civil rights movements that he would slow the pace of the black revolution.

Humphrey’s fundamental problem was his long record of publicly supporting, sometimes excessively enthusiastically despite private doubts, Johnson’s discredited policy in Vietnam. A last-minute effort to stake out a Vietnam position separate from that of Johnson was insufficient to overcome Nixon’s large lead.

The possibility of peace in Vietnam was undercut by Nixon, who advised South Vietnam’s president not to accept the terms offered but to hold out until Nixon’s election. Nixon won a narrow popular but large electoral vote victory. One out of seven voters preferred Wallace.

The outcome demonstrated that the FDR coalition was cracking up. A new conservatism, mobilized in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, gained strength within the Republican Party and triumphed in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. By the late 1980s, some Democrats, mostly Southerners, formed a group to move the party rightward to end its identification with the turmoil and issues of the 1960s — an effort that succeeded in the 1992 election of William Clinton.

A final irony of the crucial 1968 election was that Nixon did "bring us together." Five years later most Americans united to force his resignation.

Thoughts on the current election

Will future historians consider the 2000 campaign one of the crucial presidential elections?

As of this writing (late August), it does not seem that this election has any of the characteristics of a crucial election. It takes place in a context of prosperity and peace. No overriding issue has emerged. Neither major party candidate inspires either widespread adulation or revulsion. Minor party candidates are unlikely to attract significant support. Each party’s principal blocs of voters will likely remain loyal and the battle will be fought over the growing number of independent or swing voters. Voter participation is likely to remain low. The revival of a politically competitive Congress in the 1990s, coupled with the surge of cynicism that followed the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate, Iran-Contra and Lewinsky scandals, has yielded a greater balance of power between the Congress and the president.

There is one rather unlikely scenario in which the 2000 election will be considered crucial: if public outrage over the role of money in politics forces the new Congress to enact meaningful finance reform. Absent this, the 2000 election will not be a crucial one.

George Woytanowitz ’66 received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and taught at Indiana State University and Boston College before returning to St. Thomas in 1987. This article grew out of a series of lectures Woytan-owitz gave under the auspices of the St. Thomas Center for Senior Citi-zens’ Education.