Friday, March 28, 2008

The Revolution of 1800: The True Birthplace of American Democracy

Americans lionize the nation's Founders for crafting and successfully instantiating the enduring idea of self-government into our political traditions. Like everything else, the Founders' legacy consists of the good and the bad. The good finds itself in republican democracy, the only political organization that respects the inherent value of all members of the polity. Some mistakenly believe that self-government is grounded in skepticism about ethics and politics. Since no one can demonstrate that her favorite system of government is absolutely true, or so the argument goes, the natural conclusion is to vote on it. Presto, the idea of "voting on it" itself becomes an attractive paradigm for governing, not because we don't have any better idea, but rather because self-government is a substantive moral commitment to human dignity. The bad side of self-government occurs when the electorate hands America's power over to morally obtuse leaders who seek to impose self-government on the rest of the world through the barrel of a gun and abandon domestic constitutional values in the process.

That said, few Americans are aware that the Founding constitutional philosophy--Federalism--was not exactly consonant with republican democracy. John Adams once expressed this disdain for republican democracy in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. "Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror." Adams was not alone in recoiling from democracy. The Federalist Fisher Ames regarded republicanism--good self-government--to be more different "from a democracy [bad self-government] than a democracy [is] from . . . despotism." The Federalist Party was never enamored with the idea of the people participating daily in the affairs of self-government, nor would they have reveled in the notion that here the people rule. More accurately, the Federalist imperative was "here the elite(s) aka the Federalists) rule. It is worrisomely likely that Federalists would never have appreciated why a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not perish from this earth.

Read the rest of this post . . . .In the presidential election of 1800, the people expressed their constitutional revulsion towards Federalist who arguably betrayed the noble aspirations of the Revolutionary War by kicking them out of office. However, due to a fault in the original constitutional design, the presidential candidate of the winning Party, the Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and his vice-presidential candidate, Aaron Burr garnered the same number of presidential votes in the Electoral College. Accordingly, it became the responsibility of the Federalist controlled Congress to break the tie and select a president. However, this presented the Federalists with a seemingly intractable problem. Though Federalists reviled Jefferson, they ultimately chose him over Burr because they believed burr to be unprincipled. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton, a committed foe of Jefferson, was the moving force behind this selection. Ironically, the man Hamilton prevented from becoming president (and probably Governor of New York state in a later election) would a few years later kill Hamilton in a duel.

While most Americans--even highly educated Americans--are unaware of the historical significance of the 1800 presidential election, historians, political scientists, and legal scholars specializing in constitutional evolution appreciate the election's pivotal importance. The election replaced the Federalists--advocating political elites or top-down governance--with Democratic-Republicans--advocating, at least in theory, power to the people. The crisis could have sunk the American experiment in self-government and devolved into civil war. But instead, it represents the birth of American democracy.

Three interesting books describe the significance of the election of 1800: Bruce Ackerman, The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy, Susan Dunn, Jefferson's Second Revolution: The election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism (2004), and John Ferling, Adams v. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (2004). Ackerman's book is intriguing for, among other reasons, his captivating speculation of how the crisis might have resulted in Secretary of State John Marshall, and soon-to-be Chief Justice john Marshall becoming president. Susan Dunn's grace and elegance in narrating the story makes it difficult to put down. John Ferling's depiction of the political rivalry between tow founding titans--Adams and Jefferson--compliments the two previous accounts.

These narratives raise an abstract, perhaps even an impenetrable question: If the American people, early in the Republic's history, switch from the founding philosophy of elite governance to a new philosophy of empowering the people without formally changing the Constitution through Article V, why shouldn't we acknowledge this switch as a fundamental change in constitutional philosophy and therefore in constitutional interpretation. The electorate in 1800, some of whom signed the Declaration of Independence and crafted the Constitution, rejected Federalism's founding constitutional philosophy and chose a new one. True, the process did not formally amend the Constitution, but the change was certainly the functional equivalence of such s formal amendment. In any event, the above titles provide riveting accounts of one of the most significant elections in American history and should be widely read by anyone committed to the dynamic ideals of American constitutionalism.


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