Over the years I have written about the election of 1800 many times in my columns; it is my favorite election because it is the most important. Suffice to say it was the first time the nation had a change at the top, from Federalist to Jeffersonian Republican, and it did so without violence.
I argue that there are only a handful of nations today that can switch from one group to another without violence, and that in 1800 the U.S. was the only one. It set a standard of peaceful transition in every election except two, 1860 and unfortunately 2020.
In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Republicans not only won the day but held the presidency for the next 28 years. While the Federalists remained competitive for the first few elections, they eventually faded away – running their last candidate in 1816.
What happened over the next 12 years was a period known as the Era of Good Feelings when America had a oneparty system, everyone calling themselves a Republican. It seemed as if the classic liberal Jeffer-sonian Republican Party had won the contest, but they had only won the party battle, not the ideological war.
While the Federalists remained competitive for a few elections, what killed them off was the War of 1812.
Pro-England Federalists did not support the war effort. A group of northern state delegates even met at the Hartford Convention to protest the war and threaten secession if the war did not end. When the war did end with an American victory, the Federalists Party came off looking un-American in a time of great patriotism and just sort of dissolved.
Another reason for the Federalist Party’s disbanding was that Jeffersonian Republicans, now calling themselves just Republicans, had stolen the Federalists’ thunder. Starting with Jefferson, his Republicans began acting more like Federalists than the Federalists themselves.
While Jefferson ran against big government and Hamilton’s economic system, he left it intact during his administration. During this time Jefferson was either a massive hypocrite or a pragmatist who kept things in place that worked, like Hamilton’s plan.
Another good example is the Louisiana Purchase.
Nothing in the Constitution gave Jefferson the power to purchase new territory, yet he did it anyway and negotiated without congressional consent – a very loose interpretation of the Constitution.
He also increased the size of the government and the military. During his presidency, Jefferson, while fighting with England and France, decided to boycott all European manufactured goods, which led to the American Industrial Revolution to replace those goods. While Jefferson continued to talk the talk of a good classical liberal, he walked more like a Federalist.
James Madison was no different. The First Bank of the United States was chartered for 20 years and so its charter ended in 1811 under Madison, who as a good Republican, was more than happy to watch it die.
Yet, during the War of 1812, the nation faced economic hardships and Madison thought it might be nice to have a private bank that worked with the government and helped regulate all the state banks, so he came up with the idea and called it the Second Bank of the United States. The bank, once detested by Jeffersonian Republicans, was now a central part of its party.
Republican James Monroe basically ran unopposed as there was only one party and he was Secretary of State, just as Madison and Jefferson were before they were president.
Monroe did his best to welcome everyone into his party, which was not hard considering the Republican Party had kept many of the Federalists’ beliefs. However, Monroe went even a step further and put some ex-Federalists into his cabinet, most notably John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State.
While this was a sign of good faith in cooperation, it was too much for some in the party who were becoming upset at the party for its Federalist leanings. Putting the son of John Adams, a classic conservative, in the traditional launching pad for the presidency was too much. The seeds of our nation’s one-party system’s destruction were sown.
For the true classic liberals, the 1824 election sealed the party’s doom. With only one party there were five different Republicans vying for the presidency.
After an interesting and controversial election, John Quincy Adams won. With his victory, traditional liberals eventually broke away from the Republicans and hitched their wagon to one of the most divisive presidents in history, one who promised to return to Jeffersonian principles and make America great again, Andrew Jackson.
Jackson would not only change politics, but he would also be the first to embrace parties as a positive good.
James Finck, Ph.D. is a professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He can be reached at HistoricallySpeaking1776@ gmail.com.