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The Most Important Date in U.S. History?

By Bryan Warner

RALEIGH - Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig recently recounted an experience he had some 20 years ago when visiting Georgia to assist that country in establishing its post-communist constitution.

Georgian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Chikvaidze asked Lessig to name the most important date in American history. Lessig replied with a few obvious choices – July 4, 1776, perhaps.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG,” Chikvaidze scolded. “March 4, 1801.”

That was the date on which our nation saw its first transfer of presidential power from one political party to another, when John Adams, a Federalist, handed authority to the man who beat him in the election of 1800 – Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican.

While the passing of the presidency between opposing parties seems somewhat commonplace today, it was completely novel in the United States of 1801. George Washington had been our nation’s first and only nonpartisan president, even warning in his farewell address of perils in the rise of organized political parties.

Partisan rancor was sharp and bitter in the early years of the republic, perhaps even more so than today, and was in full display during the contentious election of 1800 as the first term of President Adams neared an end. The chasm between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans was immense, the enmity between the two parties intense and rhetorical slights often deeply personal.

Each side accused the other of posing an existential threat to the nation, framing the outcome of the election as determining whether the country would endure or devolve into tyrannical bloodshed. Jefferson and Adams, once close compatriots, spewed vile diatribes at each other that would make even the most calloused modern campaign flack blush.

Jefferson's camp called Adams “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams' supporters in turn accused Jefferson of being "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow” and hurled a few racial epithets at Jefferson’s parents that are unfit for print.

The election itself was excruciatingly close and exposed a flaw in the Constitution, which at that pre-12th-Amendment time made no allowance for political parties running a presidential ticket and thus offered no distinction between votes for president and vice president. Instead, electors cast two votes for president, the second place finisher becoming vice president. That resulted in Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, both receiving 73 votes for president and throwing the result of the race to the outgoing U.S. House of Representatives, still controlled by Federalists.

It took 36 ballots and hectic political maneuvering in the House, but Jefferson ultimately emerged triumphant, mainly because Federalist Alexander Hamilton grudgingly convinced his party that Jefferson was a less dangerous man than Burr.

The switch from Federalist control of the White House to Democratic-Republican dominance was not an occasion of bipartisan goodwill. Adams, still stinging from his loss to Jefferson, fled the capital the night previous so as to avoid having to attend inaugural festivities.

Yet amidst the ill feelings and bitter feuding, not a single shot was fired – noteworthy among a generation that had shown itself fully capable of taking up arms when feeling aggrieved. Instead, in the midst of an extremely tight election filled with chaos, confusion and intrigue, and with a level of acrid partisanship unseen in our own times, the reins of presidential power passed peacefully, albeit morosely by the vanquished, from one party to the next.

In the two centuries since – with the glaring exception of 1860 – such shifts in party control of the presidency have come and gone with much grumbling, but little more. Indeed, while on July 4, 1776 we declared our independence, it was on March 4, 1801 that we first proved our persistence.

Bryan Warner is editor of The Voter Update magazine.