The election of 1800 was the first one in which the opposition party held the presidency following a period dominated by Federalists. As Patrick Allitt writes in the The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, we Americans are so accustomed to venerating Thomas Jefferson that we scant appreciate “the ferocity with which Federalists denounced and dreaded him.”
As Allitt notes, Federalists were still shivering under their powdered wigs over the French Revolution that brought Napoleon to power and worried that a Reign of Terror would soon be under way with Jefferson’s Republicans now in power.
He cites Timothy Dwight, the Federalist president of Yale University, who wrote these words just before the 1800 election: “Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt that, if Jefferson is elected and the Jacobins get into authority, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon?”
And what was it about this Thomas Jefferson that had the early American aristocracy so aghast? What did he believe in? Writes Allitt: “Unlike the Federalists, he favored an agrarian republic. Dedicated like them to the classical republican tradition, he emphasized different elements in it … There should be no established churches, he believed, property should be widely distributed, old hierarchies ought to be dismantled, and the wisdom of the ordinary voter was to be trusted. Central government policy should not favor the material interests of the strong… (Jefferson) saw his election as a return to the spirit of 1776.”
Despite their misgivings, the Federalists surrendered power, a move that has been repeated with each presidential election’s transfer of power from one party to the next.
Allitt calls that 1800 election a vital moment in the history of American conservatism, one where the “Federalists did not rebel and the Jeffersonians did not repress or outlaw them,” and one that stood in stark contrast to electoral contests around the world where “losers (refuse) to honor the verdict of an election and (seize) power to exclude the winners… (and) winners (arrest) the losers or (abolish) the electoral machinery once it has brought them to power.”
Wrote one Jeffersonian of that day, no doubt the unraveling of France not far from his mind: “The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villiany and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction or disorder.”
Our country’s peaceful transitions of power, which began with Jefferson, are now two centuries old. Allitt notes that it is easy to lose sight of what an achievement that is. It is, he writes, the “bedrock” of what makes our republic successful.