When Partisan Politics Began

It looked a lot like today. Reviewing Jeffrey L. Pasley’s The First Presidential Contest, James M. Banner, Jr. takes us back to when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson vied to replace George Washington:

[I]n Pasley’s telling, it was in 1796 that many of the metaphors and symbols we still recognize as integral to our politics first took root. Thomas Jefferson was taken to task for his lack of “manly” virtues—being often thought of as (in Pasley’s words) “an effete dilettante and annoying smarty-pants”—and for his sympathy for revolutionary France. John Adams and even George Washington himself took brickbats for their monarchical bearing and British-like formality. Symbolic language about a “man of the people” and the “father of the state” vied with each other for the first time. And for the first time, too, foreign policy penetrated deeply into the presidential campaign.

While including the requisite caveats, Banner notes that “this first partisan presidential election seems to be the Big Bang from which American national politics has since drawn its energy”:

In 1795 and 1796, people argued about Jefferson’s and Adams’s characters. In bravura displays of negative campaigning, they tore down the candidates’ motivations, dredged up their previous writings, and had at their earlier careers. It was in every way what today we call a cultural war—Pasley calls it precisely that—as they battled over religion and other values and beliefs. In Pennsylvania, the state that even then was a battleground and a sure thing for neither Democrat-Republicans nor Federalists, local politicians engaged in “voter suppression” as partisan and purposeful as any we see today. … For we can now see that the election portended much that was to follow: its boisterousness; the engagement of state legislators, local voters, newspaper editors, and opinion makers; the permeation of questions about the candidates’ characters and their previously written convictions—by such developments the election contributed to what would prove to be the emergence, however slow, of American political democracy.