IN a world that often feels tumultuous and erratic, it’s helpful to step back and realize that change is the only constant, whether in personal life or the life of a nation. To weather the storm, look to the horizon to gain perspective and thereby peace.
When George Washington decided not to remain president, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against each other to replace him. Jefferson lost the election of 1796 to Adams, (68-71 electoral votes), and served as vice president, presiding over the Senate. This handoff of power, from Washington to Adams, proved that Americans could transition peacefully from one leader to another.
America was not a monarchy.
Adams, a Federalist who levied excise and other taxes and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, was unpopular during the next election. He was the first one-term president.
The election of 1800 resulted in a tie between Jefferson, a Republican, and Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives voted to determine the outcome. On February 17, 1801, Jefferson was elected president, after 36 ballots in the House. This marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the United States between political parties (from Federalists to Republicans).
The 1800 election proved that power between parties could shift according to the will of the people. And it could be done without war.
Jefferson believed that the American Revolution would spark other democratic revolutions, spreading rule by the people across the globe. He believed in states’ rights over federalism, and trusted the people to rule themselves. His inaugural address is worth reading.
In his inaugural address, Jefferson acknowledged the tough rhetoric of the prior election. “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think.”
He reminds us that part of the foundation of the American experiment is the ability to freely discuss and debate opposing ideas.
Jefferson then urged his fellow citizens to “unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
Jefferson believed that intolerance of thought was as bad as intolerance of religion.
He recognized that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
He also understood that, while some believed only the elites or those with education or lineage should be trusted to rule, only rule by the people would provide the oversight needed to prevent a monarchy. “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?”
Undergirding Jefferson’s belief in rule by the people was the understanding of the rights and roles of individuals. That we have “equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them.”
Additionally, he spoke of our foundation as a nation “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence.”
His intellectual framework for federal government was “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government… the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith… freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”
While many years have passed since he uttered those words, they ring true today. As we search today for perspective and peace, we would be well served by looking to Jefferson’s inaugural address for guidance. He reminds us eloquently that the structure is sound, and that discourse and deliberation are part of the construct.