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May 8th, 2019

For the rest of this month, I want to look back on presidential elections with incumbents because that's what will likely play out in 2020. The first time this happened was in 1800, which was also one of the most controversial elections. Sure, there was an incumbent in 1786, but George Washington didn't have anyone running against him. In 1800, John Adams wasn't so lucky.

The story of this controversial election is told in Edward Larson's 2008 book called A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, a book that does a good job of explaining how political parties came about. As President, that was something George Washington wanted to avoid, but it was probably inevitable as some of his cabinet like Alexander Hamilton were drawn to the British system of government (ruling by an aristocratic class), while those like Thomas Jefferson preferred that democracy be placed into the hands of the common man, the way they hoped that the French Revolution was going to turn out before they started to guillotine people.

During John Adams' term in office, he brought about the Alien and Sedition Acts as a means of preventing infiltration by the French and other enemies, some real, some perceived. Some of Adams' fellow Federalists used the law as a means to silence a critical press, mainly those who supported Jefferson and the Republicans. Jefferson and Adams had once been very close friends, but this crucial difference of opinion in political ideology severed the friendship (to be repaired much later in their lives) and resulted in the birth of modern politics and political campaigns. The death of George Washington in 1799 was a major blow to any hope of a civil contest occurring in 1800.

Jefferson and Adams had run against one another in 1796 and the 1800 election was a re-match. It was a bitter campaign, complete with slander and personal attacks on both sides. Federalists spread rumors that the Republicans were radicals who would ruin the country. They said that the election of the Republican would lead to the guillotine coming to America, like it had during the French Revolution. Republicans (who would later become Democrats) accused Federalists of destroying republican values, as well as the interests of immigrants, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, some parts of which were later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. They also accused Federalists of favoring Britain in order to promote aristocratic, anti-republican values.

Adams was attacked by both the opposition Republicans and a group of so called "High Federalists" aligned with Alexander Hamilton. The Republicans felt that the Adams foreign policy was too favorable toward Britain. They feared that the new army called up to prepare for an attack by a foreign power would be used by the Federalists to oppress the people. The Republicans also opposed new taxes to pay for war. They also attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts as violations of states' rights and the Constitution. "High Federalists" considered Adams too moderate and would have preferred the leadership of Alexander Hamilton instead. Hamilton was scheming to elect vice-presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to the presidency. One of Hamilton's letters, a scathing criticism of Adams that was fifty-four pages long, became public when it came into the hands of a Republican. It embarrassed Adams and damaged Hamilton's efforts on behalf of Pinckney, not to mention Hamilton's own reputation.

Partisans on both sides sought any advantage they could find. In several states, this included changing the process of selecting electors to ensure the desired result. In Georgia, Republican legislators replaced the popular vote with selection by the state legislature. Federalist legislators did the same in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This may have had some unintended consequences in Massachusetts, where the makeup of the delegation to the House of Representatives changed from 12 Federalists and 2 Republicans to 8 Federalists and 6 Republicans, as the result of backlash on the part of the electorate. Pennsylvania also switched to legislative choice, but this resulted in an almost evenly split set of electors. Virginia switched from electoral districts to winner-take-all, a move that probably switched one or two votes out of the Federalist column.

Because each state could choose its own election day, voting lasted from April to October. In April, Aaron Burr's successful mobilization of the vote in New York City succeeded in reversing the Federalist majority in the state legislature. With the two parties tied 65–65 in the Electoral College, the last state to vote, South Carolina, chose eight Republicans, giving the election to Jefferson and Burr.

That didn't resolve matters however. The Republicans neglected to have one of their electors abstain from voting for Burr. Under the Constitution as it then stood, each elector cast two votes and the candidate with a majority of the votes was elected president, with the vice-presidency going to the runner-up. The Federalists, therefore, arranged for one of their electors to vote for John Jay rather than for vice-presidential candidate Pinckney. The Republicans had a similar plan to have one of their electors cast a vote for another candidate instead of Burr, but somebody never got the memo and no one was told which elector was supposed to do this. The result was that all of the Republican electors cast their votes for both Jefferson and Burr, giving them each 73 votes. The tie thus had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. Although the election of 1800 had given majority control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans by 103 seats to 39, the presidential election would be decided by the outgoing House, which had been elected in the Federalist landslide of 1798 and was controlled by the Federalists, 60 seats to 46.

When the electoral ballots were opened and counted on February 11, 1801, it turned out that the certificate of election from Georgia was defective; while it was clear that the electors had cast their votes for Jefferson and Burr, the certificate did not take the constitutionally-mandated form of a "List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each". Vice-President Jefferson, who was counting the votes in his role as President of the Senate, immediately counted the votes from Georgia as votes for Jefferson and Burr. No objections were raised. The total number of votes for Jefferson and Burr was 73, a majority of the total, but a tie between them.Jefferson and Burr tied for first place, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives.

The members of the House of Representatives balloted as states to determine whether Jefferson or Burr would become president. There were sixteen states, and an absolute majority—in this case, nine—was required for victory. It was the outgoing House of Representatives, controlled by the Federalist Party, that was charged with electing the new president.

While it was common knowledge that Jefferson was the candidate for president and Burr for vice-president, many Federalists were unwilling to vote for Jefferson. But there was one important exception: Alexander Hamilton. Seizing an opportunity to deny Jefferson the presidency, most Federalists voted for Burr, giving Burr six of the eight states controlled by Federalists. The seven delegations controlled by Republicans all voted for Jefferson, and Georgia's sole Federalist representative also voted for him, giving him eight states. Vermont was evenly split, and cast a blank ballot. The remaining state, Maryland, had five Federalist representatives to three Republicans; one of its Federalist representatives voted for Jefferson, forcing that state delegation also to cast a blank ballot.

Over the course of seven days, from February 11 to February 17, the House cast a total of 35 ballots, with Jefferson receiving the votes of eight state delegations each time—one short of the necessary majority of nine. During the contest, Hamilton recommended to Federalists that they support Jefferson because he was "by far not so dangerous a man" as Burr. In his way of thinking, he would much rather have someone with wrong principles than someone devoid of any. Hamilton embarked on a campaign to get delegates to switch votes.

On February 17, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected. Federalist James A. Bayard of Delaware and his allies in Maryland and Vermont all cast blank ballots. This resulted in the Maryland and Vermont votes changing from no selection to Jefferson, giving him the votes of 10 states and the presidency. Bayard, as the sole representative from Delaware, changed his vote from Burr to no selection. The four present representatives from South Carolina, all Federalists, also changed their 3-1 selection of Burr to four abstentions. The final tally was Jefferson with ten votes to Burr's four.

And then came "the duel." But that's another story.

Happy Birthday Harry Truman

On May 8, 1884 (135 years ago today) Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, was born in Lamar, Missouri. If you're wondering what the "S" stands for, it doesn't stand for anything. His parents chose "S" as his middle initial to please both of his grandfathers, Anderson "Shipp" Truman and Solomon Young. Apparently this was a common practice among the Scots-Irish at the time.

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Truman was the final running mate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the ticket was elected in 1944. Truman succeeded Roosevelt as President on April 12, 1945 when Roosevelt died after months of declining health. It is said that when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that her husband had died after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, Truman's first concern was for Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked her if there was anything he could do for her. She replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? You are the one in trouble now!"

Truman spent most of his youth on his family's farm in Missouri. During World War I, Truman served in combat in France as an artillery officer in his National Guard unit. He had poor eyesight but got into the army by memorizing the eye chart. After the war, he owned a haberdashery and joined the Democratic Party, which at the time was run by local political boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City, Missouri. He was first elected to public office as a county official, and in 1935 became U.S. senator. At first his fellow senators were skeptical of Truman's ability, but he gained national prominence as head of the wartime Truman Committee, which exposed waste, fraud, and corruption in wartime contracts.

Germany surrendered a few weeks after Truman became President, but the war with Japan was expected to last another year or more. Truman ordered the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, justifying this controversial decision by his belief that doing so would spare American lives that would otherwise be lost in an invasion. Working closely with Congress, Truman assisted in the founding of the United Nations. He issued the Truman Doctrine which was intended to contain the spread of communism. With his support, Congress passed the $13 billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.

Former wartime ally the Soviet Union became a peacetime enemy, and the Cold War began. Truman supported the creation of NATO in 1949. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he immediately sent in U.S. troops and gained United Nations support for the Korean War. After initial success, the UN forces were thrown back when the Chinese intervened on the side of communist North Korea, and the conflict was stalemated through the final years of Truman's presidency.

On domestic issues, Truman often faced opposition from a conservative Congress dominated by the South. Truman said that civil rights was a moral priority, and he submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress in 1948. He issued Executive Orders to start racial integration of the military and federal agencies. In 1948 he was a sort of political Lazarus, winning election to the presidency in his own right, after newspapers had predicted his defeat and one large newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, even went so far as to print a headline on election day that his opponent Thomas Dewey had won the election.

Truman's term from 1948-52 was a rough one. Corruption in Truman's administration was linked to some members of his cabinet and senior White House staff. This and his failure to make progress in the Korean War precipitated his decision not to seek re-election. He left office with low approval ratings, but gained popularity in retirement as an elder statesman.

On December 5, 1972, Truman was admitted to Kansas City's Research Hospital and Medical Center with lung congestion from pneumonia. He developed multiple organ failure and died at 7:50 am on December 26, 1972 at the age of 88.


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