by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Ashbrook Executive Director
Originally published in USA Today, this op-ed has since been published in dozens of newspapers across the United States.
Partisan rancor. Personal insults. Politicized media. A president running against a vice president in perhaps the nastiest election the country has seen.
Trump vs. Biden? Actually, it was the presidential election of 1800. President John Adams faced his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, in one of the most heated campaigns ever. Adams was decried as a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Jefferson was said to be “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow” who would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”
Only 24 years after the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the Americans were “one people,” it looked like America could be torn apart. The Constitution was only 12 years old and the great unifying figure of George Washington – who was unanimously elected twice as president – had died the year before, in 1799. Even though Washington warned about the dangers of parties in his “Farewell Address,” two competing parties had formed – the Federalists of Adams and the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson. Power had rarely been transferred peacefully between rival parties, and never in the new country.
But America surprised the world. Jefferson won, and Adams, despite personal bitterness at what he regarded as Jefferson’s betrayal, followed the Constitution and stepped aside peacefully. For his part, in his Inaugural Address Jefferson implored his “fellow-citizens” to “unite with one heart and one mind” and “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.” Jefferson even declared that “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Jefferson wasn’t just mouthing platitudes. He believed that during the election Americans may “have been called by different names,” but above all they were “brethren of the same principle.” The truths they shared in the Declaration and Constitution – equality, liberty, consent of the governed, the rule of law – were stronger than the differences of opinion dividing the parties.
Jefferson’s words still carry hope for us today. We can be “brethren,” even after this tough election. There is hope for healing our divisions.
But if – and only if – Americans continue to understand and love the history and Founding principles of our country. They are what make us “one people”. If we forget them – or even worse, reject them – we lose the essential ties that bind us together in our great experiment in self-government. Across the country, Americans – especially young people – must return to the study of our Founding documents themselves, and understand our history as the struggle to live up to those principles of freedom. Only then can we be sure what we share is stronger than anything that divides us.
Adams and Jefferson shared those bonds themselves. Years after the election of 1800, they restored the friendship that had been forged in the fight for independence in 1776. They both realized that they understood and loved the same principles of the Declaration of Independence, for which they pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”. They knew that while they had been rivals, they could not be enemies. Miraculously, both men died on same day – July 4, 1826.
In the end, they were “brethren of the same principle.” If we recover our shared history and principles, we will be too.