Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The War of 1812, and twenty years of a one-party state

The Jefferson-Adams rematch was the last gasp of the Federalists as a real political force in the United States; oh, they kept some seats in Congress, and ran for the Presidency, but they never regained their majorities in the former or took the latter. The only interesting presidential election from 1804 to 1820 was 1812, when James Madison ran for reelection against DeWitt Clinton, nephew of Vice President George Clinton, who had died in April. Clinton at least made the popular vote interesting, as Madison barely got over 50%, but 128 to 89 is not that close a race.

Thing is, DeWitt wasn't actually a Federalist. Oh, he ran with Federalist support, but that only accounted for about a third of the vote; the other 15% came from Republicans unhappy with Madison, particularly those who wanted a Northern president. Jefferson and Madison were both from Virginia, as was Washington, and Secretary of State James Monroe, a post that J&M both held before their elections, was a Virginian as well. The Republican Party was the only game in town, and the Federalists only had any success in New England.

The other major reason DeWitt made it a real contest was the War of 1812, which Federalists really didn't like, partly because Madison supported it and partly because they wanted to resolve our problems with Great Britain peacefully. There were a few problems, and they weren't trivial. England didn't believe that people could stop being British and start being American, and their fleet was understaffed, so they came onboard American ships and took anyone who was British, or looked British, and told them "You're in His Majesty's Navy now".

Great Britain* also didn't like us trading with France, since they were at war with Napoleon at the time, and started dicking us over by blockading France, which meant no sweet sweet francs pouring into American pockets. Lastly, a bunch of people wanted to annex Canada and take more Indian land, and the UK really wasn't in the mood to lose more of their North American territory, not to mention trading with the people who caught and skinned all those beavers and such*, so that made things kind of awkward.

Anyway, Federalists didn't like the nascent war, and DeWitt was the only one who was against it (or at least he was against it when he was campaigning in the northeast; back then, you could get away with telling some people one thing and others the complete opposite if they were far enough apart), so he had their vote. What he didn't have was their formal endorsement, mostly because they realized that would do more harm than good since most people didn't like them that much.

DeWitt's campaign in 1812 confirmed the decline of the Federalist Party, and would be echoed in 1824, as all four candidates then were Republicans, reflecting tensions within the party, and the different interests of the South, Northeast, and West. (It was just the West back then, since the country wasn't wide enough to have a distinct left-right middle region.)

*I use the terms England and Great Britain interchangeably in this post, for the sake of variety, but they're not actually the same thing. See CCP Grey's video for more information, which I highly recommend.

*There was a spirited arms trade between the British and the various tribes, most of which ended up being used on frontier settlers in the Northwest Territory, what's now the Midwest.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Twelfth Amendment: making the Electoral College slightly less dysfunctional

In 1796, screwups in communication between both parties' electors resulted in John Adams getting a slim majority of the vote, and being elected president, with Thomas Jefferson coming in just behind him, and landing the vice presidency despite having run against Adams and not wanting the job. The rematch in 1800 featured a narrow victory on Jefferson's part, but the electors barely did better than last time, and he tied with his running mate Aaron Burr, putting the election in the House's hands, which took a week to pick Jefferson out of the Federalists' spite for him as their greatest opponent.

So the system was clearly working very badly, and the necessary change was quite clear: if the electors could vote separately for president and vice president, there would be no need to arrange for the party's vice presidential candidate to come in second. The idea that states would select wise men for the electoral college, who would in turn debate among themselves who would make the best president, was dead on arrival, and never actually happened; initially, everyone agreed that Washington would be president with Adams as his second in command, and that conversation took place long before the Electoral College met.

All that being quite apparent to the knowledgeable observer, they got to work fixing it immediately, right? Hahaha no. The twelfth amendment, stating that electors had ballots for both contests rather than every vote being for president, was proposed on December 9, 1803. The states did get to work pretty fast ratifying it, though; Rhode Island was the tenth on March 12, and New Hampshire got it to thirteen out of seventeen June 15. Massachusetts, Delaware, and Connecticut rejected it, but after New Hampshire's approval none of that mattered.

There were strong and vociferous objections to the twelfth amendment; insufficient to prevent its passage, or even significantly slow it, but three states did think it was a bad idea. Most notable was the claim that the vice presidency would simply fall to a party flunky, and not be the man that the second-greatest number of electors thought could do the job. The fact that this had never yet happened is a compelling counterargument, but just because something has not been the case the first two times it is tried does not mean that it will never be. It was pretty unlikely in this case, though, especially since if Federalist electors had gotten a few more votes, Adams would have gotten a majority and his running mate Charles Pinckney would have been one vote behind.

There was little complaint about a vice president being chosen based on popularity, but that rests largely on the popular vote being relatively insignificant at the time. Most of the states had little to no use for the people's opinion in the presidential election, and while that would change, it had not yet, and in fact had even decreased from the elections of 1789 and 1792.

Amusingly enough, though the 12th amendment was ratified only a few months before the election of 1804, it did not have any political relevance for decades. John Adams' narrow loss was not an ordinary defeat for the Federalist Party, and it went into a fairly steep decline over the next few years; Jefferson beat Charles Pinkney 162 electoral votes to 14, and while the War of 1812 was hardly an objective victory for the United States, Federalist opposition to it effectively destroyed the party as a political force.

Monday, June 2, 2014

1800 - Jefferson versus Adams 2: Electric Boogaloo, or how the Electoral College lost its groove

Well, 1796 hadn't gone so well, what with Jefferson running for president and getting the vice presidency as a consolation prize.Trying to get just one person to vote for him and someone who wasn't his running mate, so Jefferson would get the most votes and Burr would be just behind, was a really neat trick, and beyond the abilities of people who didn't have phones. Adams and Jefferson supporters both tried it in 1796, and both groups had a lot more people than they could afford voting for Adams and not-Pinckney or Jefferson and not-Burr. Would they come up with a better plan in 1800? Short answer: no. Long answer: they overcorrected, and it actually kinda turned out worse.

The setup was almost exactly the same: President John Adams ran for reelection, and his running mate was Charles C. Pinckney, the brother of 1796 Federalist nominee Thomas Pinckney, who was elected to the House after his loss. Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran against him, the first and only time that would happen*. Campaigning between the two was bitter, fierce, and frankly kind of mean-spirited, so pretty much like it is nowadays. Well, I say between the two, but neither Adams nor Jefferson really took part in the race, since that was the Done Thing back then; having your colleague accuse your opponent of wanting to bring the king back, or teach "murder robbery" in school, was just fine, but doing it yourself was just gauche.

There wasn't a lot of actual voting by default at this point, since several states already had the legislature involved in the elector process or control it entirely, and a few more changed to benefit the party that controlled the legislature. When election day rolled around, there were only a handful of states where the people got a remotely direct say in the election of the president: KY, TN, RI, VA, MD, NC. Of those states, Rhode Island was the only one to cast no votes for Jefferson, though NC was split 8-4 for him.

Those are the records we have for the popular vote, so on paper 1800 seems like a massively one-sided election: Jefferson with 41k and 61%, Adams with 36k and 39%. Since almost all the Federalist states had the legislature choose the electors, it seems like Adams was massively unpopular. If that had been the vote with everyone going to the polls, Adams would likely have gotten the 16 votes from Massachusetts and little else. He actually came very close to beating Jefferson, 65 electoral votes to 73.

So Jefferson got 73 votes, and Adams got 65. Therefore, for each party the goal was, respectively, for Burr to get 72 votes, and Pinckney to get 64. That's exactly what Pinckney actually got, and it's kind of a shame that they couldn't win five more votes and have that scheme work. Burr, however, also got 73, and so the vote was a tie and the election went to the House. The House that would be doing the voting, however, was the one elected in 1798, which had an overall Federalist majority, and more importantly eight out of sixteen state delegations with a majority of Federalists -- enough to deny a majority of the vote.

The Federalists had already lost: Jefferson and Burr got more electoral votes than Adams and Pinckney, and they had to choose between Jefferson and Burr for the Presidency. Thing is, most of the Federalists hated Jefferson, and they weren't just going to acquiesce to his election. So six of the eight states with Federalist majorities voted for Burr, just to stick it to Jefferson, while all seven Republican states voted for Jefferson. Georgia's sole representative, a Federalist, also voted for Jefferson, while one of Maryland's five joined the three Republicans in voting for him, and Vermont had one of each, so Maryland and Vermont didn't cast votes.

Eight votes for Jefferson, six votes for Burr, and two not voting. That's where it stood for 35 ballots, from February 11 to 17, while leading Federalist Alexander Hamilton started writing letters urging his fellows to vote for Jefferson. While they were both scum, in Hamilton's view, Jefferson at least had principles, wrong though they were; Burr was an unmitigated opportunist, and would be a worse president. So on the 36th ballot, Federalist James F. Bayard of Delaware left his ballot blank, as did two of his colleagues from Maryland and Vermont, changing the latter states from tied to favoring Jefferson, giving him two votes and the majority he needed. Federalists in South Carolina also cast blank ballots rather than voting for Burr, but that didn't make so much of a difference.

It was settled. Thomas Jefferson was elected president, and Aaron Burr vice president. And on March 3, Adams left the White House, and his greatest rival was sworn in as his successor. That was one of the greatest acts of American democracy at the time, and remains to this day. Adams lost, and rather than wage some fractious and destructive campaign to retain power, he relinquished his office. For that, he deserves far more credit than an aged and weary Washington leaving after the second term he didn't even want in the first place.

*In theory, it could happen again, though it would require a third-party ticket that actually got some votes, so neither major party managed a majority. With no electoral college majority, the presidential election goes to the House, and the vice-presidential election goes to the Senate. If one party has majorities in more than half the state delegations, but the other has a majority of the Senate seats (which is currently the case), then the president would be of one major party and the vice president of the other.