Adams-Jefferson II: Getting Nastier

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The videos for this week capture the depth of this political divide. Charlie Gephardt’s video “Infidel” attacks Thomas Jefferson’s morals – or lack thereof. Jefferson, Federalists argued in terms even more heated than the previous election, was an atheist and Francophile. A Jefferson presidency would produce anarchy and foster societal degeneracy. To paraphrase one of the quotes Charlie uses to great effect, Americans would be taught to commit incest under a Jefferson administration. There are a lot of other accusations like that in the video.

If Jefferson’s amorality should strike fear in the public, Katy Carrigan’s video “A Hideous and Hermaphroditical Character” argues that Adams’ indecisiveness should concern voters. Republicans claimed Adams was a hermaphrodite, metaphorically speaking, of course. They argued that he lacked the strength and decisiveness that came with virility and the compassion and sensitivity linked to femininity. A weak-kneed, unsympathetic vacillator, he did not possess the attributes necessary to lead. And that’s just how the ad opens. Combined, Charlie’s and Katy’s ads both show how sexual politics played a central role in American politics even in the early republic. 

Phil McGovern’s “A Firm and Enlightened Patriot” takes these accusations head-on. He argues that Adams is a strong leader. He took a firm stance against France, supported the expansion of the American military, and, ultimately, avoided open war. Quoting a newspaper from the time, he says Adams is “a firm and enlightened patriot.”  

Tyler Cole’s “His Merits” makes a stirring case for Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson is the only true patriot in this election. He begins by linking Jefferson to the Declaration of Independence. He intends this opening to do two things: remind the viewer of Jefferson’s revolutionary service and imply that, in 1800, it is time for a change of governments once again. He goes on to list Jefferson’s “enumerate” qualifications for office.

Tyler’s argument carried the day. The 1800 election turned out to be a wave election, the first of its kind. The Republicans captured the House from the Federalists. Jefferson also secured the Presidency, though that election was a lot closer, at least in the Electoral College. Jefferson and Burr tied with 73 electoral votes, throwing the decision to the House of Representative. It took 35 ballots, but eventually the House declared Jefferson President. In March, the nation experienced its first peaceful transfer of power. We’ll stop next in 1808, when the nation seemed poised for war.

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