As any grammar school student knows, General Washington was unanimously elected by the Electoral College, and then essentially drafted for a second term, unanimously elected by the Electoral College. That has never happened since. America’s first truly contested presidential election came in 1796, featuring a field of candidates, notably including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. That election demonstrated from the start that American presidential campaigns wouldnot be mere gentlemanly debates, but would be truly contentious, including negative campaigning against opponents. The candidates of the time did not overtly campaign, but instead were promoted by their supporters. These factions were already on their way to becoming formal political parties, the forerunners of today’s Democrat and Republican parties. In the election campaign of 1796, supporters of Thomas Jefferson argued that John Adams was a monarchist who wanted to set up a king in America. Adams’ supporters said that Thomas Jefferson was a Francophile who wanted a version of the bloody French Revolution here in America. Of course, John Adams won the election and served his term, which brought the country to its second disputed election in 1800, featuring the same two principal opponents.* The 1800 campaign was even more acrimonious, and it would have been familiar to any political campaigner today.
The Jefferson supporters told the public that John Adams not only wanted to be king, but that he was a traitor because of his implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams’ camp told the public in all earnestness that Thomas Jefferson, while being the author of the Declaration of Independence, was in fact the Antichrist. That was the tenor of the campaign. After each of these election campaigns, however, the world witnessed a rare, and perhaps unique, phenomenon. Bitter disputes for national political power were followed by entirely peaceful transitions of administration. That phenomenon is quintessentially American. In our history, the phenomenon has been best illustrated by Inauguration Day, when the transition occurs. For the first 144 years of the Republic’s existence, from 1789 to 1933, Inauguration Day was March 4. I suggest that, while we rightfully observe July 4 as a day to honor to boldness and confidence of our founders in declaring that they were no longer English, March 4 is a good day to remember how we have shown the world what it means to be the United States of America. H/T to Larry McKinney, historian, for these thoughts.(*Ignoring Aaron Burr for brevity).