AS THE NEW AMERICAN NATION celebrated its 20th Fourth of July 200 years ago today, it found itself embroiled in the first partisan presidential election in its short history. George Washington had reigned, virtually unopposed, after two uncontested elections in 1788 and 1792.
By the time the 1796 election rolled around, the political parties the Founders had sought to avoid were very much in the process formation -- their impact upon the future of the nation impossible to exaggerate. The seeds were planted in the personal rivalry of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, but they were nurtured in the conflicting interests of regions and classes.
Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, thought Hamilton "bewitched and perverted by the British example [i.e., the monarchy]" -- a charge loaded with the demonization of King George III and memories of the War for Independence. Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, considered Jefferson imbued with the radicalism of the French Revolution, unscrupulous and "a contemptible hypocrite."
The first real contest in U.S. history cast Jefferson not against Hamilton but against Washington's vice president, John Adams. The two men were old friends, not least because Adams was more of an independent than the partisans arrayed for and against him. He left it to his followers to brand Jefferson as "an atheist, anarchist, demagogue, coward, mountebank, trickster, and Franco-maniac," according to Paul F. Boller's new book on "Presidential Elections."
The less controversial Adams was tagged, like the revered Washington, as an avowed "friend of monarchy" whose intention was to make his sons "Seigneurs or Lords of this country." Actually, one of his sons, John Quincy Adams, became the only son of a president to become a president. John Adams defeated Jefferson in the Electoral College by only three votes, a margin repeatedly cited during his single term in the presidency. By that time, political dialogue was well ensconced in a tradition of extravagant denunciation and hyperbole.
All this is worth remembering on this election-year Fourth of July because the nation has proven again and again that it can survive the worst verbal excess the parties can offer. Political invective is as American as hot dogs, apple pie and the Fourth of July. So let us celebrate this 220th Independence Day with a salute to the underlying strength, common sense and good humor of the nation. Let the pols shoot their fireworks in the days ahead. July 4 is the day for the best kind of fireworks.
Pub Date: 7/04/96