Daniel Sutter: The most significant presidential election

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Every presidential election appears like the most important ever, but history provides some perspective. The election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent John Adams to become our third president, offers a case in point. Jefferson later called this the “revolution of 1800,” rivaling the American Revolution in significance.

Adams and Jefferson contested the 1796 presidential election to succeed George Washington. Conflict between Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans escalated during the term, highlighted by an undeclared naval war with France.

Perhaps even more ominous were the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts lengthened the residency required to become a naturalized citizen (immigrants tended to support the Republicans), allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens or citizens of a foreign nation during war, and allowed prosecution of newspaper editors for criticizing the government. The Acts seriously threatened the Constitution’s principles of freedom and limited government.

Political turmoil brought the nation to the verge of civil war. Some Federalists wanted to raise a provisional army to suppress Republicans in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Just years after the founding, America’s experiment with freedom was coming apart.

States selected the delegates to the Electoral College in 1800, and the Republicans had influence in many state governments. States selected electors at different times through the year, and the Electoral College was tied 65-65 when the last state, South Carolina, chose electors for Jefferson. President Jefferson extended an olive branch to the Federalists and the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed.

The Election of 1800 transferred power from one party to another for the first time, a historic achievement. Elections have ensured a peaceful, albeit often contentious, process for transferring power. Previously, monarchs and emperors held power, and a change in leadership required a civil war.

How do elections bring peace to politics? Alternatively, why doesn’t civil war break out after every election? Because losing candidates do not try to occupy office via force; in other words, they “accept” the results. So why do losing candidates accept the results?

Two factors are relevant. First, regular elections offer the opportunity to contest for office again relatively soon. A loss is not forever, and losers can win office in the future if they do not resort to violence now.

Limiting the powers of government also fosters peace. We can tolerate the “wrong” people in power when government wields less power over our lives. If government can take away your property or jail you, you could lose everything before the next election.

The First Amendment’s separation of church and state illustrates the value of limiting government. America’s founders separated church and state not because they thought religion unimportant, but because of its importance. People will fight and die to worship as they choose, and sadly, many wars have been fought over religion. The losing side is less likely to “accept” an election outcome if the government can ban their church.

Elections must be held regularly to ensure they work. Political scientists talk about the institutionalization of democracy in a nation, which refers to people adjusting to the election outcome. The Obamas, for instance, will vacate the White House in January. When the idea of forcibly staying in office after losing an election seems crazy, elections are institutionalized.

Elections both transfer power peacefully and limit the potential for extreme action by officeholders, since such action will result in defeat in the next election. The democratic peace is indispensable for prosperity. As economist Ludwig von Mises observed, “There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles.” Modern life would be impossible without secure supplies of food, water, and electricity. Peace between nations allows international extension of commerce.

We will soon elect a new president. The turmoil of the present often seems unprecedented. The election of 1800 demonstrated power could be transferred peacefully and that animosity can recede after an election.


Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.


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