A bitterly divided nation. An electoral campaign full of insults and defamation. Dread, in both camps, of the reign of terror to come if the opposing camp wins. Speculation that the president might not leave peacefully if he loses the election. Threats of violence. A growing sense that Americans, blinded by ideological enmity, could be headed toward a kind of civil war.
Truly, politics in 2020 are toxic. But the description you just read is of politics in 1800.
The election that year and its immediate aftermath was a terrible time in the United States, a period of vicious political conflict and partisan loathing. After a poisonous campaign, President John Adams, a Federalist, lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. Federalists were enraged at the prospect of losing the White House. Some of them schemed to block Jefferson’s inauguration. Jefferson’s allies prepared to mobilize militias and force the Federalists to yield.
When he took the oath of office, Jefferson’s first priority was not to condemn his predecessor’s policies or to revel in his own party’s ascendancy. It was to cool the passions inflaming American society and begin the work of national reconciliation.
And so his first address as president emphasized the “sacred principle” that the party that wins an election not abuse the party that loses. “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable,” Jefferson declared. “The minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.”
He implored Americans to stop letting politics divide them into warring camps.
“Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things,” he said. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Taking the helm of a nation riven by partisan discord, Jefferson called for healing. Whoever wins this week’s election must do the same.
Jefferson set a precedent — the incoming president as a unifier, a healer of the national breach — that several of his successors strove to uphold.
James Monroe, a Virginian elected amid such partisan and regional antipathy that New Englanders spoke seriously of seceding from the union, made it a priority to restore American solidarity. He picked a Federalist stalwart, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, as secretary of state, and undertook a goodwill tour of the Northeast soon after his inauguration. So successful was Monroe’s conciliatory approach that his administration became known as the Era of Good Feelings.
Abraham Lincoln, reelected at the end of the Civil War, embarked on his second term deeply committed to restoring American unity. His second inaugural address, though very short, closed with one of the most lyrical pleas for brotherhood and social peace in American history: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.” But he was murdered 41 days later, and all hope of postwar amity died with him.
In 1974, at a very different time of strife and division, Gerald Ford became president when Richard Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment. In his plainspoken way, Ford echoed Lincoln’s appeal that Americans come together. “As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars,” he implored, “let us restore the Golden Rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.” When Jimmy Carter replaced Ford 29 months later, his first words as president were a tribute to Ford “for all he has done to heal our land.”
Our land today needs healing far more than it did after Watergate. After four years of the most polarizing presidency the United States has ever experienced, Americans are at daggers drawn. Public discourse boils over with fear, mistrust, and outright hatred. Partisan differences reflect not just differences on policy but mutually hostile social and behavioral identities. “Red” and “blue” Americans increasingly have nothing to do with each other.
Donald Trump didn’t start the fire, but he has stoked and accelerated it on a scale previously unknown in this country. To my mind, the most damning observation about Trump was made by James Mattis, the retired Marine general who served two years as Trump’s first secretary of defense. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote in June.
Joe Biden is no saint, but he has repeatedly promised that if elected he will try to be a “president who doesn’t divide us, but unites us.” In Warm Springs, Ga., last week, he urged Americans to free themselves “from the forces of division, and the forces . . . that pull us apart, hold us down, and hold us back.” There is much about the Democratic agenda that I find deeply worrisome. But it is reassuring to hear a presidential candidate speak — to all appearances with sincerity — about wanting to bring Americans, so many of whom now see one another as enemies, back together.
In the end, however, no president, however empathetic and well-meaning, can singlehandedly restore national unity. Good leadership can help, but the hard work of rebuilding trust, of recalling how to disagree without being disagreeable, is a job Americans have to do for themselves. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” Jefferson said. It would be good to have politicians who embraced that approach. It would be even better if the rest of us — we, the people — were willing to embrace it, too.