2024 is shaping up to be one of the hotly contested presidential elections in history, but we have been here before, even way back at the beginning of our embattled republic. The 1800 campaign was hotly contested and stands out as notably acrimonious even now from the vantage point of two hundred more years of acrimonious campaigns.
In those days, the candidates themselves did not campaign, but others more than took up the slack. According to Rating America’s Presidents, the Federalist Hartford Courant sounded the alarm about the consequences of electing the deist Jefferson president: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” A Federalist leaflet invoked the bloody excesses of the French Revolution: “Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt that if Jefferson is elected, and the Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin—which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence—defend our property from plunder and devastation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon and exploded?”
Jefferson’s supporters gave this right back, calling Adams’s presidency “one continued tempest of malignant passions.” They claimed that he planned to marry off one of his sons to a daughter of British King George III and start an American monarchy. That was one of the milder charges; Adams’s wife Abigail lamented that during the 1800 campaign, enough “abuse and scandal” was published “to ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.”
One thing that neither Jefferson nor Adams did, however, was to use the machinery of the state to persecute the other and try to frame him for crimes.
Fast-forward to the run-up to the election of 1920. On Jan. 6, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson received news that former President Theodore Roosevelt had died unexpectedly at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, at the age of 60. Upon receiving the news, Wilson’s face broke into a wide, unashamed grin. He was planning to run for a third term in 1920, and the widely popular Roosevelt looked to be his chief rival. World War I had just ended, and Wilson’s ambitious plans for the postwar world, with their centerpiece a new international organization that would preserve world peace, the League of Nations, were on the line. Now, with Roosevelt dead, Wilson’s chances for 1920 were substantially improved. It was a cause for celebration.
Fate intervened. Wilson suffered a massive stroke in October 1919, and his wife Edith became the de facto president, controlling access to the stricken chief executive and effectively making decisions for the nation on his behalf while the impotent vice president, Thomas Riley Marshall, made quips about cheap smoking materials. (Marshall’s sole claim to fame is the saying, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”) Wilson’s hopes for the 1920 Democrat nomination were dashed, and his ambitious postwar plans went down to defeat as the Republican Warren G. Harding won a decisive victory over his Democrat opponent, the colorless Wilson stand-in James M. Cox, governor of Ohio.
Wilson’s enthusiastic grin upon learning of Roosevelt’s death, however, indicated his incandescent hatred for the man. Roosevelt was everything the sour and self-righteous Wilson wasn’t: charismatic, charming, friendly, accessible, and genuine. At the same time, Roosevelt shared enough of Wilson’s “progressivism,” that is, a taste for Leftist big-government policies, as to make Wilson look like a pale copy and poor alternative. Wilson was first elected president in 1912 only because the Republicans were hopelessly split between Roosevelt and his former friend, William Howard Taft, whom Roosevelt had chosen as his successor when he declined to run again for the presidency in 1908. If the 1912 race had been solely between Wilson and Roosevelt, Roosevelt would have won handily. And Wilson knew it. He also knew that in a 1920 race between himself and the Rough Rider, that would also be the likely outcome.
Yet for all of Woodrow Wilson’s hatred for Theodore Roosevelt, he never unleashed the power of the state against him. Long before Wilson was president, in his 1885 book Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics, he displayed a taste for authoritarianism, lamenting that “Congress must act through the President and his Cabinet; the President and his Cabinet must wait upon the will of Congress. There is no one supreme, ultimate head—whether magistrate or representative body—which can decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done at those times when some decision there must be, and that immediately.” This defect, he wrote, “in times of sudden exigency…might prove fatal.” Nevertheless, when Wilson was president, he still had enough respect for the American system to refrain from turning the federal law enforcement apparatus into an instrument of partisan politics.
Joe Biden and Merrick Garland have shown that they do not have that respect. They appear to be willing to do anything, anything, to destroy Donald Trump. And so they have gone where none of Joe Biden’s predecessors have ever dared to go. With this new precedent they have set in the raid on Trump’s home, they have placed the nation on new and dangerous ground. With what is coming next, God help us all.