It had been a brutal race. Two hundred twelve autumns ago, in the campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams faced off over the future of the young nation. Each believed the other's election would be cataclysmic. For Jefferson's Republicans, Adams, a Federalist, was an incompetent President and an aspiring monarch. Americans, one Republican wrote, "will never permit the chief magistrate of the union to become a King instead of a President." For Federalists, Jefferson was a radical infidel. The Gazette of the United States told voters to choose "God--and a religious President" or "Jefferson--and no God."
Through an electoral quirk, Jefferson wound up with the same number of Electoral College votes for President as his running mate, Aaron Burr of New York. Thus began a season of chaos in the new capital along the Potomac. The election went to the House of Representatives--and no one knew what would happen. "The crisis is momentous!" wrote the Washington Federalist. Along the mid-Atlantic, Jefferson partisans considered arming themselves to march on the capital.
The voting in the House was agonizingly slow. Lawmakers slept on pallets. The weather was terrible. An ailing Representative, Joseph Nicholson of Maryland, was carried through the snow on a stretcher and set up in a room next to the House. Finally, at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1801, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson prevailed.
Two centuries later, in the wake of another closely fought election, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the story of Jefferson sheds light on the enduring nature of partisanship and suggests ways a President can come out the other end of a vicious contest to govern effectively.
Jefferson loved his books, his farms, good wine, architecture, Homer, horseback riding, history, France, the Commonwealth of Virginia and spending money. He drove fast, relished long walks in the woods and considered the sun his "almighty physician." A master of emotional and political manipulation, he was, like most politicians, intoxicated by approval and obsessed with his reputation. As a planter, lawyer, legislator, governor, diplomat, Secretary of State, Vice President and President, Jefferson spent much of his life seeking control over himself and over the lives and destinies of others.
He brought these decades of political experience to the challenge of uniting the country in 1801. He knew what he needed to do. The "duty of the chief magistrate," Jefferson once said, was "to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people" to "produce a union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body and one mind." The re-elected President Obama might consider the following lessons from Jefferson's instructive presidency:
1. PRACTICE FORBEARANCE