The air is crisp, and the first hints of color are showing in the Blue Ridge, which means that pumpkin spice lattes and the fifty-ninth U.S. presidential election must be around the corner. It’s easy to think that we live in uniquely unsettling political times. But a look at the past shows that the country has weathered political storms in the past and come out the other side, although often battered from the tempest.
Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry on the U.S. Presidential Election of 1800 tells the fascinating story of the first—and much celebrated—peaceful transfer of power between political parties in U.S. political history. But it’s also a story of fierce partisan tensions, as the first political parties were forged in the fire of escalating divisions over the proper size and scope of the federal government and the country’s alliances with France and Britain.
As contributor John Ragosta noted, “By 1800, political rhetoric had become particularly vicious, with the parties accusing one another of all manner of religious and civil abominations.” The result, he writes, was a “political cauldron,” with many believing “the nation was on the verge of collapse.” And when the election was thrown to the House of Representatives after an electoral college tie between Democratic-Republican presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson and his intended vice president Aaron Burr, the nation held its breath to see if democracy would prevail.
Tied in many historians’ minds for the most consequential election in U.S. history is the U.S. Presidential Election of 1860. Again, the country was at a political boiling point, as John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry made it impossible to continue to paper over differences on slavery between the North and the South. Four candidates—two Democrats, one Republican, and one Constitutional Unionist—competed for the presidency that autumn, reflecting a “political system in chaos,” said contributor John McClure. Succession was on the table. Republican Abraham Lincoln won with just 40 percent of the popular vote, and the country found itself hurled into a war, that as Henry Adams remembered forty years later, few outside of a handful of southern successionists, “wanted … or expected or intended.”
The American Civil War not only scarred a generation but seems to loom larger, not smaller, with each passing year. Like other southern states, Virginia systematically disfranchised most African Americans in the decades after the war despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This effort culminated with the Virginia Constitution of 1902, which also barred many poor whites from voting. While just over 264,000 Virginia men voted in the presidential election of 1900, only 136,000 did in 1904, an overall reduction of 48.6 percent. This, notes Brent Tarter in the EV entry on Disfranchisement, “gave Virginia the dubious distinction of being the state with the smallest portion of its adult population participating in elections.”
In fact, by 1924, with the African American vote having dwindled by 90 percent, despite passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote, the Richmond News Leader declared that “Virginia is not a democracy.” It would take the better part of the twentieth century for democracy to be restored in the state, a reminder that each generation faces new fights to maintain what others have already won and that each crisp, quadrennial fall is a chance to enter the fray once again.