Virginia and Presidential Politics

Time Period
1764 to 1824
American Revolution
Politics & Government
Letter of James Monroe to George Graham (former secretary of war), April 3rd, 1829

Letter of James Monroe to George Graham (former secretary of war), April 3,1829.  

Soon after the Revolutionary War, American leaders realized that they differed in their visions of what the nation should be. Southern agriculturists envisioned rural settlements self-governed by responsible landowners. In the North were agriculturists, along with merchants and burgeoning industrialists. Nationalists like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton realized while fighting the war that a strong federal government would have to be created if the new nation would survive. 

In two presidential elections, Washington was unanimously chosen by the electors. Following his success in the revolution and his voluntary relinquishment of power, he was the most renowned and respected man in the western world. He had nothing to gain from becoming president and accepted the position because he was desperately needed: no one else was so trusted and admired. A clothing button celebrated his election and was worn as one might today wear a cap or T-shirt to boast of having supported the victory of a candidate. 

Political problems soon emerged, however, during Washington’s first presidency. The prospect of a mercantile and industrial America was the antithesis of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian society free from the evils of urban life. The southern slave-supported society appalled many Federalists. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton served together under Washington (as secretaries of state and the treasury): “We were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks,” Jefferson wrote. Their different visions flooded the newspapers when the issue of the debt crisis caused by the Revolutionary War was addressed. 

Bowl that celebrates the candidacy of William Henry Harrison, whisky bottle that is embossed with images of Zachary Taylor and George Washington, clothing button that celebrates George Washington's inauguration, and medal that celebrates the presidency of John Tyler

A bowl that celebrates the candidacy of William Henry Harrison, 1840 election; a whiskey bottle that is embossed with images of Zachary Taylor and George Washington,1848 election; and a clothing button that celebrates George Washington’s Inauguration,1789, with “Long Live The President” surrounding the central engraving of “GW,” with a chain of thirteen unbroken links encircling the initials of the thirteen original states.

To fund the war, Congress and the states had printed and borrowed money. Congress turned to Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton to resolve the dilemma. He argued that the national government must assume funding of all the debts, and that a national bank must be established to facilitate that funding and to grow the economy. Surrendering the state debts to the Treasury Department would “enormously strengthen” federal power, argued Madison and Jefferson, who opposed any weakening of state authority. And to agrarians, a central bank threatened to further development of a mercantile economy, enhance the reach of the federal government, and weaken the power of rural America. 

Passage of Hamilton’s policies spawned an opposition party, Jefferson’s and Madison’s Democratic-Republicans who would defeat the Federalists in 1800. Each side controlled a newspaper that, not too dissimilar to some of today’s media, was short on facts, long on opinion, unabashedly partisan, and could be scandalous and erroneous. In this new political divide, each side believed that the future of the country was at stake, that the opposing party was a mortal threat to the heritage of the democracy. Sound familiar? This extreme polarization has gone unmatched for two centuries, until now, when exactly the same is said. 

In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington warned of the danger of political parties, but the polarization got worse. In 1800, the presidential election pitted John Adams against Jefferson, as it had in 1796, when Adams, a Federalist, was elected. The 1800 election was contested and decided by balloting in the House of Representatives. 

Biography of James Madison in the Boston Patriot newspaper, May 6, 1809

Biography of James Madison in the Boston Patriot newspaper, May 6,1809. 

In Jefferson’s letter to a friend and supporter, he reports that twenty-five ballots have been taken without resolution. Jefferson had received 73 electoral votes to defeat Adams, but Jefferson’s vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr, also received 73 electoral votes—and Burr attempted to steal the victory and become president himself. On the 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected. The reason was that his arch political opponent, Alexander Hamilton, endorsed him. “Burr is unprincipled,” Hamilton wrote. “He is for or against nothing but as it suits his interest or ambition.” Sound familiar? Some politicians today say exactly the same about their opponents. 

James Madison had been the central player in the writing and ratification of the Constitution, and in three decades of public service he was active in Congress and as Jefferson’s vice president. It seems strange that after those accomplishments, Madison in 1809 needed the introduction to the public that he was given in the Boston Patriot, visible on the next page, following his victory in the 1808 election. But the same phenomenon is true today: the public forgets. 

A hero of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, James Monroe in 1816 had served in government for decades, as a senator, governor of Virginia, foreign minister, and secretary of state and of war. His letter of 1829 recalls the Louisiana Purchase, in which he played a key role as its negotiator. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 in the Democrat Party, Monroe in 1816 felt it was his turn to receive the Republican nomination for president. 

The politics of the remaining four Virginia-born presidents are well illustrated in the vast political collection given to the VMHC by Dr. Allen Frey. William Henry Harrison was derided by his political opponents as content to live in a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider; his Whig party welcomed the homespun image and anointed him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” candidate. Opponents labeled John Tyler “His Accidency” because as vice president Tyler was elevated to the presidency when President Harrison died in office. Zachary Taylor, whose distinguished forty-year military career propelled him to high command in the Mexican War, used campaign materials that associated him with George Washington. The “Progressive” president Woodrow Wilson brought reform to banking, trade, business practices, farm loans, and taxes—but he is rejected by today’s “Progressives” because he did little to advance the rights of African Americans and was in fact racist. 

How will the extreme polarization of 2020 be viewed a decade or two from now? If history again repeats itself, it will be forgiven and forgotten. In 1814, fifteen years after Washington’s death, Jefferson, who had feuded so much with him, wrote in a famous letter in the VMHC collection (to Walter Jones, January 2, 1814) that Washington “was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, & a great man.” He admitted, “we were indeed dissatisfied with him on his ratification of the British treaty [the Jay Treaty that disfavored France], but this was short lived,” and “I am convinced he is more deeply seated in the love and gratitude of the [R]epublicans, than in the Pharisaical homage of the Federal monarchists, for he was no monarchist.”