The Election of 1800 once again highlights the significant flaw in the Constitution that the Electoral College did not originally use separate votes for president and vice president. President John Adams, having destroyed all of his political support with some help for the much-maligned Hamilton, was out of the running, and in the vote tally for his successor, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied. Jefferson asked Burr to step aside and be vice president; Burr refused. Thus the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, full of lame-duck Federalists, to sort it out with each state given a single vote on the issue.
In the musical, Hamilton, still in mourning for his son, repeats Eliza’s theme, “It’s quiet uptown,” and initially stands apart in the midst of the hoopla of both candidates and the ensemble, but inevitably Hamilton is drawn back into the political intrigue.
In a letter to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. around that time, Hamilton wrote:
“As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement.”
Hamilton had grave reservations about installing Burr, a man with questionable morals, with large debts who would be susceptible to bribery, and who appeared to have no principles at all as the leader of the country. Hamilton told his fellow Federalists that if they supported Burr, they would be signing their own death warrant.
In contrast, Jefferson had always argued passionately from a position of strong convictions, even if they were the polar opposite of Hamilton’s views on every topic. Ironically, as Jefferson’s staunchest longtime critic, Hamilton found himself needing to undo many of the public accusations that he himself had made. Perceptively, Hamilton realized that although Jefferson had long argued for the primacy of the legislative branch, Jefferson might change his tune if he was elevated to chief of the executive branch. Similarly, Hamilton suspected that Jefferson’s unflagging support for France might be conveniently discarded when no longer needed as a counterweight to Hamilton and Adams’ sense of connection to England. Both position shifts would indeed come to pass.
Hamilton threw his influence behind Jefferson, resulting (after 36 votes in the House) in Jefferson becoming president and the demonstratively untrustworthy Burr becoming vice president for Jefferson’s first term and to be discarded as soon after as was expedient.
In the lyrics of “The Election of 1800,” I’m amused by one ensemble member’s analysis of Burr, “He seems approachable, like you could have a beer with him.” That was the reasoning behind numerous voters selecting George W. Bush as their president in 2004, so I asked the students what they would look for in a candidate they were selecting. The responses included an understanding of the student voter as an individual, a lack of bias, and experience or competence in a position relating to the job. Interestingly, our Kuwaiti student said that he valued independence in a candidate since so many government workers in his country are of poor quality. I did note that competence was pretty far down on the list of desirable qualities. I personally wish it were a higher priority.
I have done my best to resist modern partisan politics in the class, but in this case, that was the direction that the class wanted to go. The students spoke of being in high school classes where every student was an immigrant, first generation American, or undocumented. In many of their classes there were no White faces in the room. When a classmate voted for Trump in the 2016 election, they felt it as a personal betrayal of their lives and their existence. When teachers refused to discuss the election, it was assumed that they, too, had voted for Trump, which felt like an even further betrayal of the students who they taught. One student spoke about the cheerleaders, twirlers, and football players of her school who went to a neighboring school for a game shortly after the election. What had been a friendly and welcoming environment the year before morphed into an ugly and hostile confrontation post-election. One of the few White students in the school group was extremely disturbed and asked if that sort of aggression and antagonism was the norm. Her classmates, who represented numerous ethnic minorities, sadly answered simply, “Yes.” These were stories that the students obviously felt compelled to share and to have validated. (I threw out the rest of the lesson plan at this point.)
I did not to disagree with the students’ experiences but instead presented a different perspective, particularly for the teachers. I pointed out that although my students may be able to guess my political leanings, I feel it is very important for me not to impose my opinions on the students as a substitute for them deciding on their own. My dual goals are to teach the students to think through situations independently and to make sure they took the time to understand people who have the opposite viewpoint. It is quite possible that the students read the situation correctly that their teachers had voted for Trump, but it is also possible that the teachers felt that it would be inappropriate to mix partisan politics in a learning environment.
I’m not sure that I had articulated those goals to the students before, but I was happy to have the opportunity to reinforce that studying Hamilton has indeed been about standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding their perspective as well as gathering evidence and figuring out what you think without someone dictating it to you.