Ugly Elections Take Center Stage At Albany Institute Of History & Art
The 2020 presidential election and the transition between the incoming and outgoing administrations has been anything but smooth. Tonight, the Albany Institute of History & Art will host an online discussion on another set of heated elections, dating back to the 18th Century. WAMC’s Jesse King reports…
The presentation by Dr. Robb Haberman, titled “Personal Insults, Street Brawls, and Uncounted Ballots: Electoral Politics in Federalist New York,” feels particularly timely. Haberman, the associate editor of the Selected Papers of John Jay at Columbia University, sets his sight on three gubernatorial elections in the state of New York: those of 1792, 1795, and 1798. Jay was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1792, a staunch Federalist hoping to unseat longtime Governor George Clinton, a Democratic-Republican.
"Jay amasses more votes. However, the state canvassers who are overseeing the election, they determine that the ballots and that the procedures for collecting, delivering the ballots in Clinton, Tioga, and Otsego counties — these ballots should be invalidated, because the proper procedures were not followed. And let me mention that these state canvassers who make this decision, they are Clinton supporters," Haberman explains. "So what you have happen is, because the ballots from these frontier counties are thrown out, the victory goes to Clinton. Jay's supporters are furious.
"In Kingston, in June 1792, a group of Clinton supporters meet at a local tavern," Haberman continues. "Across the street, a group of Jay supporters also meet at a local tavern. These two groups eventually come outside, face off against one another, fists are flying, and there's a full-blown brawl in the streets of Kingston."
Haberman says Jay finally won the job in 1795, but his bid for reelection in 1798 was particularly nasty. First off, he was running against his former best friend and law partner, Robert R. Livingston, with whom he’d fallen out with in the 1780s. Livingston’s supporters got together and drew up an extensive propaganda campaign against Jay, blasting him for promoting trade with Britain in his “Jay Treaty” of 1794, accusing him of lavish spending, and even coloring Jay a coward during the American Revolution.
"Jay, in terms of seeking the governorship, Jay actually stood for governor, he didn't run for governor," Haberman notes. "It's a key distinction, because Jay considered that, [for] person of his status, as a gentleman, it is inappropriate that he should go out there and give speeches and have a public presence. So Jay relied on this cohort of political allies to manage his campaign. And in terms of the disputed election of 1792, Jay was upset — but he did not think it right to come out and publicly contest the election. He was afraid that that would throw New York state into chaos, so he accepted the decision by the state canvassers, and he accepted Clinton's victory.
"Now, he did ask that a state convention be held to make a ruling on the findings of the state canvassers, and to decide whether Clinton's victory was, indeed, legitimate," he clarifies. "And because there were more Clinton supporters who were part of this convention, there was a vote, and they narrowly upheld the election results. But overall, even though privately Jay fumed about this decision, publicly he kept quiet about it."
Jay ultimately won reelection in 1798 before retiring from politics in 1801. While Jay’s time in office was relatively short compared to some of his peers, Haberman credits him with guiding New York through an outbreak of yellow fever at the turn of the 19th century, as well as safeguarding New York City during the quasi-war with France.
If any of this is starting to sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. While Haberman notes the electorate at that time was extremely small, with only free, white men eligible to vote – the U.S. was in the throes of its first two-party system, and the population was becoming highly partisan. Democratic-Republicans desired a more agricultural America, with strong ties to France. Federalists like Jay, meanwhile, pushed a more commercial economy, with close ties to Britain and a strong federal government.
"If anything, I think in the 1790s, it is even more divisive, even more partisan than what you have going on in 2020. There are many people, men and women, who feel very strongly about the candidates, about the elections, and they take to the streets. And they demonstrate, and they engage in acts of violence," says Haberman. "It's to the point, as well, where you have armed militias who openly affiliate with either the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans, where they are holding exercises and parades. So these are armed groups who are marching in the streets of New York City, and they're holding these very public displays in support of their respective candidates...In certain cases, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were ready to go to war with one another."
The Albany Institute of History & Art is displaying a number of 18th Century broadsides – small, one-sided leaflets and political advertisements – including some used during Jay’s campaigns. Fellow Citizens! DeWitt Clinton's Broadsides of the Early Republic runs through March 14. Dr. Haberman will be giving his full presentation on Zoom tonight at 7.
You can listen to WAMC's full interview with Dr. Robb Haberman below: