What If… Adams Fought in the Revolutionary War?

Patrick Spero and his Williams College class have been engaging in a fascinating and innovative coursework project this year – creating modern-style attack ads for contested presidential elections in the early republic. You can find a description of the project and some of the best videos here. Today’s post reflects some idle musings that riff off one of the comments Spero makes at the end of this week’s videos, relating to the ‘Revolution of 1800’.

Tyler Cole’s “His Merits” makes a stirring case for Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson is the only true patriot in this election. He begins by linking Jefferson to the Declaration of Independence. He intends this opening to do two things: remind the viewer of Jefferson’s revolutionary service and imply that, in 1800, it is time for a change of governments once again. … Tyler’s argument carried the day.

Jefferson’s patriotism, though, was of a certain kind – a vital political service, for sure, but one very different from the patriotism of many of his fellow countrymen. After all, Jefferson may have been an enthusiastic supporter for refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, but he preferred that others put themselves in the line of the tyrants’ bullets.

Of course, to create an attack ad based on Jefferson’s lack of military service would have been impossible in 1800, because John Adams had similarly spent his revolutionary war in debating chambers and diplomatic service. This set me wondering – what would have happened if it were a military man, like Alexander Hamilton, rather than a lawyer like Adams, who was the Federalist candidate in 1800?

I do not profess to have any definite answers here. After all, Anti-Federalists feared the rise of a military dictatorship as a result of the Constitution, and it’s certainly possible that had another general followed Washington as President, there would have been a public backlash against the anti-republican character of the new federal government. Attempts to raise funding for a federal army at the height of the Quasi-War also caused considerable controversy. At the same time, however, I have some difficulty in believing that those who served in the militia and the Continental Army considered political service to be equally valuable to the time spent in the field.

Military service was a memory of the medium term by 1800, however. Some prominent state leaders, like James Ross in Pennsylvania, were really too young to have served in the revolutionary war, and yet that did not threaten their ability to lead. Though many campaigns on a national and state level  would mention the candidate’s opinions in 1776, I don’t recall many making military service a big issue (though, at the same time, I have never read campaign literature with this is a major thought in my mind).

I have, however, done a cursory run through the Senate rolls at the start of Jefferson’s term of office. This suggests that Democratic-Republican Senators were considerably more likely than not to have served in the militia or the Continental Army (11-3); the reverse is true for the Federalists (6-8; 6 Senators were too young for military service to have been a realistic expectation). It’s a cursory glance, but I wonder if Jefferson was given cover by the fact that his party’s leaders seemed to have ‘done their patriotic duty’ at a time when Federalists were enjoying fancy educations and being called to the bar.

My suspicion is, though, that if there had been another military figure with even half the stature of Washington who had been equipped to run in 1800, Jefferson may have faced a more damaging critique than the slander thrown around in the 1800 election campaign. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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