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Learning to lose

By Johann N. Neem
Special to The Times

SINCE the fall of the Soviet Union, nations around the world have been undergoing a long and halting transition to democratic self-government. Under President Bush, moreover, the United States has undertaken the ambitious mission of spreading democracy around the world. In Iraq, this effort has been made more difficult by the mutual distrust among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, a distrust due in large part to atrocities committed under Saddam Hussein.

Emerging from totalitarianism, Iraqis must learn to work together as democratic citizens. A range of thinkers, from commentators to policymakers, have tried to distill what this transition will take. After all, democracies do not happen overnight. They require citizens to share certain core ideas. Among the most important is the ability to lose.

Much has been written on the responsibility of majorities to protect the rights of minorities. This is indeed crucial. But just as important is the responsibility of minorities to majorities. Losers may be the most important democrats, because it is up to them to decide whether they will accept the legitimacy of an election. All too often, the answer is to take up arms rather than submit to being governed by someone else.

Such a lesson is one that many Americans take for granted. But the early decades of the American republic reveal that the United States, like emerging democracies today, experienced anything but an easy learning curve.

Following the American Revolution, many Americans believed, like the French in 1789 and the Russians in 1917, that there was a single common good shared by all citizens. Americans blamed the king and Parliament for promoting England’s interests at the Americans’ expense, and sought to design a true republican government that would promote the people’s interest. Americans, of course, were not utopians. They understood that those in power would always be tempted to place their own interests ahead of the public’s. They therefore wisely insisted on a system with checks and balances.

As in Iraq today, the early American landscape was rife with factions. Some believed that the federal government should centralize authority; others argued for states’ rights. Some wanted Americans to forge stronger economic and political ties to England; others sought closer relations with America’s revolutionary ally, France.

These conflicts divided Americans into two parties, the Federalists of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson. The ensuing conflict bore little resemblance to the romanticized versions of the country’s founding. As the Republicans formed party organs, the Federalists responded with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which sought to silence opposition. These laws made it harder for Irish immigrants (who generally sided with the Republicans) to become citizens and made it a crime to wrongly criticize the government and its officials.

Many Americans opposed the use of state power to squash legitimate protest. In the nation’s first two-party presidential election, in 1800, Republicans won the Electoral College after a nasty campaign between Jefferson’s supporters and those of Adams, the incumbent. Federalists accused Jefferson of being an atheist determined to destroy Christianity and that a vote for Jefferson was “rebellion against God.” Republicans responded that Federalists would reinstate monarchy and destroy religious freedom. Both sides were convinced that the victory of the other would be the death-knell of the American republic.

Considering Jefferson’s early support for the French Revolution, Federalists asked, would he, like Maximilien Robespierre, crush his enemies in order to impose his party’s will on the people? The Republicans, for their part, might have remembered the days of Oliver Cromwell in 17th-century England, when Puritans (John Adams’ forefathers) had undermined a republic to enforce their religious worldview. It would not be easy for either side to accept losing when the stakes were so high, and the distrust so intense.

The election of 1800 was one of the most important moments in American history, not just because Jefferson beat Adams, but because the Federalists agreed to lose. Since the Constitution did not yet distinguish between votes for the president and vice president, Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr received exactly the same number of electoral votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Some Federalists, with Burr’s implicit approval, sought to elect Burr in hopes that he would be more friendly to Federalists. Other Federalists considered an even more radical possibility. If Congress did not select a president before Adams’ term expired, the office would fall to the president pro tempore of the Senate, a Federalist. They held out as long as possible. It took 36 ballots before the House elected Jefferson!

In the meantime, many Republicans worried that the Federalists would try to hold onto power. Rarely in history has a governing party voluntarily surrendered control, so Republican fears were warranted. According to some historians, the United States was closer to violence than many of us think. Rumors spread that the Federalists intended to take control of the federal armory in Virginia. Federalist and Republican newspapers exchanged barbs warning the other against violence. Jefferson believed any Federalist effort to hold onto power should be resisted with force, if necessary. Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Thomas McKean and Virginia’s Republican Gov. James Monroe made plans to use their state militias to prevent Federalist usurpation.

Finally, in February 1801, enough Federalists decided to allow Jefferson’s election rather than risk destroying the Union. This was not an easy decision. Federalists voluntarily handed over power to a president and a party they expected to undermine everything accomplished under Adams and Washington.

Jefferson understood the difficulty of the Federalists’ decision. In his inaugural address, Jefferson urged Americans to come together after a heated election. He hoped that Americans would now act according to “the will of the law” and accept the new administration’s legitimacy. Although Jefferson deeply hated the Federalists, he reminded Americans to uphold the “sacred principle” that in a democracy “the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail” but, equally important, “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

If minorities are to be willing losers, it is vital that majorities live up to Jefferson’s words and protect equal rights under law. But as in emerging democracies today, Jefferson and his party proved that they still had much to learn. With Jefferson’s approval, Republicans prosecuted several Federalists for sedition, relying on state statutes rather than the expired and discredited federal act. Moreover, they undertook a partisan impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who had presided over the sedition trial of a Republican journalist in the 1790s and remained an outspoken critic of the administration.

Jefferson remained silent while House Republicans exacted revenge. Chase was ultimately acquitted by the Senate, but his impeachment, and that of another federal judge, remain blots on the Jeffersonian record. Overall, however, Republicans’ actions were limited compared to many regimes today, and the Federalists remained a vocal and influential minority party.

Americans’ learning curve did not end in 1800. Democracy, after all, is an ongoing project that needs to be continually reinvigorated. Near the end of the War of 1812, a handful of Federalists meeting in Hartford called for New England to secede from the Union rather than continue to submit to Republican rule. The threat then was minimal, but similar threats made by Southerners starting in the 1830s ultimately led to civil war. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election, Southerners decided that they were not willing to lose, and chose to take up arms instead. Peace was restored only after much blood had been shed.

One cannot make simple parallels between the American past and the challenges facing new democracies today. Americans then never faced the threat of terrorism. Nonetheless, it is important for us to remember the uncertainty and instability that surrounded the first decades of our nation. It should make us more sympathetic to, and patient with, the struggles taking place around the world today. It also reminds us how fragile democracies are, ours included.

Given Iraq’s long history of violence, it will be much harder for minorities to accept losing elections there. Moreover, not everyone in Iraq wants democracy. One challenge facing majorities is to convince minorities that their interests and values will be respected in a democratic system — a commitment proven by practice. Minorities need confidence they will be full members of civil society.

The real test will come when those in power must hand governance over to their opponents, when a ruling majority must itself become a dissenting minority.Losers must be willing to accept the rule of law and the legitimacy of free elections or the transition to democracy will falter. Establishing a new democracy may be easier than maintaining one.

The election of 1800 shows how close the United States came to failing the first time one set of leaders had to relinquish power to a new majority, and how fortunate we are that the Federalists agreed to lose. Like Americans in 1800, citizens in fledgling democracies must learn that living in a democracy is not just about winning but also about losing. And, as in the United States, this will not be an easy lesson.
Johann N. Neem is assistant professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

One Response to “Learning to lose”

  1. nordsieck Says:

    Permission to reprint or copy this article or photo must be obtained from The Seattle Times. Call 206-464-3113 or e-mail with your request.

    I’m curious, did you get permission to reprint this article? I’m not trying to rain on your parade or anything but…

    All that aside, I think that the underlying problem that people have with losing is that most people have very little respect for free will and the significance of freely choosing something instead of being forced to choose that thing by a tyranical system. People believe they know The One True Way(tm) and are therefore justified in imposing that on other people for their supposed benefit.

    It is only when people give up on trying to impose their ideas on others by force that democracy and liberal personal freedom becomes obvious as the way to go. The checks and balances in democracy, as well as personal freedoms written into a good constitution insure that win or lose – every has to tolerate everyone else’s ideas.

    As a final note, the preview feature is freakin’ awesome!!!

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