The pointed divisiveness of the 2016 political campaign can make it feel at times like America’s divisions may be virtually impossible to heal.
A Pew Research poll in September found 57% of Americans feel “frustrated,” 55% “disgusted,” and 43% “scared” about the 2016 election. Only 15% said they feel “optimistic.”
Though we don’t have similar polling to prove it, citizens felt a similar way when our country was just in its infancy.
The election of 1800 was the first time the US political landscape fractured into two parties.
That fact — combined with some odd vice presidential voting rules that were subsequently fixed with the 12th Amendment — contributed to an outcome the founding fathers didn’t expect: a tie.
This sent the decision of who would sit in the Oval Office to the House of Representatives. It took them 36 ballots to settle on Thomas Jefferson as the nation’s third president.
As the country reeled from the political whiplash, Jefferson praised the nascent democracy for its peaceful transition of power in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801.
“But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he said. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Those were the names of the two new political parties. Though they have undergone many iterations over the last 216 years, what was then called the Jeffersonian Republicans (or the Democrat-Republicans, confusingly enough) has since morphed into today’s Democratic Party, and the Federalists have become the Republican Party.
By declaring all Americans were of one mindset — to keep functioning as one republic — Jefferson underlined that the states could be stronger together. Not even a Civil War 60 years later could break that bond.
“I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.”
In today’s similarly turbulent political climate, Jefferson’s wise words offer comfort that the American experiment can work. It has so far.
“Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself,” he said. “Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
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