There better not be an obvious google query for this.
March 28, 2009 3:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm too ignorant to properly evaluate a historical claim that I just read.

I am a little skeptical of the following claim: that the United States in 1801 was "the first time in world history that an existing set of political leaders had been voted out of office by their opponents in a popular election. There was no precedent for a peaceful transfer of power..."

The first claim seems more plausible than the second (for example, surely it happened at least once that some monarch died and there was a peaceful transfer of power to the heir, who was part of an opposing group... or maybe not, I have no idea).

Is it really the case that never before had a popular election resulted in a change in governing party or group? I am not sure how I would even begin answering that question (I have no background in history). Please help me!
posted by prefpara to Law & Government (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would like to know what comes after that ellipse.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 4:01 PM on March 28, 2009

Response by poster: No problem, stylus. I just don't think it's relevant to my question.

"There was no precedent for a peaceful transfer of power, and such a transition was made all the harder by the fact that political parties - who held fundamentally different views about political issues - had not yet been truly accepted as legitimate."
posted by prefpara at 4:07 PM on March 28, 2009

Well, there were British Parliamentary elections set at every 7 years since 1716 in existing political leaders were voted out of office, but I would agree that the party system didn't really exist in England at the time.
posted by A189Nut at 4:20 PM on March 28, 2009

in which - damn the lack of editing here
posted by A189Nut at 4:21 PM on March 28, 2009

I think the emphasis is on the VOTING part rather than the "peaceful transfer of power" part. You say that "surely there must have been a monarch who died and power was transferred peacefully to the heir", but -- again, that is a monarch-transfering-to-heir situation. Politics or not, the transfer of power is based in blood in a monarchy and there isn't much you can do about it without starting a coup. So Prince Sid may have been a different party than King Lenny, but Prince Sid was King Lenny's son, and we're kind of stuck with that.

But they're talking about voting, I think, in that it wasn't that the power changed arbitrarily -- it was the populace that deliberately chose a different party. The people spoke en masse, for the first time, and the government responded and there it was. I think that's what they were trying to get at, that the government changed the party politics becuase the rest of the population wanted it that way.

Whether it really was a first-time-ever is I'm not 100% certain about, but it does certainly seem plausible.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:24 PM on March 28, 2009

Iceland had a democratic parliament in the 900s, with no monarch. The Lawspeaker of the Althing changed many times. We don't have a lot of history to make sure every transfer was peaceful - they were really into feuding - but I'm sure some were.

Also, it's all about how you define "popular". Athens, famously, had elected leaders - they did invent the word "democracy". They just limited their definition of citizen, and thus the electorate, more than we would today.

Basically - take all claims about the innovativeness of American democracy with cups of salt. Yes, it was in some ways innovative. It was also based on centuries of parliamentary monarchy in Britain (both kingdoms). Certainly the transfer of power within England was peaceful after 1688, even when one party replaced another. In fact, just after the American Revolution, the Fox-North Coalition ousted the government of Shelburne in 1783, because they could get more support in the House of Commons. (Parliamentary governments still work that way - no one in Britain or Canada etc elects a PM or party to power directly - you elect your local MP, and their support allows the PM to form a government).

Now, here is where that wiggle word "popular" comes back - like neocons claiming "no two democracies have ever gone to war", you just claim that Britain's parliament didn't have "popular elections". The franchise was very restricted - I may remember wrong, but I think it was about 5% of the population. The 1801 election in the US was probably a much larger percentage of the population, but not necessarily all free white men. I think that use of the word "popular" is a wiggle word - there clearly had been peaceful transfers of power within electoral systems elsewhere. But it's like Toronto claiming to have the "world's tallest freetstanding structure" (it doesn't even have that now).

But if you don't want to argue at all, Iceland was probably more democratic than the early Republic.

On preview: there is an informal party system in Britain following the 1678 Exclusion crisis - the Whigs and the Tories. They are the two main parties into the early 19th century. Don't have any idea if they relate to the American Whigs and Tories.
posted by jb at 4:32 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: OK, I see what you're saying, EmpressCallipygos. That's a good point. I guess that leaves me wondering if it's really the case that at no time in human history had there ever been a change in governing party made by a popular vote.
posted by prefpara at 4:32 PM on March 28, 2009

Basically - the principle of peaceful transfers between elected leaders predates 1801, and the peaceful change of government with a popular election really predates 1801.
posted by jb at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2009

(Being Iceland - anyone with an older popular election?)
posted by jb at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2009

I actually think the POPULAR part is the most important. Doges in Italian republics, archons in Athens, plus potentially many more, have all been voted out and replaced peacefully. The claim only makes sense if the levels of suffrage in the US were sufficiently high enough to warrant it being something 'extraordinary'. But I think Athens must rank pretty close in term of denying women/slaves/foreigners the vote, but still being fairly 'popular' in terms of electorate.

But yeah, peaceful democracy was not invented in America, so I would call shenanigans on that statement.
posted by Sova at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2009

Actually, wait doges were often life appointments, scratch that.
posted by Sova at 4:37 PM on March 28, 2009

Athens, famously, had elected leaders
Are you sure? I thought that Athenians chose their leaders via lots.

I understand that they're what we think of as the archetypical "democracy", but I don't think that they actually had elections, at least not in the sense that we do.
posted by Flunkie at 4:40 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

There were several cases in English history where the reigning monarch died without issue. For instance, when Elizabeth I died, she was the last of the Tudors.

Succession therefore couldn't be by blood; there was no heir. The powers that be in England offered the throne to the Stuarts. But it wasn't the result of any kind of election, though generally the populace did approve of the choice. (At least at the time.)

So I would say this case splits the difference between dynastic succession and what happened in the US in 1801. It was a peaceful transfer of power, but not as the result of electoral rejection of the previous ruler.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:50 PM on March 28, 2009

A monarch who dies and leaves his son or another relative in power is not a transfer of power, it is a succession.
posted by yclipse at 4:56 PM on March 28, 2009

Athens did actually have elections for leaders earlier in their history.

But I think the problem with the claim is that they said 'voted out' not 'voted in' - power was transferred to people through elections, but usually after the death of the previous holder (like doges, popes), or with their exclusion due to terms limits (like archons). Less common is the removal of power from a still eligible person through an election.

Looking at it a little bit more, 1801 may have been the first 'popular' 'peaceful' 'democractic' 'voting out'. So with all those caveats, it may be true, but I would still favour some medieval European statelet/free city to have got there first. Googling hard, perhaps the election of Themistocles to archon and then strategos, followed later by his ostracism would count? I don't know, interesting question though.
posted by Sova at 4:59 PM on March 28, 2009

I thought that Athenians chose their leaders via lots.

The 500 that made up the Boule were selected by lot, yes. Things like generalship were elected, and punished for incompetance (this is why Thucydides was able to write his memoirs- lot of time time on his hands after a miltary failure).

They also had the nice custom of ostracism, whereby the voting populace could write down the name of anyone they thought a little too full of himself and banish him for a few years.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:01 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

If by popular you mean women and blacks couldn't vote. Women were half the population, that's a big deal!
posted by furtive at 5:07 PM on March 28, 2009

Great question. Very interesting and intelligent responses. Thanks Subby.
posted by Pennyblack at 5:23 PM on March 28, 2009

What about the Roman republic? I'm only beginning to learn about the Romans, but elections are mentioned all the time so I thought I'd bring it up. I don't know about "popular," though, when it comes to the Roman election. Were plebeians allowed a chance to vote for offices such as consul?
posted by bristolcat at 6:00 PM on March 28, 2009

Don't know anything much about Athens but what I learned in high school, so please do correct me.

But just remembered that the Roman Plebeian tribunes of the Republican period were elected by commoners who owned land. Those were likely elections as "popular" (excluding women, slaves, unpropertied) as 1801. I believe that every single election cycle (each year?) there was a transfer of power because a man wasn't allowed to stand twice.

Consuls were also elected during the Republic period; the franchise was pretty wide, but they had an electoral college-like thing which was greatly biased in favour of the aristocratic voters.
posted by jb at 6:07 PM on March 28, 2009

Rome still had emperors, right? I think the question is about the executive; the king/president/emperor/caliph being peacefully removed from office via election.
posted by gjc at 6:43 PM on March 28, 2009

This is a lot of hard work to make the US unique in some statement like that. Take it with a grain of salt. It's all about myth-making.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:02 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

GJC, there were no emperors in the Roman Republic.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:19 PM on March 28, 2009

jb: (Being Iceland - anyone with an older popular election?)

The Icelandic commonwealth of 930-1262 did not have elections. In fact the leaders, called "goðar" in Icelandic ("goði" in the singular), usually translated as "chieftains," were not elected by anyone. Chieftainships were often inherited and in some cases even bought. The only choice people had was that they could choose to follow a different chieftain, though that was problematic as chieftainships were geographical, so you were very limited in who you chose to be your chieftain unless you were willing to give up your farm and move elsewhere. Now, if the chieftain was terrible at being a chieftain the farmers in his dominion could choose to overthrow him but it wasn't so much an election as a form of impeachment. The things of Iceland were not only parliaments they were also courts.

Oh, and the lawspeaker was literally the guy who spoke the law. He was not the head of government or anything like that. For the longest time the lawspeaker was the chieftain from a particular part of the country but later it became a matter of who knew the whole text.

And let's not forget that that particular system of government did not end well.
posted by Kattullus at 7:38 PM on March 28, 2009

I am no expert on this, but I thought the goðar weren't particularly "leaders" really anyways, but functioned more towards settling disputes -- more like the Supreme Court than the President (or, I guess, more like Attorneys General rather than Governors). My sense of Iceland in that time is that it was basically -- well, if not anarchic (it did have laws, after all), at least having a surprising degree of individual autonomy, structured by goðar who were there to settle problematic situations. Iceland was a much smaller society and didn't need much in the way of bureaucracy.

Anyway, it's not terribly like 1801.

Consuls, on the other hand, transferred power pretty regularly every year for hundreds of years, and generally quite peacefully, as jb notes.

How wide was the vote in 1801 anyways? Weren't some states deciding electors without a popular vote? (South Carolina is the one that pops to mind, where I think the electors were voted on by the state legislature.) So the Roman Republic's limited suffrage doesn't seem all that unlike the US's limited suffrage in 1801 anyways, or at least not enough to invalidate the analogy.
posted by Casuistry at 8:06 PM on March 28, 2009

The only choice people had was that they could choose to follow a different chieftain,

In and of itself that's not terribly different to modern democracy, in the sense that we have representative democracies with little or no public input to decisions once elections have occurred (and, from my memory of living in an FPP democracy, I did actually have to move cities to be in an electorate where my vote made a blind bit of difference to anything).

The text seems like a bad case of exceptionalism, though. If you're going to say that you can have a real democracy with highly indirect representation (the electoral college, for example) and while excluding women, native Americans, and having a system of slavery, there seems little basis to argue it as a unique event as compared to the British parliament, pre-unification Venice, Rome (upon which, after all, much of the US system is drawn), or ancient Greece.

If you're going to try to disqualify those examples for being insufficiently representative, you'd have to argue New Zealand's first elections post-suffrage for women were the first properly democratic elections in history (although I suspect Chinese New Zealanders may take a different view).
posted by rodgerd at 8:43 PM on March 28, 2009

Things like generalship were elected, and punished for incompetance (this is why Thucydides was able to write his memoirs- lot of time time on his hands after a miltary failure).

Thucydides won, actually. He was stripped of his office for refusing to stop the Athenian fleet to pick up wrecked (Athenian) sailors after a preliminary naval engagement with the enemy fleet. Most of the abandoned sailors drowned; their families were distraught and had him removed from office upon his return.

In regards to the OP's question, the Greeks, Romans and countless others throughout history beat America to the punch unless one really wants to split semantic hairs.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 8:44 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

In regards to the succession issue of the Tudors. Remember that James IV (crowned James I for England) was related, by blood, to the Tudors by the marriage of Henry VIII's sister, Margaret, into the Stuart line. So that particular succession was based on ascribed talents/beliefs and not a peaceful succession based on vote. The struggle was over which family would be triumphant and be part of the power structure which, was far from a popular vote.
posted by jadepearl at 11:05 PM on March 28, 2009

Yes, nthing the Roman Republic. After the first kings were deposed by the Republic, there was about 450 years of peaceful transfers of power through popular elections.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 11:32 PM on March 28, 2009

"Michael was unanimously elected czar of Russia by a national assembly on February 21, 1613." It wasn't a huge assembly, but it was reasonably representative for the time and place.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on March 29, 2009

Thanks again for corrections - I was given to believe that the Althing was a parliament (as Iceland claims to have the oldest parliament, but Isle of Man claims the oldest continuous parliament - more hair-splitting), and had heard of elected Lawspeakers, but didn't realise they weren't leaders.

Re British succession, which is sort of a derail: The Tudor to Stuart succession was by blood (in that James was a descendant of Henry VII), but the switch to the Hanoverians skipped many more "legitimate" (more closely related) heirs to get to one that the parliament wanted: a nice Protestant boy who wouldn't argue with them. George I really was a monarch chosen by the Parliament and everyone knew it; it was the beginning of the end for a strong monarch in Britain (or maybe the middle of the end, considering the wars of previous century). But one could argue that the Parliament was yet to be popularly elected, with such a small franchise. I think its politically significant in a more limited way: establishing the principles of responsible and limited government, and thus laying the ground work for a more popularly elected government which would emerge over the 19th century. (Slow and easy, like the Brits like - the 17th century scared them.)
posted by jb at 7:50 AM on March 29, 2009

If you're looking for American exceptionalism, I read once that the US was the first nation to hold national elections during a civil war. The elections happened on schedule even as fighting continued, and the men of the Union Army were permitted to vote in it.

The US did that twice (1862 and 1864).

Except that now that I think of it, the Confederacy beat the US to that particular punch. Elections for the Confederate Congress were held 6 Nov 1861, seven months after Fort Sumter was shelled (6 Apr 1861).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:40 PM on March 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone, for your interesting and enlightening responses. It looks like I was right to be skeptical of the claim. And I'm certainly inspired to learn more about Iceland.
posted by prefpara at 4:42 PM on March 29, 2009

Thucydides won, actually.

Story I had always heard was he failed to break the siege at Amphipolis. Tell me more of these drowning sailors. I am always willing to be corrected.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:18 AM on March 31, 2009

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