The European and American Presidents

Poster of the film 'The Birth of a Nation’, D.W. Griffith, 1915. Photo: Wikipedia.

European interest for the presidential elections in the United States is enormous. The interest for European ´presidential´ elections is rather modest in the United States however (and in Europe almost a non issue, except for the self-proclaimed Spitzenkandidaten).

From 1760 to 1815, Americans were strongly interested in political developments in Europe however. Trans-Atlantic relations assumed an importance which should not be replicated until 1941 and afterwards the Cold War.

Once the former British colony had won its independence and sovereignty of a new nation between 1763 (with the conclusion of the European Seven Years War and the defeat of the French in North-America) and 1788 (with the ratification of the American Constitution), the government and president faced fundamental challenges from the European continent.

The European continent strongly influenced the outcome of the war of independence. About 30 000 German mercenaries served the British, thousands of French soldiers, including the famous French nobleman Lafayette, fought for the American case.

The European involvement and subsequent revolutionary developments on the European continent and the second war against Britain in 1812 decisively directed American internal and external politics until 1941.

‘It is all about economy’ was already a common phrase when George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, on April 30, 1789. The (economic) differences between the Republicans and Democrats emerged.

The Republicans, led by Jefferson, argued that the government should not interfere in the economy, promote manufacturing, advocating free trade and political decentralization.

The ‘Federalists’, the predecessors of the Democrats, promoted government intervention and a strong central government. The Federalists were strong in the (east) coastal towns and the northeast of the country. The Republicans appealed to large and small farmers and not to urban areas.

The political landscape was the most democratic the world had seen so far and the presidential election campaigns of 1796 and 1800 were unique in political history. There were, of course, limits. Native Americans, black Americans and women did not take part and were largely excluded from the rights of citizenship.

The election campaigns, however, did not differ from present-day elections. They were about a peaceful transfer of power. Such an outcome was not inevitable, taking the revolutionary, political instability, terror and (civil) war in Europe in these days into account.

The elections gave American voters an ideological choice. The political press participated from the very beginning. Extreme partisanship characterized American journalism and Federal and Republican editors were delighted in excoriating and impugning the motives of the political rivals.

In 1789, judgements, based on the new Constitution, dealt already with cases of satire, insults and other alleged politically motivated wrongdoings.

The role of media, judiciary and political campaigns played a crucial role in raising awareness among voters and contributed to the firmly established commitment of voters, volunteers, party awareness and democratic political practices.

The first democratic revolution took place in America and not in Europe.

The American filmmaker David Wark Griffith issued on 3 March, 1915 a new genre, the historical movie ’The Birth of a Nation’. He dealt with an highly sensitive issue, the American civil war, the American Presidency and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The deep divisions between South and North, Democrats and Republicans, agrarian and urban societies, black and white came to life in this movie. Nothing new in 2017. After all, American society was not immune for human deficiencies, mistakes and violence. Even the American constitution, the oldest in the world, could and did not change mankind.

For a superpower, however, the democratic accomplishments are unique, in sustainability, transparency, system of checks and balances and, above all commitment of the citizens.

(Source: F. D. Cogliano, Revolutionary America 1763-1815 (New York 2000).