Based on a couple of sentences Jefferson had penned in the early 1780s — “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” — the Federalists warned in pamphlets that if the “open infidel” were elected, he would buttress his “contemptuous fling at the blessed Jesus” by shuttering the churches.
Jefferson denounced the “lying pamphlets” and “absolute falsehoods,” but only in private. He wrote to a friend, “It has been so impossible to contradict all their lies that I have determined to contradict none; for while I should be engaged with one, they would publish twenty new ones.” (How old-fashioned: In 2012, candidates are expected to respond to all charges within the same news cycle.)
Jefferson’s allies struck back with a rumor that Adams and a colleague had sexually consorted with four women during a trip to Britain. (Not bad for a hermaphrodite.) Adams answered that one: He joked that his colleague must have kept all four women for himself, “cheating me out of my two.”
And then it was over. On Inauguration Day, the victorious Jefferson called for an end to partisan strife: “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” And: “Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are dreary things.”
We’ll hear the same thing in January. The pleas will go unheeded, of course, but that’s OK. We’ll survive, just as we have ever since our founding angels schemed like demons.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.