This Week in History – Feb. 17

February 17, 1801 – the House of Representatives finally broke the deadlock over the election of 1800, selecting Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr as the third President of the United States.

At the time of George Washington’s election as President in 1789, political parties did not officially exist. The framers of the new Constitution, in fact, abhorred the idea of parties for one very good reason: when parties existed, they knew, loyalty to one’s party often superseded loyalty to one’s country (one need only look at today’s GOP to see the this truth writ large). The framers hoped that they had designed a system for selecting the President that would put him above such base party politics. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Half-way through Washington’s first term in office two rival political parties had already emerged: the Federalists, led by Hamilton, Adams, and Washington; and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison.

Everyone knew that Washington would be selected as the new nation’s first President; in fact, he was the unanimous selection of the Electoral College. Who would succeed him, however, was the real question on everyone’s mind. When Washington refused to seek a third term (he had, in fact, desperately wanted to retire after his first term, agreeing to serve one more term only when Hamilton and Jefferson, themselves bitter political enemies, literally begged him to stay on as being the only person who could hold the country together), his retirement meant that the country would have its first truly contested presidential election in 1796. As Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts observed, Washington’s farewell address was “a signal, like the dropping of a hat, for [the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans] to start” their campaigns for president.

For John Adams, Washington’s retirement was the moment he had waited for all of his life. After 25 years in politics, he was ready for the position he felt he deserved: the presidency. Most Federalists agreed, nominating him to run as the Federalist candidate for president in 1796. Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina was chosen to run as the Federalist candidate for vice-president.

The Democratic-Republican choice as their candidate for president was no surprise either: Thomas Jefferson. Although he had officially “retired” from politics when he resigned as Washington’s Secretary of State in 1793, Jefferson accepted the party’s nomination. New York Senator Aaron Burr was chosen to run as the Democratic-Republican candidate for vice-president.

The campaign and election itself would have been unrecognizable today. The actual campaign lasted only six weeks. Neither Adams nor Jefferson made a single speech or campaign appearance; this was left to their supporters. In fact, neither candidate met an actual voter; in 1796, most electors were chosen by their state legislatures and not by voters. In those few states that did have voting for electors, only male property owners had the right to vote. There were, therefore, few voters to talk to.

Any campaigning that was done was left to surrogates, who wrote letters, pamphlets and newspaper articles, rather than give speeches. In fact, only one aspect of the campaign would look familiar today: personal attacks on the candidates themselves.

Democratic-Republicans mocked Adams’ physical features by calling him “His Rotundity.” They claimed that Adams was plotting to create a monarchy in America with himself as King. For their part, Federalists called Jefferson an atheist and an anarchist, accused him of cowardice during the Revolutionary War, and claimed his followers were “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amidst filth and vermin.” Interestingly enough, Jefferson and Adams remained on good terms during the election, since neither took an active part in it.

Under the rules of the Constitution at the time, each elector (those who selected the President in the Electoral College) cast two ballots for president – one each for two different men. The winner became president; second place was awarded the vice-presidency. Since parties did not exist when the Constitution was written, no one had considered the possibility that this could lead to the candidate from one party becoming president, and the candidate of the other becoming vice-president. Of course, in 1796, that is precisely what happened.

The voting split by region: Adams carried the North and Jefferson the South. In the end, Adams won an extremely close race, with 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68. Pinckney came in third. Under the rules, Adams became President, and Jefferson became Vice-President – the only time in history the top two offices were filled by men of different political parties.

Adams’ term in office was marked by foreign policy difficulties and extreme political fighting at home. Center was a cold war with France. While the public initially rallied to his support over the XYZ Affair, even accepting the curtailment of civil liberties under the Alien and Sedition Acts, that support eventually cooled. As the 1790’s came to a close, and the threat of war with France diminished, Adams and the Federalists lost what had been their best campaign issue: fear of a foreign power. It was replaced with resentment over the taxes they had to pay to beef up the military and a growing agreement with the Democratic-Republicans that the Alien and Sedition Acts were an attack on their liberties.

Further hampering the Federalists was the fact that the party had split in two, between Hamilton and Adams. Several Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, attacked Adams for not being Federalist enough. They wanted an even stronger federal government, and were mad at Adams for seeking peace with France. These men became known as the High Federalists. Adams, for his part, claimed that Hamilton was power-mad and was trying to railroad the country into a war with France. By 1800, Hamilton and Adams had become bitter political enemies.

Despite opposition from Hamilton, Adams still had enough supporters in the Federalist party to be nominated  to run again for president in 1800, with Charles Pinckney (Thomas Pinckney’s brother) chosen to run for Vice-President. The Republicans once again nominated Jefferson for President and Aaron Burr for Vice-President.

The 1800 campaign was even uglier than 1796. Federalists once again accused Jefferson of being an anarchist, an atheist, a thief, and a coward. One Federalist newspaper wrote that, if Jefferson was elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” The Democratic-Republicans shot back again with charges that Adams kept at least two mistresses and that he planned to start an American royal dynasty by marrying one of his sons to one of King George III’s daughters.

Hurting Adams more, however, was that the High Federalists worked behind the scenes to sabotage his re-election. They tried to secretly convince Federalist electors to vote for Pinckney over Adams. At one point, Hamilton published a letter arguing that Adams was mentally unstable and unfit for the presidency. Adams dismissed Hamilton as “a man devoid of every moral principle – a bastard,” but the damage to Adams’ campaign was enormous.

In the end, Jefferson beat Adams by nearly as narrow a margin as Adams had beaten him in 1796. The big difference was New York, which swung over to Jefferson in 1800. Jefferson won 73 electoral votes to Adams 65 (it is also worth noting that Jefferson became the only presidential candidate to win an election due to the “3/5 Clause” of the Constitution – if slaves had not counted as 3/5 of a person for determining how many electors each state received, Adams would have won 63-61).

There was just one problem: Aaron Burr also received 73 votes. There was a tie for the presidency.

Remember that, under the rules of the original Constitution, each elector cast two votes, one each for two different men. Since the parties each ran two candidates, they wanted to make sure that their presidential candidate received at least one more vote than their vice-presidential candidate. To do so, each party instructed its electors to all cast one of their votes for the presidential candidate. Then, all of their electors – except one – were supposed to cast their second vote for their party’s vice-presidential candidate; the last elector would instead cast his second vote for somebody else. This way, the vice-presidential candidate would receive one less vote than the presidential candidate, and come in second place.

The system worked well enough in theory. Unfortunately, Democratic-Republican electors were so worried that Adams or Pinckney might slip ahead of Burr that none were willing to throw away their second vote, and the difficulty in communication at the time made coordinating such efforts difficult. Accordingly, all of the first votes went for Jefferson and the second votes for Burr. The result was a first place tie between the two Democratic-Republican candidates, Jefferson and Burr.

The Constitution stated that, in the event of such a tie, the House of Representatives got to choose the winner. Each state had one vote, which was to be decided by the Representatives of each state. Whomever won a majority of state votes would be president. Since there were 16 states (Kentucky, Tennessee and Vermont had been added to the original 13), the winner needed nine out of the 16 to win. If no candidate won a particular state’s vote (if the Representatives for that state could not agree who to vote for), then that state cast a blank vote.

In eight of the states, the majority of Congressmen were Democratic-Republicans. Federalists were the majority in six states, and the remaining two were evenly split. The Democratic-Republicans were therefore one vote short of the magic number nine, opening the door for some deal-making. In effect, the Federalists controlled whether Burr or Jefferson won.

Everyone, including Burr, knew that the intent all along was for Jefferson to be president. However, he never publicly conceded the presidency to Jefferson, which could have settled the matter. Moreover, as the Federalists began discussing a deal with him behind the scenes, Burr said nothing to discourage them.

Congress met on February 11, 1801 to decide the election. While all of the Democratic-Republican Congressmen voted for Jefferson, all of the Federalist Congressmen voted for Burr in order to create a deadlock and force a deal. The first ballot revealed how the deadlock looked: 8 states for Jefferson, 6 for Burr, and 2 tied (Maryland and Vermont were evenly split between Jefferson and Burr).

For a week, the same deadlock remained. Vote after vote produced the same result. The nation was getting restless. Some newspapers warned of civil war. The governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania mobilized their militia against the possibility. Finally, on February 17, on the 36th try, Federalists from Maryland and Vermont withheld their votes for Burr, giving those states to Jefferson. Jefferson captured 10 states and the presidency. Jefferson – and the nation – breathed a sigh of relief. The nation had peacefully – if not easily – transferred power from one party to another, a precedent that would help put the new nation on solid democratic footing.

Historians have looked to two explanations for the decision of those few Federalists who finally decided to withhold their votes and thereby end the deadlock, allowing their state delegations to choose Jefferson. First, Hamilton argued to any Federalists who would still listen to him that Burr would make an even worse president than his old enemy, Jefferson. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote, but Burr was, “utterly without principle . . . I trust the Federalists will not finally be so mad as to vote for Burr.” In the end, that might have been persuasive enough.

The second (and probably more likely) reason is that Jefferson made a deal with the Federalists to leave most of Hamilton’s economic policies in place, keep the navy he built, and not fire Federalists who worked for the government. Although no written record of this “deal” exists, the new President Jefferson, who had spent 10 years criticizing Federalist policies, left most of Hamilton’s economic programs, the navy, and Federalist government employees alone when he took office.

Besides establishing a precedent for the peaceful transfer of power, the Election of 1800 had another lasting effect on American presidential politics. As a direct result of the chaos caused by the Electoral College system as originally written (with first place becoming president, and second becoming vice-president), the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. The 12th Amendment required the electors to cast their two votes separately: one for president and one for vice-president. Now, only presidential candidates can win the presidency and only vice-presidential candidates the vice-presidency.

Author: Ye Olde History Teacher

Teacher. Author. Pro: facts, reason, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti: stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, inflexibility, hate, grifters.

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