US Presidential Election of 1800: A Defining Moment in the History of American Politics

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Thomas Jefferson - Third President of US

The presidential election of 1800 was the first truly disputed election in our nation’s history, and became a defining event in shaping the United States Constitution.

Some called it “The Revolution of 1800.” It was an election which would forever shape American politics and is one of the most disputed presidential contests in history; all this less than fifteen years before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

The Background

As it initially read, the section of the Constitution dedicated to election law is slightly different from that which we know today. In its original form, the Electoral College, when convened, could only vote for one person – The President – where by today’s law, they must vote for two candidates, one for President and one for Vice President.

In 1800, as originally outlined in the Constitution, the Vice President was chosen as he who had received the second highest number of electoral votes. Sound odd to you? Indeed, this would just be one of the many “kinks” which would have to be ironed out of the still-being-tested Constitution.

Most of the candidates taking part in the 1800 election are fairly household names, fortunately. John Adams of the Federalist party was running as the incumbent President, and his chief opponent (thanks to the election law just discussed), was his own Vice President, the runner up from the election four years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, of the Democratic-Republican party (which would soon enough drop the “republican” from their name and simply be known as, you guessed it, “Democrats”).

Now, to complicate matters a bit, each party did not desire just one victory in the election; they desired to have both a President and a Vice President bearing their flag in the White House. So each side posted a second candidate as well; South Carolina congressman Charles Cotesworth Pickney for the Federalists and Aaron Burr (best known for his famous and deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton four years later) for the Democratic-Republicans.

The Results

Now, there were many issues taken into consideration by voters in 1800 which led to its peculiar results. John Adams’ popularity had dwindled after his perceived poor handling of foreign policy, specifically laws known as the “Alien and Sedition Acts” which made it illegal to publically criticize the government during wartime.

It was clear from the beginning that he would lose to Jefferson. So, as things were done in those days, the votes were cast in the general election, and once the votes were tallied, the Democratic-Republicans had been handed a sweeping victory. John Adams had come in third, just as they had surely hoped, which meant they wouldn’t have to settle for a Federalist Vice-President. However, there was a problem.

While the original plan amongst the Democratic-Republicans had surely been for a few of them to withhold their votes from the runner-up, Aaron Burr, in order to ensure a victory by Thomas Jefferson, this did not happen. After the electoral college had met and all the votes were tallied, the unthinkable had happened.

Jefferson and Burr were deadlocked with 73 votes each in a tie. As a result, according to the Constitution it would now be up to a vote of congress who would be the next President of the United States – Thomas Jefferson, or Aaron Burr.

So congress voted, but the result was still a tie. So they voted again. And again. And again. And so on. that body voted for President of the United States (surely to the utter horror of the voting public, who were seeing the first cracks beginning to show in the hallowed Constitution) in total, before finally former Treasury Secretary underGeorge Washington, Alexander Hamilton, threw his weight into the ring (reluctantly, for he was an ardent Federalist) for Thomas Jefferson. As a result, a single Federalist congressman abstained from voting for Burr on the 37th ballot, making Thomas Jefferson President, and making Burr angry.

Thirty-six times

In fact, Hamilton’s involvement in the election of 1800 would be one of Burr’s many points of contention against the founding father, which would eventually lead to that fateful duel (which took place, remarkably, while Burr still held the position of Vice President).

The Legacy of 1800

This election of 1800, while it may be infamous, was surely a necessary evil, as it showed the Constitution for what it was – a document written by the hands of men; not perfect, and sometimes in need of mending. So mend it they did, proposing the 12th Amendment, which gives us the election laws that we still follow with varying degrees of success to this very day.

Sometimes we must take the good with the bad.

References:

  1. McCollough, David. “John Adams.” Simon and Schuster. 2002
  2. Larson, Edward J. “A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.” Free Press. 2007