Worst Presidential Election: 1800

Founders prior to fireworks: Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. History.com

American elections and political campaigns can be messy. Sometimes the desire for “victory” overwhelms or restructures “democracy,” no matter the century.

In 1800 the confusion landed in the House of Representatives. With just 16 states, it took the votes of nine to win a Presidential runoff. (Today the winning number in the Electoral College is 270 votes.) In the contest between President Federalist John Adams, 65, running for a second term, and his Vice President and thorn in his side, Republican Thomas Jefferson, 57, seeking his first term as President. Jefferson took New Yorker Aaron Burr (well-known from the Broadway play, “Hamilton”) onto the ticket in the second spot as a balance and to draw that state’s ample electoral ballots, but he was very much the wild card. Burr served in the Continental Army and as a lawyer in New York. He supported a bill ending slavery in New York, but owned slaves himself. Adams’ selected South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney as number two to add Southern votes to his New England base. Pinckney served in the Revolutionary War, as South Carolina’s Governor, in the U.S. Congress, and helped negotiate a treaty with Spain.

The 1800 ballot did not list a candidate for Vice President, but the person with the second highest number of votes took the second spot. That is how Jefferson, a small government Democratic-Republican, became VP to Adams, the strong national government Federalist were voted in four years earlier.  This created political fireworks, but certainly conformed to “checks and balances!”

 Fallout from French Revolution

Seen from the 21st century we might not imagine the French Revolution would impact American politics. But it did. Just thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, Federalists, like Adams, were shocked by the violence in France and felt aligning with Britain would help quell the bloodletting. Adams refused to declare war against France, angering his own party. Jefferson’s Republicans feared “radical conservatives” wanted to return to the British colonial template.

Just before Adams’ inauguration in 1796, France threatened not to allow the U.S. to trade with Britain. The strong French Navy could ruin the U.S. economy by sweeping America’s relatively meager ships from the seas, threatening the young nation with an economic depression. The French would not accept Adams’ envoys sent to negotiate a settlement.  Eventually Adams came to an agreement with the French, which further angered the Federalists, who really wanted WAR.

The most extreme Federalists (anyone thinking Tea Party or next up?), known as Ultras, scored great victories in the off-year elections of 1798—taking charge of both the party and Congress. They created a provisional army and pressured Adams into putting Hamilton (who was considered an Ultra) in charge. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thomas-jefferson-aaron-burr-and-the-election-of-1800-131082359/

Next they levied heavy taxes to pay for the army and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided jail terms and heavy fines for anyone who uttered or published “any false, scandalous, and malicious” statement against the U.S. government or its officials.  This angered many Americans still smarting from the taxes levied to pay for the Revolution twenty-five years earlier. Jeffersonians saw this as a way of silencing his Republicans and a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Unpopular Federalists’ Uphill Battle

This just to set the stage for the 1800 National Election. Then the Constitution stipulated each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who might actually get elected.

Here is the sticky part. The Constitution then stated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives “shall chuse (SP) by Ballot one of them for President.” Ballots to determine the President were not to be opened and counted until February 11. But nine days after the vote on December 3 in each of the state capitols, DC’s National Intelligencer newspaper broke the news that Jefferson and Burr were tied with 73 electoral votes. Adams received 65 and Pinckney 64. The decision as to the next President would rest in the House of Representatives.

How Adams Could Have Had Second Term

Adams became the first presidential candidate to fall to the notorious clause in the Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of one individual in calculating a state’s population, used to allocate both House seats and electoral votes. Had slaves, who were much more numerous in Virginia and the Southern states than in New England and Northern states, not been so counted, Adams would have edged Jefferson by a vote of 63 to 61. (It would be 1869 before African Americans received the vote with passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enforced it.)

Critical  Deadline: March 4, 1801

If neither Jefferson nor Burr were selected by March 4, when Adams’ term ended, then there would be no Chief Executive until the newly elected Congress convened the following December, nine months later. This upped the ante for the electors, but it did not really speed the process. It took 36 ballots, the first during a DC snowstorm, on February 11, 1801, to decide between Jefferson and Burr, a moment in history seemingly lost from modern memory. The electors most certainly must have realized the importance of their work, as only one of the 101 eligible electors were absent despite the inclement weather.

Public opinion did not matter as it does now because the public did not directly participate in the vote. Yet it seemed to side with Jefferson. His party’s nominating caucus supported him. He had served longer and in more prestigious roles (Secretary of State, Vice President) than Burr. This four years before the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the seeds of animosity were well planted.

Hamilton Lobbies Against Burr

Hamilton, a Federalist like Burr, did not trust him and wasted no time lobbying against him with a “fierce” letter-writing campaign from mid-December through January 1801 to electors deemed soft on Burr.

“There is no doubt, but that, upon every virtuous and prudent calculation, Jefferson is to be preferred,” Hamilton wrote to Oliver Wolcott Jr. on December 16. “He is by far not so dangerous a man and he had pretensions to character.” https://www.history.com/aaron-burr-alexander-hamilton-election-1800/

Some Federalists were not influenced by Hamilton because of his vicious attacks on Adams (and his own problems with a mistress and a payoff to her husband).

When balloting began, Delaware Federalist James A. Bayard, appeared in the cat-bird seat. Being the lone representative of his state, if he changed his vote, his state’s vote would also change. Bayard’s first vote went to Burr, which gave him six states to Jefferson’s eight—one short of attaining the Presidency. Burr received Bayard’s vote 34 more times over the next six days.

Hamilton had written Bayard on January 16 arguing Burr to be “a man of extreme & irregular ambition.” Republican newspapers also applied pressure, suggesting possible military intervention if a decision were not reached. Hamilton historian Ron Chernow indicated that Bayard “suggested in a caucus that he might vote for Jefferson to prevent a constitutional crisis,” while other Federalists shouted him down calling out: “Deserter!” (Ibid.)

Resolution and a Duel

Bayard realized he was able to make a deal, so he met with Jefferson’s friends, John Nicholas of Virginia, and Samuel Smith of Maryland. Bayard wanted assurance that as President Jefferson would maintain certain Federalist policies, including Hamilton’s financial system (National Bank) and retain Federalist officeholders. On February 17, Bayard submitted a blank ballot on the 36th round of voting. Vermont and Maryland also stepped aside, allowing their delegations to vote for Jefferson.

Federalists would never win another presidential race and by 1815 ceased to be a political party. The 12th Amendment at the end of Jefferson’s term separated the election of President from that of Vice President. When Burr learned that Hamilton had worked against him, his anger rose until it spilled over in their duel in July 1804. Hamilton shot high; Burr shot for Hamilton. Burr won the duel but ended his political career. Jefferson went on to win the 1804 Presidential Election.

Stay tuned for more about that election and “Who’d You Rather Share a Beer With– Adams or Jefferson?

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