Election of 1800

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In 1800 Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, winning the presidency in the most important and complex election between the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Jefferson's inauguration on 4 March 1801 signaled a new era in democratic self-government in the new nation, as the candidate of an opposition party peacefully took office while his defeated rival—the incumbent president—quietly left office. Never, perhaps, in the history of the world had regime change been accomplished so peacefully and smoothly. The campaign, however, was hardly harmonious and the route from the election to the inauguration of Jefferson was anything but smooth. In the aftermath of the election Congress wrote and sent on to the states what became the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution to create a new method of electing the president.

the campaign

The campaign was one of the nastiest in American history. Since 1797 Adams had been president while Jefferson, his political rival, had been vice president. In July 1798 Congress had passed the federal Sedition Act, which made it a crime to speak or write disparagingly of the president or the Congress, but not the vice president. Thus, as the nation moved toward the election, Federalist U.S. attorneys arranged for the arrest of twenty-five supporters of Jefferson. Fourteen of these men were indicted and ten were convicted. The Sedition Act harmed Adams, and the public hostility to the suppression of political dissent may have cost him the election. Even with the Sedition Act hanging over them, supporters of Jefferson denounced Adams as favoring a monarchy and claimed he had arranged a marriage with one of his sons and the daughter of the English king in order to bring back the British monarchy. The Jeffersonians further accused Adams of sending diplomats to England to procure "pretty girls as mistresses" for the president and his running mate. Adams's supporters, on the other hand, accused Jefferson of being an atheist (he was in fact a deist) and of planning to set up a guillotine in the new national capital to execute his opponents and bring to the United States a reign of terror similar to that of the French Revolution.

Beyond the nastiness, there were significant differences between the two candidates. Adams favored Britain in the ongoing wars in Europe, while Jefferson was much closer to France. Adams wanted to strengthen the army and navy in preparation for a possible war with France; Jefferson favored a smaller military and wanted to avoid a military encounter with any nation but favored war against Britain, rather than France, if forced into the European conflicts. Adams and members of his party supported the recently chartered Bank of the United States; Jefferson was opposed to the Bank. Jefferson wanted to see all Indians on the East Coast removed to the West; Adams believed that the Indians needed to be "civilized" but had never suggested their removal. Adams had never owned a slave and was on the verge of giving diplomatic recognition to Haiti, the republic created by former slaves who had overthrown their French masters; Jefferson owned about two hundred slaves at the time of the election, supported the institution of slavery, and was hostile to both emancipation and Haitian independence.

In this context Jefferson won a slim electoral majority, gaining seventy-three electoral votes to Adams's sixty-five. There was no popular vote, so it is impossible to know it this outcome reflected the true will of the electorate. Jefferson's political strength came mostly from the South, where slaves were counted (under the three-fifths clause of the Constitution) for purposes of allocating representatives in Congress and for the allocation of presidential electors. Without those electors created because of slaves (who of course could not vote), Jefferson would not have had an electoral majority. Ironically, in this election a man who owned about two hundred slaves gained his office because of the political power of slavery that was built into the process of electing the president. Despite the fact that Jefferson gained a majority of the electoral votes, he did not immediately win the election due to the complexity of the electoral process and a political mistake by Jefferson's supporters.

the house contest

Under the original Constitution the presidential electors voted for two candidates. The candidate with the most votes became president, if that candidate had a majority of the number of electors. The candidate with the second highest total became vice president. The framers assumed that each elector would vote for the two "best" candidates, and thus they would become president and vice president. This worked out in the first three elections. Washington had the most electoral votes in the first two elections and Adams was the runner-up. In 1796 Adams ran for president and was challenged by Jefferson. Adams had the most votes and gained the presidency, while Jefferson was runner-up and became vice president. However, Adams and Jefferson were not only rivals, but also political opponents. This led to a strained administration. It also taught leaders of the Federalist Party and the Democratic Republican Party that they needed to have a coordinated vote in the next election.

Thus, in 1800 all sixty-five Federalist electors voted for Adams, and all but one voted for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who was slated to be the vice president. This party discipline is remarkable, especially because at the time Alexander Hamilton, who had little faith in Adams, was trying to manipulate the Federalist electors to support Pinckney as president. But, Hamilton failed, and had the Federalists been in the majority, they would have reelected John Adams and replaced Jefferson with their own candidate. But the Federalists did not have a majority. The Democratic Republicans had seventy-three electors. All of them cast their ballots for Jefferson and for Aaron Burr. The party leaders assumed that Jefferson would then become president and Burr vice president. But the Constitution provided that if there was a tie in the electoral college, the House of Representatives would choose the president, with each state delegation casting a single vote. While Jefferson's supporters had a majority in the House, they did not control a majority of the delegations. Jefferson expected Burr to step aside and become vice president. But instead, the New York politician asserted that he had an equal right to be president and appealed to Federalists in Congress for support. The Democratic Republicans controlled eight delegations, the Federalists controlled six, and two others were evenly divided between Federalists and Democratic Republicans. Thus, for thirty-five ballots Jefferson won eight delegations, Adams won six, and two were tied and unable to cast a ballot. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Federalists from Vermont, Delaware, and Maryland abstained, thus allowing their states to cast ballots for Jefferson, and he was elected president.

In the wake of this terribly divisive election, Jefferson took office peacefully. In his inaugural he extended an olive branch to the Federalists, characterizing the bitter campaign as merely a "contest of opinion" and asserting that all Americans accepted the "sacred principle" that "the will of the majority … to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possesses their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." The shared belief in these principles led Jefferson to declare "we are all Republicans—we are all Federalists."

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Constitution: Twelfth Amendment; Democratic Republicans; Federalist Party; Hamilton, Alexander; Presidency, The: John Adams; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson; Quasi-War with France .


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Paul Finkelman