The Election of 1800

The election of 1800 was one of the nastiest and most contentious in American history. We have had other close elections and many campaigns that descended into the worst sort of character assassinations, but 1800 stands out. For one thing, the election of 1800 was the only election in American history that ended in a duel. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

The first thing to know is that the rules for electing a President were slightly different for the first three elections. According to the Constitution;

 The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not lie an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed;

 This means that each Elector in the Electoral College got two votes. The man with the most votes is President. The man with the second most votes is Vice-President. This would have some interesting results if that were the rule today. Imagine the election of 2008 with Obama the President and John McCain (or Sarah Palin!) the Vice-President. You will notice that there is no mention of a popular election for President. That is because there is none. Here is the rule for selecting electors.

 Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

This clause says nothing about how each state should appoint Electors. That is up to each individual state. At first, the state legislatures picked them. By the early nineteenth century, they were selected by popular vote. This means that Americans do not actually vote for a presidential candidate. Technically, we are voting for a slate of Electors.

It might seem obvious to us that having a President and Vice-President who had run against each other and would probably be of opposing parties would not work all that well. This wasn’t a problem for the elections of 1788 and 1792. Everyone agreed that George Washington was the only choice for president. John Adams was the consensus choice for vice-President.  So, the first two presidential elections were uncontested and Washington was the only presidential candidate to win a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.

The first American political parties began to take shape during Washington’s second term. These early parties were the Federalists, led by Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans led by Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. These two men, Hamilton and Jefferson, were not just political rivals but personal enemies who wrote newspaper articles under pseudonyms attacking each other. Their constant fighting caused Washington much grief and may have been one of the reasons he declined to serve a third term.

The election on 1796, then, was the first contested presidential election. The Democratic-Republicans backed Jefferson, while the Federalists supported Adams, who was really too independent to belong to any party. The campaigning was fierce but neither Adams nor Jefferson took part in it, actual campaigning being considered too undignified for candidates, and they managed to maintain their personal friendship. The election turned out to be a close one, with Adams getting 71 electoral votes and Jefferson getting 68 votes, making Adams the second President of the United States and Jefferson his vice-President.  Jefferson pronounced himself content with this arrangement saying that Adams had always been his senior. The good feelings were not to last. For the next four years, Jefferson quietly prepared to run against Adams.

President of the Senate John Adams

The election of 1800 turned out to be one of the nastiest in American history. Adams ran for reelection with Charles Pinckney as his running mate. Thomas Jefferson made another attempt under the Democratic-Republican banner with Aaron Burr. Adams was accused of wanting to set up a monarchy. He was said to be arranging for his sons to marry King George III’s daughters. Jefferson was supposedly planning to bring the Jacobin Terror to America. Newspapers and speakers of both parties gleefully spread the most scurrilous stories about the opposing party’s candidate.

To prevent a repeat of the results of the election of 1796, in which the President and Vice-President were of different parties, the Federalist and Democratic-Republican leadership made arrangements that their electors would end up casting one fewer vote for their Vice-Presidential candidate than for their President. This way whichever party won the election would be assured that the winners of the first and second place would be of the same party. On Election Day the Democratic-Republicans won by a clear majority. There was just one problem. While the Federalist electors cast 65 votes for John Adams and 64 votes for Pinckney, there was some miscommunication among the Democratic-Republicans and both Jefferson and Burr received 73 votes.  Burr should have stepped down since everyone knew that Jefferson was meant to be President. Burr decided that he liked the idea of being President and while he did not campaign actively to be chosen, he wasn’t going to decline if anyone else decided to support him.\


In the event that no candidate gets a majority, the constitution states

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...
Thomas Jefferson

and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice-President


Or, in other words, the House of Representatives picks the president with each state getting one vote.  In 1801, there were sixteen states so the winner needed nine votes. When Congress met on February 11, 1801, many Federalists were inclined to support Burr as the lesser of two evils. On the first ballot, Jefferson got eight states, one less than the nine he needed. Burr got six states. The two remaining states’ Congressional delegations were evenly divided so they had to cast blank ballots. Over the next six days vote after vote was taken all with the same result.  As the inauguration date of March 4 approached, many people began to worry that the President wouldn’t be chosen in time. There were attempts to make deals to end the deadlock but they all fell through.

Aaron Burr, 3rd Vice President of the United S...
Aaron Burr


Then, something unimaginable occurred. Alexander Hamilton intervened, on the side of his archenemy Jefferson. Jefferson, he acknowledged was a “contemptable hypocrite” and “tinctured with fanaticism”, yet he did have some “pretensions to character”. Burr, by contrast, was without principles or honor, the “Catiline of America”. Catiline was a Roman Senator who had been accused of conspiring to overthrow the Republic in the 60’s BC. To educated Americans of the time, that was about the worst name Hamilton could have called Burr. Hamilton’s support of Jefferson was something like if Rush Limbaugh had supported Gore during the Florida recounts in 2000.

As a result of Hamilton’s lobbying, the deadlock was broken and on the next ballot, Jefferson won ten votes and Burr four. Jefferson was finally elected President and the inauguration went ahead as planned.  Shortly after, the twelfth amendment to the Constitution, which changed the procedure of the Electoral College so that each elector has one vote and votes for the President and Vice-President as a team, was adopted to prevent anything like the election of 1800 from occurring again.

About the duel, that occurred in 1804. Jefferson never trusted Burr after the election, for obvious reasons, and saw to it that Burr had no role in the government. As the election of 1804 neared, Jefferson decided to replace Burr as his running mate with George Clinton. Burr decided to run for governor of New York, but once again his fellow New Yorker Hamilton opposed him and he lost the election. Burr seized on Hamilton’s description of him as “despicable” and challenged Hamilton to a duel. At the duel, Hamilton fired into the air, but Burr shot him in the abdomen, killing Hamilton and his own political career. Burr had to flee to avoid prosecution for murder and was eventually implicated in a conspiracy to seize power in the Spanish southwest and create his own empire. He was tried for treason but acquitted and spent most of the rest of his life in Europe.

Alexander Hamilton

Politics has always been a dirty and excitable business but it has gotten a lot tamer in recent years. Imagine if the contentious election of 2000 had been handled like 1800. We might have ended up with Bush and Gore fighting a duel. Oh well.


The good old days
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