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.
As I have mentioned before, the rules for electing the president were slightly different in the first four elections. Each Elector in the Electoral College had two votes which he cast for two different men. The candidate with the largest number of votes would be President and the next largest Vice-President. This worked well enough in the first two elections when everyone knew that George Washington would be President and John Adams Vice-President. It worked less well in 1796 when John Adams, the Federalist, was elected President with Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican. Although the two men were of opposing parties, they had long been friends and Adams had every expectation that Jefferson would be as loyal a Vice-President as Adams himself had been to Washington. He was badly disappointed with Jefferson. Jefferson spent the next four years undermining Adams at every opportunity and preparing to run against Adams in 1800.
In 1800, the Federalists selected John Adams to run for re-election, even though he was not especially popular in the party. Adams was really too independent to belong to any party and he and the Federalist party leader Alexander Hamilton hated each other, especially since Adams discovered that the members of his cabinet, holdovers from Washington’s administration, were more loyal to Hamilton than to him. For vice-president the Federalists selected Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the brother of Adams’s running mate in 1796. Pinckney had been the U.S. minister to France and had famously said, “Not a sixpence” when French officials had tried to bribe him in the XYZ Affair.
The election of 1800 turned out to be one of the nastiest in American history. Adams was accused of wanting to set up a monarchy. He was for aristocracy and against giving any role to the common man in politics. He was said to be arranging for his sons to marry King George III’s daughters and hoped to have the United States rejoin the British Empire. Jefferson was an atheist, a deist,and a radical. He was planning to bring the Jacobin Terror to America. Under a Jefferson administration all common decency would be forgotten and Bible would be burned. Newspapers and speakers of both parties gleefully spread the most scurrilous stories about the opposing party’s candidate.
As in the election of 1796, both parties tried to make arrangements so that their Vice-Presidential candidate would receive one fewer vote than their Presidential candidate, and as in 1796, something went wrong. The Federalists won all of New England along with New Jersey and Delaware. The Democratic Republicans won the South except for North Carolina, which along with Pennsylvania and Maryland split its vote. The total electoral vote for the Federalists was 65 votes for Adams and 64 votes for Pinckney. The total electoral vote for the Democratic Republicans was 73 votes for Jefferson and 73 votes for Burr, a tie. This presented a problem.
According to the constitution, if no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives would select the President from among the top five candidates, with each state getting one vote, which was determined by a majority of that state’s representatives. If there were a tie vote, the Congressional delegation would have to turn in a blank ballot. In 1801 there were sixteen states in the Union so a candidate had to have at least nine states supporting him in order to win the election.
On the first ballot, Jefferson got eight votes, Burr six, and the remaining two states were tied. For six days, vote after vote was taken with no change in the results. Many Federalists began to consider supporting Burr as the lesser of two evils. They tried to negotiate with Burr, offering their support in exchange for his maintaining Federalist policies. Burr listened, but didn’t commit himself. Then, the unexpected occurred. Alexander Hamilton intervened, on the side of his arch enemy, Jefferson. Jefferson, he acknowledged was a “contemptible 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 on February 17. Several Congressmen who had been supporting Burr abstained and as a result, Jefferson got ten votes to Burr’s four. Jefferson was elected President just two week before Inauguration Day. 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.
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 Ten Worst Running Mates In Presidential History (buzzfeed.com)
- An Eighteenth Century “Oops” (joshuaziefle.net)