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.

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.

For their part, the Democratic Republicans selected Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr again.

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.

The Election of 1800
The Election of 1800

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.

Alexander Hamilton

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 good old days

 

The Election of 1796

The presidential election of 1796 was the first real election for president that the United States had. In the first two elections, the elections of 1789 and 1792, everyone knew that George Washington was going to win. He had no opposition and it was simply inconceivable that anyone would run against him. Washington’s second term was not as successful as his first, especially in foreign policy. The young nation was being pressured to take sides in the war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France, and Washington’s insistence that the United State was neutral pleased neither side. The British would not respect American sovereignty while the French ambassador tried to undermine the government. Washington sent John Jay to Great Britain to negotiate a trade treaty and to deal with these issues. The resulting treaty was greatly to the advantage of the British and was very unpopular, especially among the supporters of Jefferson. This affected Washington’s popularity and in the second half of his second term, Washington faced more public opposition than he had before as president.

Still, if George Washington had wanted a third term, he would have gotten it. He didn’t want it. Washington was feeling old and tired. He was 64 years old and had lived a hard life. He was also aware that the men of his family tended to die young. Washington wanted to return to Mount Vernon and spend a few years in retirement.

As soon as it was clear that Washington would not serve a third term, the race was on. The first party system had begun to develop in George Washington’s second term. The party organizations were still rather rudimentary, however and there were none of the primaries, caucuses, or nominating conventions that were a feature later on in American politics. Instead the leader of each party met informally and chose candidates. Both parties decided to balance their tickets geographically with one candidate from the north and one from the south, in order to appeal to the whole country.

The Federalists picked John Adams to be their candidate for president. He had served as vice-president for eight years under Washington and many felt that he deserved the top job. Adams was known to be capable and honest and was a good choice. For vice-president, the Federalists chose Thomas Pinckney from South Carolina. Pinckney is not well known today. He had fought in the Revolutionary War and had served as governor of South Carolina from 1787 to 1789. He was Washington’s minister to Britain in 1792 and had negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain. In fact, the Federalist Party leader, Alexander Hamilton preferred Pinckney to Adams and tried to arranged for him to get more electoral votes.

The Democratic-Republicans chose their party leader, Thomas Jefferson. For vice-president they decided on Aaron Burr from New York. This might seem a  strange choice considering Burr’s later notoriety, but Burr was also a Revolutionary War veteran and a prominent attorney. He was also the leader of the Democratic Republican Party in the state of New York.

The rules for electing the president were different before the passage of the twelfth amendment. The electors were selected in November either by state legislatures or in some states by popular vote. When the Electoral College met, each elector had two votes which he cast for two different men. The candidate with the most votes was elected president while the runner up got to be vice-president. This system worked well enough in the first two elections, when everyone knew Washington would be president. It did not work so well in the election of 1796 and caused a crisis in the election of 1800.

The first contested election was fiercely fought. Adams and Jefferson took no part in the campaign, it wasn’t considered seemly to actively campaign in those days, and they remained friends. Their partisans, however, attacked each other mercilessly. Adams was accused of being a monarchist who planned to make himself king and his sons lords. Jefferson was attacked as a  fanatic Jacobin and atheist who wanted to import the French Revolution to America. When the votes were cast, Adams won by a narrow margin. He got 71 electoral votes, winning all of New England along with New York and New Jersey. Jefferson had 68 electoral votes, winning the entire south including the new states  of Kentucky and Tennessee and also won Pennsylvania. In the states of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia, one elector had voted for Adams, while Maryland was split with seven votes for Adams and four votes for Jefferson.

The Election of 1796
The Election of 1796

In both parties the plan had been for all but a few electors to cast their second vote for their party’s choice for vice president, thus allowing either Pinckney or Burr to be in second place. This didn’t work out because of the slow speed of communications at the time, so the electors’ second votes were distributed among a variety of men. Thomas Pinckney got 59 votes, fewer than Jefferson. Burr was a distant fourth with only 30 votes. So John Adams, the Federalist was elected president with Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Republican as his vice president. This might be a little like Barack Obama having John McCain as his vice president.

Despite the differences in party, Adams and Jefferson expected to work well with each other and Jefferson was gracious in defeat, saying, “Adams has always been my senior from the commencement of my public life”. Maybe he had an idea of just how rough the next four years were going to be.

 

 

The Election of 1789

The election of 1789 was the first presidential election in the United States and it was unlike any election that followed. There were no debates, no campaigns, no popular vote and only one candidate; George Washington. The constitution had been ratified the year before by nine of the thirteen states. North Carolina didn’t ratify the constitution until later in 1789 and didn’t get a vote in this first election. Rhode Island held out until 1790 and likewise did not get a vote.

The rules for electing the President were slightly different in the first four elections. Each State had as many electors in the Electoral College as the number of Representatives and Senators, just as is the case today. Unlike the procedure today, each elector had two votes and the candidate who had the most votes would be President, while the runner-up would be Vice-President.The seelction of the electors took place between December 15, 1788 to January 10, 1789. As I stated, North Carolina and Rhode Island could nor participate in this election and New York’s legislature was deadlocked and was unable to name any electors. So, only ten states participated. Of these only six had any form of popular vote at all, and the franchise was limited by property requirements. In most states, the legislatures either appointed the electors directly, or divided the state into electoral districts. In Maryland and Pennsylvania the electors were elected at large. In no case did any voter actually vote for the president.

George Washington was the only candidate considered for the post. In fact, much of the debate over the Presidency at the Constitutional Convention had been shaped by the idea that Washington would be the first President. In a way, the job was designed to fit Washington. Washington was the most famous and popular man in America. He had been the indispensible man in the Revolution. He was well known in all parts of the new nation, and although he was from Virginia, he was not thought to be tied to any one section of the country. Of his contemporaries, only Benjamin Franklin could claim a similar national status. Franklin was too old, however, and although he had been a successful businessman, he had little experience as a political executive and none at all in military matters.

Washington, however, did not especially want to be President. He was getting older himself. Although he was only 56 at the time of the Constitutional Convention, he had lived a hard life and he was feeling it. Washington was also aware that the males in his family tended not to be long lived and he felt his time was running out. Washington preferred to spend his final years tending Mount Vernon over the

George Washington
George Washington

difficult job of establishing a new government, especially since unlike all of his successors, he could not blame his problems on his predecessor. Washington was concerned that every action of his would be taken as a precedent and he was not sure he was up to the task  of not just being the President, but of establishing the pattern of behavior for all subsequent presidents. Washington had a strong sense of duty and was somewhat vain about his posthumous reputation so he agreed to be the first president.

There was no suspense when the Electoral College met on February 4, 1789. Each one of the 69 electors cast one of his votes for George Washington, making Washington the only president ever elected by a unanimous vote. John Adams got second place with 34 votes and John Jay was a distant third with 9 votes. There were a number of other men who received a scattering of votes.

 

 

John Adams
John Adams

As the runner up, Adams became the first Vice-President. He was not exactly thrilled with his new job, as he told his wife Abigail,

“My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”. Everyone else was confident that this election would prove to be a bright beginning to the grand American experiment.

The Election of 1860

With all of the silly talk about states seceding we have had after the last election, perhaps it is time to take a look at a past election in which the talk of secession was deadly serious. I refer, of course, to the election of 1860, the election that preceded and sparked the American Civil War. Slavery and secession were the two main issues of that Presidential campaign, and before I write any more about the campaign, I will have to give a little historical background on each of these issues.

Slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776. Slavery was rather rare in the northernmost states, such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts and much more common in the southern states where the climate and land permitted large-scale plantations. Nevertheless, slavery was not a sectional issue at that time.

During and after the War of Independence, it seemed obvious to many that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the ideals of liberty expressed in the Declaration and a movement to end slavery developed. In the northern states, slavery was largely abolished by the beginning of the nineteenth century, although because the larger states legislated gradual emancipation, there were still a few slaves in bondage as late as 1830. More importantly for the future of the new nation, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory was the Northwestern Ordinance of 1787.
The founding fathers who held slaves had somewhat ambiguous feelings about the institution. They thought it necessary, but disliked it and believed that over time it would gradually die out. This didn’t happen. The invention of the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and attitudes hardened over time. In the north a newer generation of abolitionists were no longer willing for slavery to gradually die out, especially since it was beginning to show few signs of doing so. They wanted slavery abolished immediately, or at the least prevented from expanding into the new territories. The abolitionists were never a majority in the north but they were a vocal minority and over time their numbers and stridency grew. In the south, slave holders became increasingly defensive about their “peculiar institution”, all the more so as slavery was abolished throughout the civilized world. By 1860, only Brazil and the Spanish colony of Cuba still practiced slavery. By 1860, it was becoming increasingly clear that the United States could not continue to exist as a nation in which slavery was legal in half the country and prohibited in the other half. Either the country would have to be all free, all slave, or split into two.

This brings us to secession. In the early decades of the country, it was never entirely clear whether the United States was a federation of smaller sovereign states or a nation with sovereignty shared between the central government and the states but with the federal government pre-eminent. As early as 179, John Tyler of Virginia proposed that Virginia secede over the Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson wanted the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures to nullify the acts. In 1814, there was a movement in New England to secede over the War of 1812. South Carolina threatened to secede over the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828, over the admission of California as a free state in 1850, and was the first state to secede in 1860.

Now, I can get to the election of 1860. The previous election, that of 1856 had seen the end of the second party system in the United States with the break up of the Whig Party and the rise of the anti-slavery Republicans. In that election, the Democrats had won the entire south, while the Republicans won New England and a few mid-western states. In the next four years, sectional tensions grew in the United States until a division between North and South became a real possibility. Already there was a sort of miniature civil war in Kansas over whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or a slave state. The infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 polarized opinion as did the publication of the phenomenally successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown terrified the South, naturally fearful of a slave revolt led by abolitionist, while Brown’s execution made him a martyr among abolitionists.

The Democratic convention was held in Charleston South Carolina in April. The obvious candidate was Stephen Douglas from Illinois who campaigned on a popular sovereignty position on the slavery issue. This “pro-choice” position did not please the increasingly radical southern delegates who wanted an out right pro-slavery platform in which slavery would be permitted in all territories under federal protection. This, the northern delegates would not agree to, so the convention broke up.
The Democrats met again the following month in Baltimore, this time the northern and southern delegates holding separate conventions. The northern delegates selected Stephen Douglas while the southerners nominated John C. Breckinridge from Kentucky. The irony here is that if the Democrats had united behind one candidate, that candidate would almost certainly have won the election since the Republican Party was not even on the ballot in the south. By dividing their efforts between two candidates they allowed the Republicans to win.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party had its convention in Chicago. William H. Seward of New York was a favorite at the convention but he had made too many political enemies. Although he had not had an especially prominent political career previously, Abraham Lincoln was well liked and articulate. He was firm on the slavery issue but not too radical, so he was selected on the third ballot.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Then, because things were not confusing enough with three candidates, a fourth candidate jumped into the ring. There was another nominating convention in Baltimore in May. This was a group of former Whigs who were determined to keep the Union together at all costs. Calling themselves the Constitutional Union Party, they nominated John Bell, a former Speaker of the House from Tennessee.

John Bell
John Bell

As one might imagine, this turned out to be an exciting and tumultuous election. Stephen Douglas broke with tradition and actually went out to campaign in person, all over the country. The other candidates stayed at home and tried to look dignified and presidential but their supporters made up the difference in raucous energy. Bell’s supporters rang bells at rallies. Republicans held parades featuring rails that the great rail splitter Abraham Lincoln had personally split. Breckenridge’s people warned that a Lincoln victory would split the country. If it weren’t for the great seriousness of it all, it would have been a lot of fun.

You probably already know the result of the election of 1860. No candidate got a majority of the popular vote but Lincoln won a plurality with 1,866,452 votes or 40% of the total. Douglas was second with 1,376,957 votes or 29 %. Breckinridge got 849,781 or 18 % and Bell 588,879 or 13%. The electoral vote was more decisive. Lincoln won all of the northern states except New Jersey which was split between Lincoln and Douglas for a total of 180 electoral votes. Douglas, although second in popular votes was last in electoral votes winning only Missouri and three New Jersey votes for a total of 12. Breckinridge won all of the south except for the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for a total of 72 votes. Bell won those three states and 39 electoral votes.

The Election of 1860
The Election of 1860

Stephen Douglas realized that a Lincoln victory would divide the country and immediately after the election he traveled south and gave speeches upholding the Union. It was of no avail, however, and a month after the election , on December 20 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and America’s bloodiest war began.

The Election of 1824

I am going to make a prediction about the upcoming election. I predict that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will win. I admit that that is not much of an prediction, but given that they are the only two candidates, one of them has to get the majority of electoral votes and win. There are, to be sure, third party candidates, but it is exceedingly unlikely that any of them will get even one vote.

That is the way it has been in almost every American presidential election. Even in those few cases with a significant third party challenge, one candidate always gets a majority. In fact, there have been only two elections in which no candidate received a majority, the election of 1800 and the election of 1824. Both these elections were contentious. I wrote about the election of 1800 some time ago, so now I will take on the story of the election of 1824. That election was, if possible, even more contentious than the former, although there was no duel in the aftermath. This is remarkable, considering that one of the candidates was Andrew Jackson, a man who apparently enjoyed dueling.

By 1816 the first two-party system in the US had ended. The Federalist had slowly faded away after the election of 1800, and by 1820 President James Monroe had run unopposed for re-election. This period, the only time America has had a one-party political system, was known as the “Era of Good Feelings“. Domestic politics have never been quieter. It couldn’t last, of course. By 1824, there were already tensions forming in the ruling Democratic-Republican Party.

A lot of this tension was regional. Different sections of the country, north and south, east and west, had different interests and favored different types of men for the presidency. Another problem was the method the party selected its candidate. Up until then, each party had held a caucus of the Congressmen in the party to select their candidates. It seemed undemocratic that a few politicians in Washington should select the man who would likely be the next President. Many people loudly denounced “King Caucus” , and instead preferred candidates selected by state legislatures or conventions.

In 1824, the Congressional Caucus Selected, among many candidates, William Crawford of Georgia as the Democratic-Republican candidate. He had served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Monroe, and was Monroe’s favored choice as his successor. There were three other candidates, though.

William Crawford

There was John Quincy Adams from Massachusetts. He was the son of President John Adams, and had served as M0nroe’s Secretary of State. At the time, the the position of Secretary of State was seen as the natural stepping stone to the Presidency, and Adams believed himself to be the natural heir. He was a talented man and had served his country with distinction. Several state legislatures in New England nominated him as the Democratic-Republican candidate. He was not so popular in the West and South as others.

John Quincy Adams

Henry Clay was another obvious and popular candidate. From Kentucky, he was a noted lawyer and orator, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives. He transformed the Speakership from a relatively minor position to one nearly equal to the President in power. He played a key role in crafting the Missouri Compromise of 1820. He was naturally popular in the South and West.

Henry Clay

Finally, there was Andrew Jackson. He was from Tennessee, and was a hero of the War of 1812, the Creek war, and the Seminole War. He was noted for his victory at the Battle of New Orleans, even though the battle took place after the War of 1812 was actually over. Although Jackson was a wealthy landowner, he favored a more democratic political system. He was also popular in the South and West.

Andrew Jackson

There was also John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. He had served as Secretary of War under Monroe and wanted to run for President but lacked support. He was popular, though and settled for running for Vice President with the support of Jackson and Adams.

John C. Calhoun

 

With four candidates, all from the same party, and generally favoring the same policies, the Presidential contest became a matter of personalities and regionalism. It was considered undignified for presidential candidates to actively campaign but their supporters eagerly campaigned on their behalf and the campaign of 1824 quickly became enthusiastic, personal and negative, with each candidate’s advocates praising their man and condemning the others. Adams had an English wife. Clay was a drunk and Crawford a thief. Jackson was a wild man who liked to kill people.

With four candidates, no one achieved a majority of electoral votes. Adams won the New England states and got 108, 740 popular votes with 84 electoral votes. Jackson was ahead of him, gaining most of the south, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, with 153,544 popular votes and 99 electoral votes. William Crawford was third with Virginia and Georgia and 40,856 popular votes and 41 electoral votes. Henry Clay was last. He got 47,531 popular votes and won Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri with 37 electoral votes.  New York, Delaware, Maryland, Louisiana, and Illinois split their votes.

The Election of 1824

Since no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College, the decision went to Congress, as stated under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment.

The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing 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. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.[1]

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

This meant that the House of Representatives would select the President from the top three candidates; Jackson, Adams, and Crawford, with each state delegation getting one vote, while the Senate would select the Vice President. Calhoun had easily won the Electoral Vote for Vice President, so that was settled.

Clay, in fourth place, was out of the running for President, but he had considerable influence in the House and would inevitably play an important role in the selection of the next President. He eventually threw his support to Adams and in the end Adams won thirteen states, Jackson nine, and Crawford four. Andrew Jackson was not very happy with the results. He had gotten the most votes, both popular and electoral, and it seemed to him, quite reasonably, that he should have been selected. His suspicions that there had been some sort of deal between Adams and Clay seemed to be confirmed when Adams named Clay as his Secretary of State, and he loudly denounced the “corrupt bargain”.  Adams was aware that his election, being so irregular, lacked a certain legitimacy, and he regretted that they could not simply hold the election over again.

Was there a corrupt bargain? It seems incredible that there wasn’t some sort of negotiations between Clay and Adams. Yet, Clay had made no secret that he vastly preferred Adams to Jackson, who he viewed with disdain. Clay was also a natural choice for Secretary of State and perhaps any President would have been happy to name him for any cabinet position. It didn’t matter, though. The deal was seen as corrupt, especially by Jackson’s supporters.

John Quincy Adams turned out to be a decent man and President. He wasn’t able to get much done, largely because of the way in which he became President, but also because he was not a natural politician and, like his father, disdained to play the usual political party games. He was easily defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1828 and later went on to have a distinguished career in Congress. Andrew Jackson was one of the most noteworthy Presidents in American history, and served from 1829-1837. Henry Clay ran for President again in 1836 and Jackson won by a landslide. He continued to oppose Jackson and founded the Whig Party.

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