The the new president?Analyst: We don’t know

The presidential election of 1800 was a rematch between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. An electoral tie between Jefferson and his running mate forced the House of Representatives to decide. The election inaugurated 24 years of political dominance for the Democratic-Republican Party.

The Election of 1800

If people today think the presidential election of 2000 was a circus – with its contradictions in popular votes and electoral votes, hanging chads, and the Supreme Court – they should have witnessed America’s presidential election 200 years earlier.

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The young nation’s first two elections ran pretty smoothly, considering George Washington was elected unanimously. However, the elections of 1796 and 1800 revealed serious flaws in the system.The Electoral College didn’t originally operate the same way it does today.

Back then, electors cast ballots for president, and the runner-up became vice president. In 1796, John Adams was elected to the executive office in both the popular vote and by electors – no problem there. But his running mate didn’t get the second-highest number of votes. Instead, his bitter political rival Thomas Jefferson came in second, making him the vice president. The two men agreed on almost nothing. So you can imagine the next election, four years later, when the president and vice president went head-to-head again, and this time they had political parties to back them up.

Reporter: We’re back at election headquarters trying to bring you the story. Excuse me, sir, can you tell us what happened here tonight?Analyst: Well, everyone knows the tension we’ve had in this country over the past four years. Half the men have rallied around President Adams and his new running mate. Those are the Federalists.Reporter: Right, right. But what about Vice President Jefferson?Analyst: Of course.

All the other men are backing Jefferson and his running mate. Those are your Democratic-Republicans.Reporter: Well, who won?Analyst: The popular vote was pretty clear; the people want Jefferson.

Reporter: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The Jefferson and Burr ticket has made it to the top!Analyst: No, no, no, that’s not right.Reporter: But you just said…

?Analyst: Vice President Jefferson was elected by the people, but his pick for VP wasn’t chosen as the runner-up tonight by the electors.Reporter: Oh, no. Not that again! So who’s the new vice president? It’s not Adams, is it?Analyst: No, no, no. The political parties made sure that didn’t happen again.

In fact, the Democratic-Republicans worked really hard to make sure that Aaron Burr didn’t come in third. They worked so hard that there has been a tie.Reporter: I don’t understand. A tie? Between who? Who is the new president?Analyst: We don’t know yet. It’s either Jefferson or his running mate, Aaron Burr.

The election of 1800 was a rematch between Adams and Jefferson, only now, there were organized political parties trying to influence the outcome. The Federalist Party backed Adams and the Democratic-Republican Party backed Jefferson. Like primary elections today, voting didn’t happen on the same day in each state. Jefferson clearly won the popular vote, and Democratic-Republicans wanted to make sure that when the electors met, his running mate, Aaron Burr, became vice president.

But when the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr had the exact same number of votes. As required by the Constitution, the House of Representatives must vote for president in the case of a tie.

In 1800, Jefferson and Burr tied for president
Alexander Hamilton was an ardent Federalist. In fact, Jefferson’s own party had formed as an opposition movement to Hamilton’s policies as Secretary of the Treasury. So, of course, Hamilton cringed at the idea of a Jefferson presidency. But Hamilton absolutely hated Aaron Burr on a personal level.

Seeing that Congress was about to elect Burr, Hamilton wrote dozens of letters to representatives saying that Burr would be a dictator if he were president. After several days and multiple votes, the House of Representative finally decided the election of 1800, naming Thomas Jefferson as president and Aaron Burr as vice president.The outcome of the election had two interesting ripple effects.

First, the 12th amendment to the Constitution changed the process for selecting the president and vice president. Never again would political rivals be placed in the executive office together. But the personal rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton continued. Four years later, Hamilton again interfered with Burr’s election, this time as governor of New York. Furious, Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and killed him.

The Revolution of 1800

President Jefferson referred to his election as the so-called ‘Revolution of 1800.

‘ He felt that the nation had strayed from the principles that he had penned in the Declaration of Independence and that the patriots had fought so hard to win. He had promised that if he were elected, the Democratic-Republican Party would restore the ideals of the American Revolution. His platform has come to be known as Jeffersonian Democracy.Jefferson: In 1800, the choice is clear. President Adams supports England and the rich industrialists. Thomas Jefferson believes in you: the yeoman farmer, the American. President Adams wants to turn the office of president into the throne of a king.

Thomas Jefferson knows that the federal government is just too big. In a Jefferson administration, the states will rule. The people will rule.

You will rule. In the year 1800, the choice is clear. Thomas Jefferson for President! I’m Thomas Jefferson, and I approve this message.Americans must have agreed with the Democratic-Republicans, since Jefferson’s first term kicked off 24 years of political dominance in the executive and legislative branches of federal government, and his party controlled most states except the Northeast.

The Federalist Party disappeared from national politics. Four Democratic-Republican presidents, starting with Jefferson, extolled the republican virtues of self-government, self-sufficiency, and individual responsibility. In foreign policy, they supported France over Britain. But when it came to core beliefs, Jeffersonian Democracy could be boiled down to one main concept: smaller is better. For example, they believed that small, family-owned farms were the backbone of American society, and they aggressively pursued policies like westward expansion that would encourage even more yeoman farmers to buy and work the land.

Jefferson also preached a belief in a small federal government, saying that nothing should be done at the federal level that realistically could be done at the state or local levels.Of course, Jeffersonian Democracy – like all political movements – had its share of failures, empty promises, and hypocrisy. Of course, the Democratic-Republican presidents had their critics, perhaps most famously in the Supreme Court. And it might be one of history’s worst-kept secrets that Jefferson didn’t exactly live by the ideals he claimed to treasure.

But Thomas Jefferson, for all his flaws, was one of America’s most intelligent, inquisitive, and innovative Founding Fathers. And though he didn’t know exactly how to apply it in his time, he eloquently expressed what has become perhaps America’s most cherished value: that all men are created equal.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. The presidential election of 1800 was the first to include political parties, with President John Adams being supported by the Federalist Party and Vice President Thomas Jefferson backed by the Democratic-Republican Party. In a procedural fluke, the election ended up in an electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr. Though the popular vote and the electors had obviously chosen Jefferson, the office of president had to be decided by the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives.

On the verge of voting against Jefferson out of political rivalry, Federalist Alexander Hamilton convinced Congressmen to oppose Aaron Burr. An angry Burr killed Hamilton in a duel just after the 12th amendment fixed the problem in the electoral procedure. In his so-called ‘Revolution of 1800,’ Jefferson followed one simple political rule: smaller is better. Jeffersonian Democracy especially praised the small, family farm and promoted a smaller federal government. The Federalist Party ended.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain how the election process was different when Jefferson was elected than it is today, and why this created problems in Jefferson’s election
  • Identify Alexander Hamilton and explain his influence in the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800
  • Describe Jeffersonian Democracy and understand why Jefferson called his election the ‘Revolution of 1800’
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