Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Peaceful Transfer of Power, That Almost Never Was.

The presidential election of 1800 proved to be the most important in the history of mankind. It was the very first peaceful transfer of power from one faction or party to another anywhere in the world. Before that moment power only transferred to those from the same group of belief system peacefully, and change in power was always accompanied by blood. However, this election did not come about without great birthing pains, and was nearly still born.

This story is the topic of several excellent books, to uncover all the back stories and electioneering that the two new American political parties waged against each other would take much more space than I can allocate here. I recommend if you have an interest to read for yourself. However, I will attempt to set the stage.

The election of 1800 was really begun during the election of 1796, the first truly contested race with the emergence of party politics. In it John Adams the Federalist continued in the power the Federalists had held for the previous eight years under George Washington with Adams as Vice-President. For the first time the opposition parties candidate, Thomas Jefferson, was elected as Vice-President.

The two parties vilified their opponents with wild accusations. Jefferson was painted as the Jacobian candidate who was such a Francophile that he would entangle us with the affairs of France at the expense of the United States. That he longed for war with Great Britain. That the object of the Republican Party under his leadership was to British rulers and assist the French. He was painted as anti-Constitution, and anti-business, warnings arose that if Jefferson was elected the nation would split along into two warring nations along the Hudson river. These were the nicest things being said about him.

Adams was under attack by the Republican press and campaign that he was a Monarchist who wanted to turn America into a British system with hereditary rights to rule. His signature on the Alien and Sedition Act was rightly attacked. Adams however, was treated more kindly by the Republican press than he was by the defacto leader of his own party, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton published a 54 page attack called "The Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams." The Aurora newspaper called it "the most gross and libelous charges against Mr. Adams that have ever yet to be published or heard of." Hamilton wasted little time in informing his readers that "there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit Adams for any high office."

Many people in both parties thought Hamilton;s spray of venom was the product of a "fevered mind," and many concluded that it "revealed that he had become an inept politician." Some historians believe that Hamilton wrote the letter as a cagey attempt to ensure Jefferson's election. The Federalists might then regroup as an opposition party as the Nationalists had done after the Revolution and reemerge stronger than ever in 1804. Hamilton gave credence to this theory, for immediately after the Federalists election disaster incurred in New York leading up to the 1800 election, he exclaimed he preferred Jefferson's election over Adams. "If we must have an enemy at the head of government, let it be one whom we can oppose and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures." We heard the same argument being made by many in the GOP two hundred and eight years later regarding McCain and Obama.

However, I would contend that Hamilton did it for an altogether different reason. Hamilton hated to lose, and his actions normally resulted from carefully calculated strategic planning. He knew that he would have no influence in an administration headed by Jefferson, Adams, or Burr. Hamilton was used to and longed for that power he held during the eight years of George Washington, as Washington's most trusted and respected council. Hamilton had held Washington's ear since the days he was Aide de Camp for Washington during the Revolution. He held great sway as Secretary of the Treasury under Washington's first term, and he hand picked Washington's entire Cabinet for the second term with those totally loyal to Hamilton over anyone. Adams kept Washington's second cabinet, probably his biggest mistake of his presidency, but finally became furious with their total commitment to Hamilton over anything else and fired them, shutting the door to Hamilton's access to power.

I would contend that Hamilton's goal with the letter was, while risky, hardly irrational. He sought a three pronged strategy . First to ensure that Adams would not win in the electoral college, and his pamphlet was aimed at planting sufficient doubts about the president's character in the minds of the electors that one or two would turn from him. Second Hamilton sought electoral votes for Charles Pinckney. In 1796 eighteen New England electors who voted for Adams had withheld their second vote from Charles's brother, Thomas Pinckney. Hamilton went to New England in 1800 to campaign for the electors to cast their second vote for Pinckney, he knew it would be impossible to get those in New England to vote against Adams. If he could succeed in getting all those in New England to vote for Adams and Pinckney, and could get those in South Carolina to vote for Pinckney and Adams, the odds were good that the two Federalists would beat Jefferson and Burr, but finish in a tie. This is where the third leg of Hamilton's strategy came into play. His letter especially targeted the House who would decide the election in the event of a tie. His Letter was written in the fashion of a legal brief, it cataloged Adams' unworthiness while it expounded on Pinckney's strengths. Hamilton knew that Pinckney would count heavily on Hamilton's "wisdom and experience" to help guide him through his presidency, once again putting Hamilton in the center of power.

The election of 1800 unfolded in stages, electoral contests were scattered throughout the year, although most were slated for early autumn. The state legislators, including those elected in 1800, held enormous power over that years presidential election. For one thing, they chose the presidential electors in eleven of the sixteen states. Only five states were the electors chosen by popular vote. In many of the states the legislators could also decide if it would be a winner take all approach for the electors as well.

On Election Day, December 3rd, the presidential elector, according to the Constitution, were to "meet in their respective States, ad vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves." The electoral college ballots, by law, were not to be opened and officially counted until February 11th, but there was no chance that the outcome of the contest could be kept secret for ten weeks. In fact, within a day or two of Election Day the residents of the capital knew the vote totals for Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. By December 12th the National Intelligencer, a Washington newspaper, broke the news that neither Adams or Pinckney had received a single vote in South Carolina. Basing it's story on credible reports from thirteen of the sixteen states, only Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky were not heard from, all strong Republican states, the journal declared Jefferson and Burr the winners. Since the party had decided that Jefferson was their first choice, the newspaper added:
"Mr. Jefferson may, therefore, be considered our future President." Jefferson likewise thought that the case. Upon reading the National Intellegencer' scoop, he confided to his son-in-law that he believed he had been elected straightaway, as he continued to think that one or two votes would have been withheld from Burr in Georgia. "I believe we may consider the election is now decided," he happily remarked.

Mr. Jefferson was wrong though. When Georgia was heard from, it was learned that each of its electors had cast his two ballots for Jefferson and Burr and they had tied with seventy three votes apiece. This election could have gone either way with just a vote here or there in different states. Adams was the first presidential candidate to fall victim to the notorious three-fifths clause in the Constitution. Had slaves not been counted in the apportionment of state representation in the electoral college, Adams would have edged Jefferson by two votes. However, the flaw in the original idea of electing a president now would soon be seen as they tried to break the first and only tie.

Adams and Pinckney were beaten, yet this election remained undecided. Jefferson and Burr had tied with seventy-three votes each. Public opinion, as best as can be gauged suggested that it sided with Jefferson. Not only had he been the party's choice in the nominating caucus, but as Federalist Gouverneur Morris remarked,"it is evidently the Intention of our fellow Citizens to make Mr. Jefferson the President."

One formidable obstacle to Jefferson's election loomed. The Republicans lacked the voters in the House to elect either Jefferson or Burr. The Federalists would hold the hammer, and to some that influence offered enormous temptations.

There would be a second election day held in the House on February the 11th, and the inauguration was scheduled for March 4th. Those next few weeks found this young nation on the brink of war with itself. The peaceful transfer of power we are so accustomed to now was nearly something that never happened. We will discuss the next few days and their drama in my next blog, it is evident that just setting the stage was more than enough information for today.


  1. Ding dang, Jim, it's a cliff hanger, alright!!!

  2. Wouldn't it be nice if they taught this in schools?