The Election of 1800 was the first time in human history that power transferred from one political faction to another without the use of bloodshed. Yet the birthing was anything but painless. It nearly led to Civil War, but for the choice of one man.
The Founders had not planned for the people's voice to be heard in the selection of the president. However in the nation's second contested presidential election, the popular vote was crucial to the outcome. The Republicans had carried four of the five states where the electors were chosen by popular vote. Jefferson remarked that something "new under the sun" had happened in the election of 1800, the president of the United States had been chosen by "the suffrage of the people." The "nation declared its will," he added. He also remarked that a "mighty wave of public opinion" had determined the election outcome. Even giving Jefferson some hyperbole, he was right, and the people at the time realized as much. As one historian has noted, "the people who lived through the election of 1800 thought something momentous had just occurred." They believed that the people of the United States had peacefully ousted the president of the United States.
The election ending in a tie in 1800 exposed a massive flaw in the Constitutional procedure for electing presidents. The problem arose because the framers, having failed to foresee the emergence of political parties, gave each presidential elector two votes. The Framers had expected that it would be commonplace for no one to win in the electoral college. The Framers anticipated that the electoral college would in fact would often serve as a nominating panel that selected candidates who the House of Representatives would choose the president. The Constitution outlined the procedure that would be used to elect the president in case of a tie.
"if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have 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 Representative from each State having on Vote."
That passage and existing law, brought several things about the election of 1800 into focus. The House was to decide between Jefferson and Burr. Also the States were to be equal in the House's balloting, each having one vote. This meant that all states with a multi-member delegation, all but tiny Delaware, would have to come to a decision on what its vote would be. The Constitution and election law stipulated that the votes of the electoral college were to be counted in the Senate on the second Wednesday in February and that the House was to act "immediately" to decide an unresolved election.
In 1800 the Union was made up of sixteen states, if each voted, that is, if none abstained, the votes of nine states would be needed to elect the president. The Republicans controlled eight delegations and the Federalists six, with two states deadlocked. One of those was Maryland, whose eight congressmen consisted of five Federalists and three Republicans, but one of the Federalists announced his intention of voting for Jefferson, while his four party members were committed to Burr due to their long time hatred of Jefferson.
Before Christmas there was talk of holding a second national election, but not only did the Constitution say nothing about such a procedure, the general thinking was that the Federalists has little to gain from another vote. At the beginning of January James Madison offered two commonsense solutions for breaking the deadlock. One was for the current House to adjourn in February and for President Adams to call a special session of the newly elected Seventh Congress to meet at noon on March 4th, Inauguration Day, the instant that his and the Sixth Congress's terms expired. From his perspective the beauty of this was that the new Congress would be dominated by Republicans assuring Jefferson's election. The second would be for the House to take one vote to determine if it is deadlocked, after which at noon March 4th Jefferson and Burr would jointly call the newly elected House into a special session. Jefferson ignored Madison's brainstorms.
However, if the president wasn't selected by noon on March 4th, when Adams' term ended, the country would be without a Chief Executive for nine months until the recently elected Congress convened, as was prescribed by the Constitution. Jefferson, even though he wasn't interested in Madison's ideas, approached Burr in hopes of finding a solution. He wrote Burr a letter that suggested that if the New Yorker accepted the vice-presidency, he would be given greater responsibilities than previous vice-presidents had been given. Burr responded quickly and reassuringly, He spoke of "your administration" and seem to ask what authority Jefferson was ready to grant him, and appeared to be asking for a cabinet position as well. He swore that he would do nothing to "take a single vote" from Jefferson, or do anything to divide the Republican Party.
During this time the Federalists were discussing their option. Some thought tying up the House proceedings to prevent the election of either Jefferson or Burr. With no one occupying the presidency the rules of succession would kick in between March and December, leaving Theodore Sedgwick, a Massachusetts Federalist, the Speaker of the House as president through the balance of the year. This worried Jefferson to the point that he attended every Senate session in January and February to be on hand if he needed to vote to break a tie on this idea. Some Federalists considered using their House majority to invalidate several votes in the electoral college on technical grounds, a step that would make Adams the winner. Questions did exist about alleged voting irregularities in South Carolina and Georgia, but the evidence was thin. The idea of aborting the election of the Republican candidates was certain to bring on a crisis of alarming proportions that few congressmen were eager to face.
Another group of Federalists urged the party to throw its support behind Burr. Speaker Sedgwick championed this, even though he hardly was a fan of Burr. Sedgwick considered Burr as an "unworthy," "selfish," immoral megalomaniac. However he saw Burr, a native New Yorker, as experienced in politics of a mercantile state and more receptive than Jefferson to the notion of a strong national government. He reasoned that Burr would understand the needs of merchants and a far better bet than Jefferson to "justly appreciate the benefits resulting from commercial and other national systems," that had been put in place by Hamilton and Washington. Burr, said Sedgwick was the lesser of two evils, a scoundrel to be sure, but "a mere matter-of-fact man" who "holds no pernicious theories" beyond gaining personal power, and who had no romantic ties to any foreign nation.
Hamilton preferred Jefferson, he saw him as less of a curse than Burr. In January he characterized Burr as "the most unfit man in the U.S. for the office of President." "As to Burr there is nothing in his favour." Burr was "without Scruple," a morally bankrupt and "unprincipled,,,voluptuary" who would plunder the country. He was dangerously ambitious and when his enterprise was combined both with his daring and his "infinite are cunning and address," Burr had the potential to become a deadly menace. What Burr sought, Hamilton insisted, was "permanent power," and if he became president, he might destroy the Constitution and erect in its stead a "system,,sufficient to serve his own turn." Put Burr in the President's House, Hamilton maintained, and the result would be "Disgrace abroad (and) ruin at home," for "if he had any theory tis that of simple despotism." Hamilton admitted that he would relish the opportunity to "contribute to the disappointment and mortification of Mr. Jefferson" whose democratic "politics are tinctured with fanaticism" and whose character was shot through with hypocrisy, however Burr was the one man he could not support. Jefferson was "able," Burr was "dexterous"; Jefferson was "wise," Burr was "cunning." Jefferson had tempered his Francophillia and, thought misguided, was committed to the Constitution; Burr stood for nothing save personal aggrandizement, in short, Burr was the "most dangerous man of the Community."
Hamilton suggest to the Federalists to reach out to Jefferson and Burr to strike a deal. No stranger to backroom bargaining, he urged the Federalists to seek the following assurances; "1. The support of the present fiscal system. 2. An adherence to the present neutrality plan. 3. The preservation and gradual increase of the Navy. 4. The keeping in office all our Foederal Friends except" the cabinet secretaries. This had two advantages in Hamilton's mind. One is it could start to a contest between the two rivals that might actually tear the Republican Party apart. Two that it might secure and agreement that would permit much of the Federalists programs to survive. However Hamilton spoke that if Burr was the one who took this deal, "he will laugh in his sleeve while he makes them and he will break them the first moment in may serve his purpose." On the other hand, Jefferson, who had made the Compromise of 1790 with Hamilton on funding and assumption of the State's debt, would adhere to any accommodation reached.
There were hardly any secrets in Washington D.C., a very small town, were often up to thirty Congressmen and Senators would share the dinner table each evening in boarding houses and hotels where they stayed. Some of the rumors that flew about were that there were those in the Federalists who sought to assassinate Jefferson, in the fevered climate many Republicans believed this rumor. In the aftermath of a recent slave revolt in Virginia some Southern Republicans were willing to believe the rumor that the Federalists had armed rebellious slaves. Also many believed that Federal official, who of course were Federalist, had seized arms and artillery from local militia units, presumably so they could maintain control of the government of the United States by force if necessary. A Jeffersonian in Philadelphia reported early in February that at "no time that I can remember since 1776" have so many concluded that opposition to the national government "is a duty and obedience a crime." If the Federalists prevented the accession of a Republican to the presidency, he added that "day is the first day of a revolution and Civil War."
When two separate fires damaged the new War Department and Treasury Department buildings, one in November the other in January, some Republicans concluded that these were arson to keep incriminating documents from falling into the hands of the incoming administration. This was hardly likely, at that time all the papers held by the federal government could have been burnt in and average sized fireplace, but there were Republicans who believed the worst and wondered if the Federalists would go this far to keep Republicans from gaining control.
The Republican press leaped to the offensive, especially assailing the Federalist plans to thwart the will of the presidential electors. Albert Gallatin, the senator from Pennsylvania that Jefferson had already asked to be Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that the Republicans give way to letting the Federalists hold power until December of 1801, but in the interim all Republican states should nullify any Federalist laws that Congress enacted. Equally ominously, Jefferson make it known to some Federalists, including President Adams, that if the Federalists attempted "to defeat the Presidential election," it would "produce resistance by force, and incalculable consequences." Privately, however, there were times when Jefferson appeared ready to give up and go home. Virtually everyone in the capital exuded "bad passions of the heart," he complained, and many of the Federalists not only hated him but were of the "violent kind."
Jefferson's problems with the Federalists turned out to be just part of his challenge. After Burr's earlier promise to not strive for the presidency, he had a change of heart once he learned that he had a real shot of winning. Rumors buzzed that Burr was encouraging his Republican friends to seek allies among the Federalists and build a coalition that would result in his election.
Many Federalist were rallying behind Hamilton's bargain he had proposed for one of the candidates to accept holding the Federalists demands for their support. Jefferson mentioned that he had been approached several times on this idea, and had been assured if he would accept it the election would be his "in an instant." If he accepted this list of agreements Vermont Congressman Lewis Morris, would switch his vote to Jefferson giving him the nine states needed for victory. However, Jefferson rejected this deal saying he "should never go into the office of President by capitulation, nor with my hands tied by any conditions which should hinder me from pursuing the measures" he preferred.
Jefferson was playing a high risk game. Like President Adams who deplored the carnival of "Party intrigue and corruption" afoot in the capital, he knew there were men in both parties on the make. Jefferson believed that "Burr has agents at work," who were dickering with Congressmen from both parties, and he suspected bribes had been offered.
After we have witnessed today the bribes and pressure put on members of the House and Senate to pass Health Care, can you begin to imagine the pressure put on these men to determine the president? The man who was the biggest target was James Bayard, the lone congressman from Delaware. He held in his hands the sole determination of how his state would vote. He was a hard core ideologue Federalist, who championed the Alien and Sedition Act. He held all Southern slave holders with contempt as hypocrites who "counted in their train a hundred slaves," lived "like feudal barons," and looked on their neighbors as "the humblest vassals" while posturing as the "high priests of liberty." Early on he announced that he would vote for Burr, the lesser of the evils and most likely to consent to maintain the Federalist program.
On the appointed day, February 11th the vote totals were read in the Senate by the President of the Senate, the Vice President Thomas Jefferson. This was treated as what it was, a formality, once done the House members quickly move to their chamber. Two days earlier they had agreed to stay in session until the election was decided and take up no other business until the president was elected. Even though there was a major snow storm that day, it didn't effect attendance. Only one of the 105 members was not present, and his absence wouldn't effect his state's delegation. One congressman had gone to great effort to be there. Joseph Nicholson, a thirty year old Maryland representative who was seriously ill, knew his attendance would be crucial. A Republican, Nicholson arrange to have friends carry him on a stretcher through the swirling snow from his home two miles away. His wife accompanied him and remained by his side as he lay on a pallet in the anteroom. Each vote Nicholson wrote Jefferson on his ballot and his wife carried it to Speaker Sedgwick to be counted.
The House wasted no time, within in minutes the votes were cast and counted. Sedgwick announced the outcome; Jefferson eight, Burr six, two states (Maryland and Vermont) deadlocked. Jefferson was one state short of victory. The House immediately voted again, allowing no time for "out of doors" maneuvers. Nothing changed. Then another vote, and another throughout the long afternoon. By six p.m., nearly five hours later fifteen ballots had been taken, all the same result. They broke for dinner, they returned two hours later and voting resumed immediately. No change. The fast re-votes gave way to longer breaks allowing for bargaining to take place. Only four votes were taken in that seven hour evening session, the last the nineteenth was counted at three in the morning. No change, they broke for the day agreeing to reconvene again at noon, nine hours away.
They voted only once on Thursday, no change. They voted twice on Friday, and three times on Saturday, no change in tallies. The House had cast thirty three ballots in four days. While the House was idle on Sunday, the members were very busy.
Warnings had been commonplace for weeks that drastic steps might be taken if the Federalists denied the Republicans, or Jefferson, the presidency. After four days of gridlock in the House, the threats seemed more real. Talk swirled that Virginia would secede if Jefferson wasn't elected. The Republicans threatened to call another Constitutional Convention and dismantle the current Constitution "to re-organize the government, and to amend it," until it more reflected the proper "democratical spirit of America." Threats of the use of force were heard as well. Governor Monroe, threatened to convene the Virginia legislature if Jefferson wasn't elected, with a threat of Virginia using force to see Jefferson in office. Some were aware that Monroe was in contact with Republican governor, Thomas McKean, about having Pennsylvania acting in concert with Virginia should the need arise. McKean, in fact told Jefferson that he could arm twenty thousand militiamen and was prepared to use force. Rumors were rampant that Republicans in the mid-Atlantic states would take up arms if the Federalists didn't relinquish power on March 4th.
Jefferson kept the heat on full boil, sometimes pleading that he could not restrain his supporters and alternately warning that the provocative actions of the Federalists threatened "a dissolution" of the Union. President Adams was one who was shaken, he later confessed that at the time he had believed the two sides had come to the "precipice" of disaster and that "a civil war was expected."
Beyond these threats to the nation, there appeared to be incidents aimed at intimidating carefully targeted Federalists. A French informant in Washington reported that between the last ballot on Saturday and the resumption of voting on Monday, "two Federalist members of the House received anonymous notes threatening them with death if they did not vote according to the will of the people." He added that "stones were thrown against the houses where other representatives of the same party were living." (Federalists)
The first break in the election took place sometime after Saturday's last vote. Delaware congressman Bayard, knowing full well that he had in his power to terminate the contest, made an overture. He opted to see if he could arrange a deal that would enable him to abandon Burr and allow Jefferson's election. He sought out a Republican who was close to the vice president, almost certainly John Nicholas, a member of Virginia's House delegation, and proposed a bargain. If Jefferson would accept Hamilton's list Baynard would abstain from voting, taking the magic number to eight that Jefferson would need to win. Nicholas responded that these conditions were "very reasonable" and that he could vouch for Jefferson's acceptance. However, he didn't approach Jefferson with this offer. Later Bayard told Speaker Sedgwick of what transpired, who told him not to tell anyone until after the Federalist could caucus and consider it.
On Sunday February 15th, Sedgwick called the congressional Federalist to a closed door caucus. When Bayard's decision was announced it alit a firestorm. Cries of "Traitor, Traitor!" met Bayard, who described the meeting as one which the "clamor was prodigious. The reproaches vehement." The Speaker broke the meeting to give time for heads to cool and called another meeting for that evening. Not much is known of what happened, it was a secret session and it's secrets remain. However, it appears two decisions were made. Since letters from Burr were expected any day, Bayard agreed not to change his vote until the contents of Burr's letters were known. Second, the caucus directed Bayard to ask Nicholas to speak with Jefferson and secure his assent to the bargain. It was thought in a day or two they would know who of Burr or Jefferson would agree to the most.
Bayard's second conversation with Nicholas proved fruitless, Nicholas refused to meet with Jefferson on the deal. However, Bayard didn't give up. He then sought out Samuel Smith, the Maryland Republican who was close to Jefferson, as a fellow border at Conrad and McMunn's, and was widely viewed as Jefferson's spokesman. Smith agreed to meet with Jefferson and to get back with Bayard the following morning with his answer. On Monday morning Bayard later recollected, Smith, "informed me that he had seen Mr. Jefferson, and stated to him the points mentioned, and was authorized by him to say that they corresponed with his views and intentions, and that we may confide in him accordingly." The deal was made, at least to Bayard's satisfaction. Unless Burr offered more, Jefferson would be the next president of the United States.
On Monday at noon the house voted two more times, the thirty fouth and thirty fifth times. No change had occurred, after an hour or so, they adjourned for the day. Sometime that day the letter from Burr arrived, what Burr said remains a mystery, but must not have satisfied the Federalists. That evening Bayard told his wife that Burr "was determined not to shackle himself with federal principles." That same Monday evening Speaker Sedgwick, who passionately hated Jefferson, notified friends at home: "the gig is up." Jefferson was to be the next president.
On Tuesday at noon the thirty sixth vote was cast. This one was dramatically different. Delaware didn't vote, which in itself was sufficient to elect Jefferson. In addition, however, none of the Federalists from Maryland, Vermont, and South Carolina cast votes. This altered voting put Maryland and Vermont in Jefferson's column. Jefferson won 10 states to Burr's 4 with 2 abstaining.
Jefferson had won, peace was held, the worlds first peaceful transistion of power was accomplished. Had he won through a bargain with the Federalist Party? He always insisted that the allegations that he had entered into a deal was "absolutely false." The evidence suggests otherwise. Within days of the election Burr was told by friends that Jefferson had struck a bargain to win the presidency. Jefferson's actions as president give credence to the allegations that a bargain was made. Despite having fought against the Hamiltonian economic system for nearly a decade, Jefferson never touched the Bank of the United States, faithfully discharging the national debt, and tolerating continued borrowing by the federal government. Nor did he remove any Federalist office holders. His actions would prompt some friend sto suspect that he had made a deal with the Federalists.
Whatever happened behind those close doors aside the result was the most important election in all of mankind. Once again as we study our past we are seeing how we must learn for our present. We are now in a time more like we see here in this story of 1800 than at any point in history between.