Election Anxieties: The Elections of 1800 and 2020

By: Clayton Richards

Another election cycle has come and gone in the United States. The practice of peaceful and efficient transfers of power have been a hallmark of American democracy for most of this nation’s existence, and it has allowed American democracy to survive almost 250 years. While this concept has become a steady part of the political way of life, it was not a concrete principle, but had to be established and put into practice. Many elections have helped create this tradition, but the one that can be credited as being the most impactful in establishing this tradition is the election of 1800, also known as the “Revolution of 1800.” This contested election was the first real test of the American Constitution and electoral system, and what helped prove that the American republican experiment could succeed.   

While the current Constitution is a well known document, it did not create the first American government. This was the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted during the Revolution. Although the Articles helped unite the colonies during the war, they proved to be weak afterwards. During the years after the Revolution, the weak Confederation government teetered between bankruptcy and ineffectiveness, while also dealing with constant threats of disunion and open rebellion. After years on the edge of the abyss, the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts pushed many in the U.S. to call for a new government, which was established in 1789 with the adoption of the current U.S. Constitution. The origins to the election of 1800 can be found in these early years of the new government under President George Washington. Although Washington never joined a political party and wanted to avoid the formation of parties in his government, two “factions” began to form that would evolve into the first parties: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

These two factions developed in the Washington years, and finally emerged as function parties after his retirement in 1797. This caused problems with the election of 1796, due to the way the elections were set up at that time. There was no separate vote for President and Vice President, the person with most electoral votes became President, while the runner up became Vice President. With the development of the Federalists and Republicans, this created a tense situation where John Adams, a Federalist, became President while Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, became his Vice President. The end of the century saw many intense political battles between these two parties as they became more entrenched in their ideologies..

The Election of 1800

The election of 1800 was a rematch of 1796, featuring Jefferson vs. Adams. Each party ran two candidates, with one meant to be the Vice President (each elector cast two votes; one elector would vote for someone else, giving the main candidate a one vote lead). Although the candidates did not campaign for themselves at this time, political mouthpieces and newspapers spread the candidates’ and parties’ platforms while attacking the opposition. The Republicans attacked Adams and the Federalists as being monarchical, elitist, and attacked them for raising taxes and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Federalists in turn attacked the Republicans as dangerous anarchists and Jefferson as a dangerous atheist who would bring the bloodshed of the French Revolution to America. However, while the Republicans generally rallied around Jefferson, the Federalists were a divided party. Washington, although he had never joined, was seen as the head of the party, and his death in 1799 left a vacuum. Although Adams was President, he was not overly popular and a group Federalists, called High or Ultra Federalists, rallied around Alexander Hamilton. Adams and Hamilton despised each other, clashing over how to deal with the escalating tensions with France. Adams was working to send peace envoys to France, while Hamilton, who was in charge of the Army raised in case of open warfare, wanted to use the Army to expand the U.S. into Spanish and French territories in North America, and maybe even to suppress Republican opposition to Federalist policies. Adams eventually won out, sending the envoys to France while also firing Hamilton loyalists from his Cabinet. Adams went into the election with a divided party while Jefferson was riding the opposition wave. It came down to Adams (the would be king) vs Jefferson (the anarchical radical).

Leading up to the elections both parties were fully mobilized. The political newspapers printed scathing propaganda aimed at the opposition, while supporters for each party rallied and brawled in streets across the U.S. Despite this backdrop the election itself went smoothly. However, as the results began to come in, both parties were unsure how to proceed. It became clear that Adams had been beaten in the election by the Republicans, but no one received a majority in the Electoral College. Additionally, the Republican electors had failed to leave one vote off for Jefferson’s Vice President, meaning Jefferson and Aaron Burr were now tied in Electoral College votes. In only its fourth presidential election, the U.S. was forced to look to the Constitution for what to do next. A deadlock like this meant that the election would be sent to the House of Representatives. Although the Federalists held the majority in the House, the Republicans controlled more state delegations (states vote as a block in this instance), but still not enough for the clear majority needed. Since Jefferson and Burr were the only ones tied, no Federalists were considered. This did not stop some Federalists from exploring ways to stay in power. Some suggested delaying the vote past the March 4th inauguration date, which would mean either the president pro tempore of the Senate (if one was elected) or Speaker of the House would be President until December. A small group wanted to invalidate some electoral votes and give the election to Adams outright, while others wanted to support Burr to spur Jefferson and make Burr rely on Federalist support for power. Republicans also were concerned. Their main worry was that Burr had not stepped aside from the election, but he hadn’t said he wanted the presidency either. He was taking a wait and see approach to this election to save his political career no matter what happened, but this approach was causing tension to mount among the Republicans. As the February 1801 House election approached, both sides continued to weigh their options.

Tensions Rise

As the House met in February both sides were discussing their options. The Federalists were divided between those who wished to find a way to hold onto power and those who wanted to make the best of the current situation. Adams virtually disappeared after his defeat, so Hamilton led the Federalist efforts in Congress. Jefferson was meanwhile trying to figure out how to secure the necessary votes while dealing with Federalist demands and Burr’s unexpected challenge. In this tense environment, anxieties and conspiracy theories ran rampant. Rumors spread that the Federalists meant to assassinate Jefferson while both sides accused the other of starting two random fires in Washington D.C. Threats of violence were commonplace among this turmoil. Several Federalist Representatives received threatening notes or had their houses pelted by stones. Republicans also threatened that if Jefferson’s election was delayed or taken away, they would call for a new constitutional convention, looking to reorganize and amend the current government and make it more “democratic.” Most concerning was the news coming from Virginia and Pennsylvania, two of the strongest Republican states. The governors of both states sent messages to Jefferson stating that their militias were ready in case he was denied the election and took steps to make sure their militias were properly prepared. The Federalists also had their backers, with newspapers claiming that the militias of New England were prepared to meet any threat of force from Virginia and Pennsylvania. Although these threats of violence never came as close to happening as either side believed, many felt that disunion and civil war were inevitable unless something gave way.

Luckily, in this tense environment, calmer heads prevailed. For a week in the capital, the votes in the House were deadlocked. Jefferson was unable to secure the majority of states needed to become President. Working behind the scenes, Hamilton warned other Federalists that in his mind Jefferson was the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr. Some Federalists were willing to throw their support to Jefferson on the condition that he continued certain Federalist policies, mainly their financial program, the navy, and assurances that not all Federalists officeholders would be dismissed. This was the best-case scenario in the mind of many Federalists. Finally, on the 36th vote by the House, some Federalist delegations abstained from voting, leaving the final tally at 10 states for Jefferson, 4 for Burr, and 2 abstaining. This majority finally gave Jefferson the win, making him President of the United States.

The rest of the election process in 1801 was uneventful compared to the previous few months. Jefferson and the Republicans took power in March while Adams and the Federalists left office peacefully, although bitter over their loss. There was no civil war, no mass upheaval. The Revolution of 1800 was peaceful and showed that the American system of democracy could work effectively under intense pressures (although the 12th Amendment in 1804 made sure the votes for President and Vice President were cast separately, making the process smoother). Despite all the threats and allegations thrown out by each party, neither had attempted to use violence to either overturn or force the election results. This principle has been a cornerstone since 1800 and has helped American democracy thrive. While this election did show the possible dangers of contested elections, it also demonstrated how democracy survives in a republic and what we as Americans must do to make sure that it continues and prospers in our country.   

Further Readings:

Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. https://www.amazon.com/Adams-vs-Jefferson-Tumultuous-Election/dp/019518906X

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. https://www.amazon.com/American-Revolutions-Continental-History-1750-1804/dp/0393082814

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. https://www.amazon.com/Empire-Liberty-History-Republic-1789-1815/dp/0199832463

Sharps, James Roger. American Politics in the Early Republic. https://www.amazon.com/American-Politics-Early-Republic-Nation/dp/0300065191

For a brief overview of America’s other contested elections, read this recent Time Magazine Article: https://time.com/5903361/contested-election-history/  

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