The Magazine

Down to the Wire

If you think 2000 was a cliffhanger, try 1800.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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A Magnificent Catastrophe

The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign

by Edward J. Larson

Free Press, 352 pp., $27

No mere narrative of what we call the election of 1800 can capture that contest's place in the history of the United States.

For one thing, the election produced, and then resolved, the most critical constitutional crisis between the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and the Civil War. For another, it turned out to be one of the very few epochal elections in American history. Only the elections of 1828, 1876, and 1932 equaled it in importance, and only the election of 1860 surpassed it in significance. What's more, it was one of but two presidential contests, the other being that of 1824, to be decided in the House of Representatives. (Two others had to be decided by recourse to institutions the Founders didn't contemplate getting involving in electoral matters: For the election of 1876 a specially constituted electoral commission; for the election of 2000 the Supreme Court.)

This critical election--not just for president but for the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate--concluded the opening decade of government under the infant Constitution of 1787. That decade had seen the emergence of political clubs and political parties, then called "factions"--although these parties were nothing like the organized institutions we know today. Open, competitive campaigns for public office had made their appearance. Turmoil over excise taxes--the Whiskey and Fries's rebellions--had interrupted domestic tranquility and occasioned the dispatch of federal troops into Pennsylvania. Fear of the spread of sedition and of foreign immigrants arriving on American shores had led to passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

While George Washington's two administrations, and John Adams's single one, had laid the foundations for America's economic stability, temporarily settled important outstanding issues with Great Britain, and ended an undeclared naval war with France, the threat of foreign military intervention and economic warfare continued to hang over the nation's affairs. Above all else, the United States found itself, after the Bastille's fall in 1789, a republic in a revolutionary world, a world torn by radical ideas, marching armies, preying navies, and two powerful nations (Great Britain, France) waiting to bind American trade and territory to their own interests or, failing that, to threaten American independence directly.

Little wonder, then, that, given the untried history of republican government over an extended republic, Americans were deeply apprehensive that the nation might not survive. Their anxieties freighting each event with heavy significance, they tended to interpret each act of government or each partisan affray as tolling the knell of American liberties or America's independent existence.

So when Vice President Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams for the presidency in 1800, and in effect threatened to put an end to the opening phase of American government under Washington's stewardship and Adams's succeeding presidency, the Federalists, who considered themselves Washington's true followers and legatees, saw the republic's demise around the corner. And not surprisingly, when Jefferson emerged victorious in the battle for the nation's electoral votes, they sank into despond--except, that is, for the chance the election's outcome offered for their continuance in power. And therein lies the nub of the tale.

It requires a book like this to cover the election's complexities. But in a nutshell, here's what occurred: When, in late 1800, the balloting for president--which in the nation's early years involved a diverse set of practices and took place over many months and not on a single, national Election Day as it does now--had ended, the Democratic-Republican ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had narrowly edged out Adams and his running mate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in the tally for electoral votes.

In gaining the most votes in the electoral college, however, the winning duo's party had been too disciplined and lacking in foresight. Because all electors pledged to their party had cast an equal number of votes for each man, Jefferson and Burr ended up with the same number of electoral votes. Consequently, neither man having been designated by electors as presidential and vice-presidential candidates on the Democratic-Republican ticket (subsequently required by the 12th Amendment, enacted to avoid a repeat of this crisis), the choice between the two men fell to the House of Representatives.