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.

The necessity of turning to the House to choose a president precipitated the election's great crisis. By another quirk of the untried Constitution (which would be later amended also in this respect), the new Congress elected in 1800, overwhelmingly in the hands of Jefferson's party, would not convene until late 1801. The choice between Jefferson and Burr thus fell to the old House, one under the control of the defeated Federalist party. This presented the House and its members with no end of decisions to make, some of them juicily partisan, all of them gravely constitutional. To make matters worse, the outgoing House had to make its choice between early February 1801, when it convened, and March 4, at that time the date on which one administration was required under the Constitution to give way to another.

Under procedures set forth in the Constitution, voting in the House took place by state, each state having a single vote. The House delegations of 8 of the nation's 16 states were solidly in Jefferson's camp, the remaining eight either under Federalist control or evenly split. The trouble was that the votes of an absolute majority of states--in this case--were necessary to elect a president. The Federalists thus saw an opening, not only to make mischief but also, in their view, to save the republic from their opponents. So they decided to hold out to bring in Burr under some kind of agreement. This may seem like an unsurprising, if dangerous, political game today; but in those days such political deals were rare and a deal concerning a presidential election unprecedented.

Federalists were themselves of divided mind. For many of them, however tempting might be the bait of substituting Burr the New Yorker for Jefferson the people's choice, to approach Burr was like courting the devil himself. For Democratic-Republicans, to allow the people's will to be set aside was to invite nothing less than the corruption of the infant constitutional regime.

This doesn't mean that American constitutional government would have ended then and there had Thomas Jefferson been denied office. But it does mean that two possibilities, one putting the nation on a footing with others, the second obnoxious to the Federalists, hung in the air. The first was armed intervention by forces loyal to the Democratic-Republicans in the manner of other regimes, then and now. The governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania refused to deny rumors that, were the people's will thwarted, their militias would march on Washington to enforce it.

The second possibility--and the Federalists' darkest fear--was that the Democratic-Republicans might convene a second constitutional convention. In that event, the constitution emerging from that second convention would have been signally different from the Constitution we know now--and different in ways the Federalists deeply feared: one with a weaker president and court system and a greatly strengthened Congress.

This situation was ideal for some kind of political deal. We'll never know precisely what was suggested to whom in whose name and with what provisions. All involved covered their tracks and denied that any kind of agreement to accede to Jefferson's election was entered into. But some kind of arrangement surely was concluded--one made essential when Burr, while desiring to gain the prize, remained adamant that he wouldn't accept the presidency unless free of obligations to the Federalists.

The arrangement concluded by go-betweens was to assure the Federalists (without Jefferson's saying or writing a word to lend credence to the fact) that Jefferson wouldn't overturn Federalist policies or turn out Federalist officeholders wholesale upon taking office. That tacit understanding was enough to convince one Federalist, in particular, that he should no longer stand in the way of Jefferson's election but, instead, move to end the crisis.

That man was James Bayard of Delaware, his small state's sole congressman. Bayard precipitated Jefferson's election on the 36th House ballot by withholding his vote from Burr and leading a few other Federalists to do so as well, thus allowing Jefferson to be elected by the requisite majority of states. Bayard took this step, he explained, so as "not to hazard the constitution." It was an act, one of the most important and statesmanlike in American history, that effectively put an end to his party's chances of ever winning the presidency or holding a majority in Congress again. By 1825, the Federalist party was effectively dead.

It would be hard to conceive of a more fluent, balanced, and full telling of the election's background and realities than Larson's. I know of no other book devoted to the contest which relates the tale so well. It now becomes the standard account. Larson draws readers along while lucidly supplying the necessary complement of detail about the election's political context and its progress from intraparty scheming to congressional resolution. Not naturally an easy story to relate, Larson tells it with consummate deftness and skill.

But that does not mean that A Magnificent Catastrophe is fully satisfactory as a work of history. And herein lies a problem with so much avowedly popular history--of which this is a fine example--today. An academic historian, Larson is clearly aware of criticisms of academic prose and aims, criticisms that also embody complaints about the ideological positioning and intellectual posturing of much academic history. But to steer clear, as Larson wisely does, of academic quarrels and ideological argument does not require him, like so many other authors of popular history, to forgo an authorial voice or to refrain from advancing any ideas.

Unfortunately, however, A Magnificent Catastrophe lacks both that voice and those ideas. Where and what is Larson's point of view? One has no sense of a historian wrestling with intractable evidence, or asking himself whether the facts themselves don't yield up some questions that need tackling.

Nor does one gain confidence from the absence of references to prior scholarship; Larson seems willful in citing only published manuscript sources but not the work of his colleagues. Furthermore, all is too serene; the facts arrange themselves too easily into a smooth narrative. But smoothness is not a characteristic of history--history in the past or history today. To assume that in the mere telling of a story inheres its full significance is to surrender the historian's perspective, to cede to participants an event's meaning, and to reduce history dangerously close to chronicle.

It's also patronizing. The idea that readers are interested primarily in stories and not in analysis, that they won't accept argument, that they won't devote some intellectual labor to understanding an issue, or aren't intelligent enough to distinguish fact from interpretation, has gained ground in recent years. It doesn't speak well for an author and his publisher to accept these assumptions.

Let's take simply the matter of the "election of 1800." That's what we know it as, and not foolishly so. But doesn't that name embody some hidden propositions that it might be useful to question? Yes, we normally have a single election: The voters vote, and a clear outcome, a winner, results. But in an election like that of 1800 (as of 1824) in which the results are determined not by the voters but, instead, by members of the House of Representatives, two elections, not a single one, take place. Each is governed by different rules pertinent to its distinct institutional arena. The first is a public election contest fought throughout the country under regulations enacted by state authority. The second is confined to a single institution, is governed by House rules enacted for this single event, and is held behind closed doors.

That being the case, a kind of analytical clarity results when these separate contests are treated as separate events. Making the distinction between the two events even more necessary is the fact that, in 1801, the deciding election in the House was unprecedented. No rules, no experience for resolving an electoral tie, could be borrowed from the past. The Constitution was of little help; indeed, because of its many defects--defects that would, in part, be repaired by the 12th Amendment--the Constitution contributed to the electoral crisis in the first place. So did the failure of Congress to anticipate and address through legislation or constitutional amendment some of the problems that were foreseeable.

In addition, no mere narrative of all of these events can itself make clear that the election of 1801 was a critical moment in the constitutional history of the United States. Its resolution in the House saved the Constitution. Had the House not chosen a president by March 4, or not chosen one at all, there are solid grounds for fearing armed intervention or a second constitutional convention. More than that, as Bruce Ackerman has shown with penetrating skill in The Failure of the Founding Fathers (2005), not only the two elections themselves but many of the events leading to them were constitutional in nature, and a series of Supreme Court decisions afterwards owed their significance to issues raised by the election.

Even without addressing Ackerman's arguments, Larson might have engaged his readers in consideration of the larger significance--political, ideological, and cultural, as well as constitutional--of this critical contest. To assert without extensive explanation its importance is to empty the election of anything but its contents as an exciting episode. It surely was more than that.

It is the case, for instance, that Bayard's explanation of his decision to precipitate the election's resolution in the House--that he did not want "to hazard the constitution" by further defying the people's choice--brought into being a new line of constitutional reasoning and decision-making. It is the Constitution itself, rather than any party or any individual, which must be made "to win." To be sure, no single person, no single institution, is free to determine what the Constitution is or means; Americans will come to no unanimous agreement about how the Constitution should best be interpreted so that it "wins." But after 1801, a new standard of constitutionalism had been established, one that would allow the Marshall Court, starting with its Marbury decision in 1803, to issue its great decisions in some comfort that, controversial as these decisions would be, there now existed a broad constituency for which the Court's decrees, announced as constitutional interpretations, would have the authority of legitimacy. The Court could now freely declare that it was protecting the Constitution.

Larson ends with Jefferson's inauguration. That's a pity, because he had the opportunity to reflect on the enduring significance of the contest. That significance was enormous. Small-government, agrarian capitalism became the ideological norm against which American public policy would be measured well into the 20th century. The South gained a chokehold on the presidency and Congress until Lincoln's election took the nation into a new era for all time. Slavery was given 60 years to strengthen itself in the Old South and in the states carved out of the old southwest and across the Mississippi in the Louisiana Territory. The purchase of that vast western terrain by Jefferson's administration in 1803 at a stroke doubled the size of the young nation, greatly enlarged its agricultural might, expanded the areas into which slavery would advance, and set the final stage of the nation's eventual spread from sea to sea. With ideological sustenance from Jefferson and his followers, white manhood suffrage became nearly universal by 1840.

In short, the election of 1800 laid the groundwork for the nation's emergence as a slaveholding, agrarian, democratic, continental colossus.

It thus turned out that, in 1800, the voters, and in February 1801 the members of the House of Representatives, were deciding more than which party and, of the two Democratic-Republicans, which man would occupy the presidency for the next four years. It turned out that James Bayard was doing more than precipitating an outcome that would preserve the integrity of the 1787 Constitution.

Instead, the voters and their congressmen were determining the course of American government, the nature of American culture, the fate of African Americans, and the geographic reach of national authority for much of American history. They could not know that then, but we know it now. A Magnificent Catastrophe would have been better than it is had its author led his readers to contemplate those extraordinary consequences of a single presidential election.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and the author of To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815.

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