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Who’s on First?

The year Delaware made history.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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The Deadlocked Election of 1800
Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance
by James Roger Sharp
Kansas, 239 pp., $34.95

Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson

Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson

Getty / SuperStock

On my shelves stand six studies of the presidential election of 1800, two more than James Roger Sharp cites in this most recent and substantial of them. There may be more. Why so many? The election was, as Sharp writes, “one of the two great political and constitutional crises in our nation’s history” and, because of its cast of leading characters (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and many others who fill the roster of the nation’s founders), among the most memorable. In addition, the election set the course of American development long afterwards, and we debate public affairs today in terms never entirely free of those of that era.

But other reasons lie behind the endless flow of these studies, of which Sharp’s ought to be the capstone. One is the relentless pulse of the publishing industry and the apparent need of so many publishers to have their own series of individual works on each presidential election and each president. Another is the inability of historians (as well as of their readers) to break free of the American measurement of historical time—a calendar cemented in our minds around quadrennial presidential elections. Not that, in our fixation on presidential terms, we’re different from peoples who measure their lives by monarchies (the Edwardian Era, for instance) or dynasties (say, the Ming). But try as historians occasionally do to calibrate American history by such major developments as changes in capitalism (industrial and technological growth, say), or the spread of democracy (women’s and African Americans’ rights are examples), they—all of us, really—succumb to the regularities of our politics and mark the nation’s days in presidential terms. And so there appear many books, probably too many, like this one.

Because of its particular qualities—comprehensiveness, balance, and readability above all—Sharp’s work ought to be the last, at least for awhile, about the election of 1800 (actually, the two elections of 1800 and 1801, which is what Sharp’s story is all about). There’s little more to be said, and new evidence is unlikely to be found. Yet even if this isn’t the last word, a reader can be confident that it’s now the best.

The double election of 1800-01 compels our attention for two reasons: It was distinctive, and it was epochal. It was one of the only two presidential elections in American history to be resolved by the House of Representatives, the second being the election of 1824. (Two others, for different reasons, were resolved by different means, the election of 1876 by a special commission, the election of 2000 by the Supreme Court.) The election also marked the opening of a new stage in the nation’s history, a stage, one can argue, that has never closed.

The troubles of 1800 and 1801 arose from an Electoral College tie—not, as one might expect, between the opposing presidential candidates, incumbent Adams and vice president Jefferson, but between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. The Constitution’s framers hadn’t provided for the rapid emergence of political parties in the 1790s. So the young frame of government didn’t yet require (as it soon would by the 12th Amendment) that electors distinguish between presidential and vice presidential candidates when they cast their electoral votes. More pertinently, Jefferson and Burr’s young Democratic-Republican party had failed to arrange for even a single elector to withhold his electoral vote from Burr, the presumptive vice presidential candidate, and so Jefferson and Burr had received the same number of electoral votes. Under the terms of the Constitution, the electoral tie between the two men had to be resolved by the House of Representatives. The difficulty lay in the fact that the House was in Federalist hands and would remain so until the newly elected 7th Congress met in December 1801 (another quirk in the Constitution, one not to be remedied until 1934). As a result, the Federalist-controlled 6th Congress would have to select the new president from the two candidates of the opposition Democratic-Republican party. And the decision had to be reached in time for Inauguration Day on March 4, 1801.

Yet the fact that the Federalists constituted the majority in the House in the 6th Congress did not alone create the deadlock that eventuated in 36 tense House ballots being necessary to make Jefferson president. Rather, the cause of the problem was the constitutional requirement that such deadlock-resolving votes be taken in the House by states, not by individual congressmen, and that a majority of states decide the outcome. Had votes been tallied by individual congressmen, Jefferson would easily and quickly have won election. Instead, only eight of the necessary nine state delegations (out of 16 voting) were firmly in Republican hands. An additional state was needed to put Jefferson in office. Here’s where the Federalists could make mischief, and mischief they purposefully made.

Sharp tells this complex story with great clarity. He’s particularly good at describing how many Federalists saw in the tied electoral vote the chance to defy popular sentiment in Jefferson’s favor; how Burr first repelled, then dallied with, and finally rejected the lure of some kind of Federalist conditional support for his election to the presidency; and how, to resolve the electoral crisis in Jefferson’s favor on the 36th ballot, some kind of understandings were probably reached (although Sharp isn’t as convinced on this point as I am) between self-appointed representatives of Jefferson and a few Federalists—understandings that Jefferson would not make wholesale removals of Federalists holding federal office, and would not try to dismantle elements of the nation’s financial system. It’s a story filled with natural drama and events carrying huge historical weight. No one who reads this book will ever think otherwise.

It would have been easy enough for Sharp to isolate the election from its surroundings. Fortunately, a noted scholar of the critical earlier decade of the 1790s, he is a contextualist par excellence. He points out, for example, that only recently had the federal government moved south from Philadelphia and thus exposed its officeholders for the first time to the raw, unrefined community that the federal capital then was and long remained. Coming on top of the sulphurous political rancor of the preceding decade—rancor no less permeating than today’s—the government’s move to the banks of the Potomac seems to have formed a permanent part of Americans’ political DNA, to say nothing of the general bad mood into which it cast members of Congress. Starting then, with good enough reason to belittle the place of their service, officeholders began to attack the government in which they had agreed to serve. Those who now believe that their detestation of “Washington” is a sentiment they’ve come to out of native genius might remind themselves that it’s a stale charge when it isn’t disingenuous.

The capital’s mood was in no way lightened by the recent slave uprising in nearby Richmond. Gabriel’s Rebellion had been put down easily enough, but the unappealing federal city gained nothing in reputation or ease for being surrounded by states filled with restive slaves. Add to that the perplexity and division caused in Federalist ranks by Hamilton’s no-holds-barred attack on the Federalist candidate Adams, and it should come as no surprise that many contemporaries were predicting the disintegration of the union, an end to constitutional government, and the use of arms to enforce Jefferson’s election. Today we can see the sour feelings in the capital as a passing moment in the history of American representative government. But as Sharp is at pains to emphasize, government under the Constitution of 1787 was only 13 years old. No one could be confident that it would survive. All hung on the outcome of the House vote.

In only two respects does this otherwise fine work offer less than it might have. The first concerns Delaware’s Federalist congressman James A. Bayard, who deserves to be brought into the limelight more fully than Sharp does. As Sharp indicates clearly enough, Bayard, his state’s sole congressman, was key to resolving the deadlock in the House of Representatives by breaking with his Federalist colleagues and, in withholding Delaware’s vote, allowing Jefferson to be elected by the requisite majority of states voting. While it has never been entirely clear why Bayard did so, many have since thought that he convinced himself (or was misled by others to think) that Jefferson, wanting as much as anyone else to end the electoral deadlock, had sent signals that he would not overturn some key Federalist policies. But evidence also exists that Bayard, an attorney and formerly a close House associate of John Marshall before Marshall went to the Supreme Court as chief justice, was a firm constitutionalist as well as a moderate Federalist. After he’d broken the deadlock in the House, he explained that he’d acted out of “imperious necessity” so as “not to hazard the Constitution.” Bayard’s claim can surely be taken to be self-serving; but might it not also reveal the man’s true grit and a new kind of commitment—one to the Constitution, above all?

Whatever Bayard’s true motives, it turns out that he was willing to risk his future electoral chances in Delaware (and to allow the election of a man whom he strongly disliked) in order to resolve the constitutional paralysis. And so Bayard deserves more admiration for his statesmanship than Sharp and most other historians give him. He was key to ending a crisis that was directly threatening the young constitutional regime of 1787. Even had armed forces not been marshaled to enforce Jefferson’s election in the event of the government’s paralysis lasting beyond Inauguration Day, it remained possible that calls would have gone out for another constitutional convention, the Federalists’ worst fear. Had another convention met, the Constitution of 1787 would no doubt have been jettisoned in favor of a different form of government, and the United States would have begun its early political life in the pattern of other nations: one constitution after another. (Remember that the Constitution of 1787 was already the second of two, the Articles of Confederation having been the first.) That it did not can be credited in significant measure to James Bayard.

Along these lines, then, a second line of argument—or at least of speculation—opens before us. What, if any, were the constitutional consequences of the solution to the deadlock of 1801? The preserved record offers little help. But Sharp might have posed the question—one that, it should be said, no other historian has posed, either: Might not John Marshall have discerned in the election’s outcome, and Bayard’s act, something that has eluded historians? Not until Bayard’s switch in 1801 was the Constitution of 1787 vindicated in all its initial authority; not until the election of Marshall’s cousin and fellow Virginian, Jefferson (whom Marshall roundly disliked; he was disliked by Jefferson in return), can it be said that the Constitution had been put to the test and, in the nick of time, been found up to the task. 

What did Marshall make of this fact? We don’t know. Yet we can see now that his friend Bayard had made of the still-young Constitution a rock on which to build. He had established a new rule: that in a contest between parochial politics and the Constitution, the Constitution must win. In a way not available before, the Constitution was now open to interpretation in the confidence that it, rather than parties or individual political figures, had gained the highest standing in American governance. Bayard had opened a new phase of American constitutionalism. The lesson could not have been lost on Marshall, who soon delivered the Supreme Court’s pathbreaking opinion in the Marbury case that gathered for the Court the authority to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. And it would not be lost, in subsequent years, on Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

In a very direct sense, then, the survival of the Constitution was one result of the election of 1800. No less consequentially, as Sharp emphasizes, the election ushered into office a Jeffersonian regime that determined the course of American government, the nature of American culture, the fate of African Americans, and the geographic reach of national authority for the next 60 years of American history—and in some respects, for all time. Small-government market capitalism thereafter became the ideological norm against which much of American public policy would be measured well into the 20th century. With the help of the three-fifths clause, 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 six more decades 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 terrain 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 for the nation’s eventual spread from eastern to western sea. And with ideological sustenance from Jefferson and his followers, white manhood suffrage became nearly universal by 1840. In short, the election of 1800, by creating the first long-lived alignment of political forces in America’s history, laid the groundwork for the nation’s emergence as a slaveholding, agrarian, male-democratic, continental colossus.

Both Jefferson and his enemies realized as much. The Squire of Monticello famously termed his election the “revolution of 1800.” A Federalist opponent, calling it “a great moral revolution,” agreed. But that revolution was no sure thing. Only by a series of fortuitous events and circumstances, as Sharp so well explains, did a few American officeholders step up to the brink of disaster—and then draw back from it in a way that preserved the constitutional government’s integrity for 60 more years.

James M. Banner Jr. is a cofounder of the National History Center and, most recently, the editor, with John R. Gillis, of Becoming Historians, a set of memoirs by 11 historians.

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