The Magazine

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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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.

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