The Deadlocked Election of 1800
Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance
by James Roger Sharp
Kansas, 239 pp., $34.95
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.