The Chaotic Presidential Election

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Few events in American history are so momentous as to reverberate with the resonance of a Westminster chime the way the events of the election of 1800 have in American history. From a world stage, events with similar impact include the Glorious Revolution, King Henry’s break from Rome, and the American Revolution itself. The impact of the presidential election of 1800 can be felt today watching modern day political debates, and to really emphasize the narrative and to really capture our attention, this event also includes personal vendettas, and a question, the resolution that nearly tore apart the new constitution of the United States.

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“The Chaotic Presidential Election”

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In 1797, John Adams was elected the new president of the United States. During Adams’s presidency, political factions emerged as some people were displeased with Adam’s handling of domestic and foreign affairs. Furthermore, John Adams had frequent disputes with his Vice President Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson’s conflicting views and heated disagreements on certain topics helped catalyze the formation of political parties in the United States. Two prominent political parties that gained traction in the United States were the Federalists and the Democratic- Republicans. The Federalists unified under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson.

The Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists had contrasting views regarding domestic and foreign affairs. Foreign affairs impacting the United States that were viewed upon differently by the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the XYZ Affair, and Jay’s Treaty. Domestic affairs heatedly debated between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans commonly included the establishment a strong centralized government, the creation and implementation of a national bank, and a strict vs. loose interpretation of the Constitution.

For the election of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr to represent their party in the presidential election. The Democratic-Republicans viewed Thomas Jefferson as their primary choice for the presidency for his political experiences and his strong opposition to Federalist leaders like Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr would face-off against incumbent Federalist president John Adams and Charles Pinckney. As the election drew nearer, the intensity of the candidate’s campaigns greatly increased, and the disparities between the beliefs of the two political parties became even more distinctly polarized. The months leading up to the election of 1800 was described as a witches’ brew of personalities, innuendo, ideology, and rumor. The candidates vigorously attacked at each other’s throat like ravenous wolves on raw meat, by using tactics such as mudslinging and smearing in their campaigns, with the end goal of annihilating their opponent.

One Federalist newspaper wrote that if Thomas Jefferson was to be elected as president, Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest [would] be openly taught and practiced, .. the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes. The Democratic Republicans responded by portraying Adams as an evil tyrant, and built a campaign accusing Adams of conspiring ideas to build an American Dynasty . Both parties also pitched to the public their opponent would destroy the legacy of the American Revolution if elected president. Heading into the election, the Democratic-Republicans aligned themselves behind their two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, while the Federalists split and argued over which candidate to support in their own party. The confusion and separation occurring within the Federalist party was apparent in the results of the election.

The election’s results were controversial, and they ignited a major political firestorm in America. Before the addition of the 12th amendment to the Constitution, the candidate who received the most electoral votes was declared the new president, and the runner up was to named the new vice president. The founding fathers crafted this system on the notion that there would be no formations of political factions in American politics. After many long months of counting ballots, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency receiving 73 electoral votes each. John Adams, the incumbent president received 65 votes, and Charles Pinckney received 64 votes. This was the first and only time in American history two candidates tied for the presidency, and the first time in American history where the incumbent president was defeated.

To break the tie, the Constitution stated The House of Representatives would decide the winner of the election. This was crucial since the Federalists owned the house majority, and the new president elected would be a Democratic-Republican. The Federalists strongly disliked Thomas Jefferson and voted for Burr, and the Democratic-Republicans voted for Thomas Jefferson. During the revote, on the first ballot, Jefferson carried the eight Republican states; Burr took the six Federalist ones; Maryland and Vermont split evenly along party lines and therefore abstained. To claim the presidency, Jefferson or Burr needed to win at least nine states. The House continued to vote multiple times to try to break the deadlock and declare a winner, but each time the House kept yielding the same results. Virginia Rep. John Dawson wrote to James Madison in a letter, We are resolv’d never to yield, and sooner hazard everything than to prevent the voice and wishes of the people being carried into effect. I have not closed my eyes for 36 hours. Tensions started to rise and a tiny wave of panic started to ripple across America as the House struggled to decide on the new president.

The deadlock spread a feeling of anxiety across the nation, and it greatly jeopardized the risk of a disunion of the United States. James Bayard, a Federalist representative from Delaware, played a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the election by casting his ballot for Thomas Jefferson, ending the deadlock in the House of Representatives. James Bayer voted for Thomas Jefferson to not only prevent the United States from disunioning, he was also heavily persuaded by Federalist Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton despised Aaron Burr, and he had devised clever schemes to ensure Burr would lose the election to Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton heavily lobbied to the Federalists in Congress. Hamilton painted Burr as a deceptive, evil person unfit for the presidency, and Hamilton argued in his letters written to Congress, Burr loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement; and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands Following up on Bayer’s lead, the state representatives of Maryland and Vermont cast their votes for Thomas Jefferson giving him a slight edge over Aaron Burr in the electoral college . Furthermore, several Federalists abstained from voting which allowed Jefferson to extend his lead over Burr, and thus ultimately lead to Jefferson claiming the presidency of the United States.

One of legacies that emerged following the election of 1800 was the lasting vendetta between political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The origin of Alexander Hamilton’s and Aaron Burr’s feud can be traced back to 1791. Aaron Burr defeated Philip Schuyler who was Hamilton’s father-in-law. Schuyler as a Federalist would have supported George Washington’s and Hamilton’s policies while Burr as a Democratic-Republican opposed those policies . Hamilton and Burr’s turbulent relationship only became more volatile following the outcome of the election of 1800. Alexander Hamilton cost Aaron Burr the presidency by mounting a strong campaign against Aaron Burr, and by persuading members in the House of Representatives to vote for Thomas Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton frequently attacked Burr’s character and antagonized him.

Then, in 1804, Aaron Burr decided to run for the governor of New York against Morgan Lewis. Aaron Burr lost by a landslide. Once again, Hamilton prevented Burr from winning an election, this time by generating a scandal involving Burr and then campaigning against him. As the fracture between Burr and Hamilton widened, Burr’s hatred of Hamilton grew stronger. Finally, after years of fighting with Hamilton and living beneath his shadow, Burr demanded that Hamilton face off against him in a duel. On July 11th, 1804 the two men squared off in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, and he died from his wounds thirty six hours later. The death of Alexander Hamilton, and the retirement of John Adams triggered the downfall and ultimate collapse of the Federalist Party. As for Burr, this duel started the downfall of his political career.

Next of all, the election of 1800 marked the first ever peaceful transfer of power between two distinctly different political groups in America. Not only was the peaceful transfer of power from outgoing Federalist president John Adams to the new incoming Democratic-Republican president Thomas Jefferson important in testing the strength of America’s newly formed republic, it set the precedent for the peaceful transfer of power in America. When Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans gained control of the White House in 1800, it marked the end of over a decade of Federalist rule in America. The peaceful transition of power between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans was significant as it showed a break from [the] European precedent of violent and bloody power transfers with two examples in history being the execution of King Charles I by Cromwell, and the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus. Furthermore, Margaret Bayer Smith, a cousin of Federalist James Bayard, stated during Jefferson’s inauguration that The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally be epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, [but] in our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder. emphasizes the great magnitude of this moment because the tranquility occuring in America following the change in political power was unlike anything the world had ever seen. The peaceful transfer of power was unprecedented, and thus transformed American society generating a social revolution. The peace within the United States following Jefferson’s inauguration was also significant since many Americans at that time were unsure if America would remain united or crumble from the changing shift in political power.

In continuation, on September 6th, 1819, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Spencer Roane, that portrays Jefferson perceiving the peaceful transfer of power and the election itself as an American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson wrote, [the election of 1800] was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of [17]76 was in it’s form; not affected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people. Thomas Jefferson used the metaphor comparing the sword to suffrage to stress the importance of America maintaining order while undergoing change from one set of distinct political ideas to a new set of political ideas. Jefferson recognized the importance of the American people declaring their opinions on ballots rather than using violent measures as something that was unprecedented and revolutionary for the time period. Jefferson followed up his point a few sentences later by writing, the nation [had] declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle, and electing those of another in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election. Thomas Jefferson made sure to embody principles of both the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists in the early months of his presidency to ensure the transfer of power remained harmonious, and to prevent America from any further political fracturing. A modern day legacy of the peaceful transfer of power between opposing political parties could be witnessed in the 2016 election when outgoing president Barack Obama, a Democrat, transferred his power to new president Donald Trump, a Republican. The peaceful transfer of power in 1800 is a legacy in American history and, arguably, in world history, for it represented the first time that a shift in political power occurred without the use of bloodshed.

Finally, the election of 1800 exposed a serious flaw in the United State’s Constitution that needed to be addressed. Prior to the ratification of the twelfth amendment in 1804, electors voted for two individuals without differentiating between their votes for President and Vice President. The winner of the largest bloc of votes, so long as it was a majority of all the votes cast, would win the presidency. The individual with the second largest number of votes would become Vice President . This election system first generated controversy in the 1796 election when Federalist president John Adams had a Democratic-Republican vice president Thomas Jefferson. After Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency in the election of 1800, Congress realized they needed to create a new procedure for electing the president and vice president. On June 15th, 1804, the twelfth amendment was ratified by Congress.

The 12th amendment provided clarity on the methods used for electing the president, and it set forth a new structure for how the president and vice president were elected by the electoral college. The amendment reads, The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice President they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice President…. One crucial part of the 12th amendment is that it allowed voters to distinguish their votes between the President and the Vice President on their voting ballot. This process also helped to ensure that the President was paired with his vice president running mate to avoid recreating situations like the election of 1796. The twelfth amendment also established a new method for electing the president and vice president in case of a tie. The House of Representatives would vote on the president and the Senate the vice president.

The election of 1800 shall resonate in the minds of Americans as one of the most controversial and monumental elections in American history to date. This election generated numerous legacies, and highlighted the importance of presidential elections. The election of 1800 was a turning point in United States history for it catalyzed the Burr and Hamilton feud, the peaceful transfer of power, and the ratification of the 12th amendment. Remnants of the election of 1800 can be observed in modern day political campaigns, and in the different political parties in America.


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The Chaotic Presidential Election. (2019, Jul 10). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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