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Opinion | There’s a Reason the Election of 1800 Still Sings Out to Us

James Madison — Jefferson’s longtime friend, ally and neighbor — similarly believed that the Federalists were seeking to “transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.”

Jefferson, Madison and their followers countered with resolutions, drafted for the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, in which they laid out a state-centric view of American union. As written by Jefferson, the historian Susan Dunn explains in “Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism,” the Kentucky Resolutions

had stated that the federal union was a compact among states and that if any acts of the federal government went beyond that government’s delegated powers, states had the right “to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power.”

Madison didn’t go as far as nullification in his Virginia Resolutions, but he still argued the point that “states could judge for themselves the constitutionality of acts of Congress.”

This was the climate in which Federalist and Democratic-Republican partisans fought the 1800 election, both sides convinced that the other would unravel the American experiment and bring the republic to either anarchy or despotism. As a Federalist pamphlet called “A Short Address to the Voters of Delaware” asked:

Let these men get into power, put the reins of government into their hands, and what security have you against the occurrence of the scenes which have rendered France a cemetery, and moistened her soil with the tears and blood of her inhabitants?

The Electoral College made its decision, the future of self-government seemingly in the balance. And when the votes were tallied and announced, the Democratic-Republicans had won the election, 73 for Jefferson to 65 for Adams. But there was a problem. The framers did not anticipate political parties, and the Constitution did not make room for them. Jefferson and Adams had running mates, but there was no way for electors, who each had two votes, to back a ticket without causing a tie. Instead, the winning party’s electors had to carefully cast one vote for a losing candidate, so that the running mate could come in second place and claim the vice presidency.

The Federalist electors were disciplined and coordinated enough to make this happen. Adams won 65 electoral votes and his running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, won 64 votes, with the spare vote going to John Jay of New York. Republican electors, on the other hand, gave 73 votes each to Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. This sent the election to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would cast a single vote to decide the winner.

Jefferson may have won the election, but the lame-duck Federalist Congress would decide his fate. And those Federalists saw an opportunity to keep their worst enemy out of high office. They wouldn’t try to negate the will of the legislatures and voters who chose a Democratic-Republican for president, but they would vote to give Burr the top spot. Here is Dunn:

The reasons for supporting Burr, admitted Theodore Sedgwick, “are of a negative nature.” Burr was “not a Democrat … not an enthusiastic theorist … not under the direction of Virginian Jacobins … not a declared infidel.” He was selfish, pronounced Sedgwick, transforming unfettered self-interest into a virtue.

Burr, for his part, neither rejected the overture nor did he say he would resign the office if elected.

Republicans in the House were united in support of Jefferson. But this meant gridlock, and after that, the unknown. “What will be the plans of the Federalists,” wondered Albert Gallatin, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. “Would Federalists elect Burr? Would they call for new elections? Would they force a stalemate and then hand power over to one of their own?” He continued, “Would there be civil war? Resistance? Shall we submit? And if we do not submit, in what manner shall we act ourselves?”

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