Feb 212013
Thomas Jefferson letter to James Madison February 18 1801

The presidential race of 1800 was much different than that of 2012, but nonetheless it was an exciting event. In the 1796 election, John Adams had succeeded George Washington as president with little, if any, opposition. In 1800, things were different. It was the first presidential race involving campaigns. The campaigns were much different than those of recent past. In that most electors (members of the electoral college) were chosen by state legislatures, rather than by popular vote, the “campaigning” was done by composing articles and sending letters. John Adams, who was seeking reelection, did publicly campaign in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, who was Adams’ Vice President but sought to defeat him, did not campaign publicly. Instead, he sent the other member of the Democratic-Republican ticket, Aaron Burr, on a campaign tour of New England. As a caveat, Jefferson was elected as Adams’ Vice President because he had received more electoral votes than Adams’ Federalist colleague Charles Pinckney. Jefferson’s letters reveal his animosity toward Adams during that period.

Adams, the Federalist Party candidate, was soundly defeated by Jefferson in the election of 1800, The electoral vote was 73 to 65. However, unlike today, there was no distinction between the presidential and vice presidential candidate. Consequently, both Jefferson and Burr received 73 electoral votes. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provided that the House of Representatives would break the tie. Jefferson’s letters of that time reveal his belief that the Federalists sought to drive a wedge between him and Burr. Members of the Federalist dominated House did not like the choice placed before them. A series of 35 ballots were cast over 6 days, but the tie remained unbroken. Delaware’s sole representative, Federalist James A Bayard, announced at that time his intention to break the tie. He decision may have stemmed from the fear that the president of the Senate would become the defacto leader of the federal government if no one was installed as leader of the executive branch. Alexander Hamilton, who disliked Burr and was later killed by him, may have also sought to influence the Federalists in the House to elect Jefferson. The other Federalists followed suit by casting blank ballots. Jefferson carried support from 10 states and was announced to be the winner.
In a letter to James Madison, dated February 18, 1801, Jefferson wrote: “The minority in the H of R, after seeing the impossibility of electing B, the certainty that a legislative usurpation would be resisted by arms, and a recourse to a convention to re-organize and amend the government, held a consultation on this dilemma, whether it would be better for them to come over in a body and go with the tide of the times, or by a negative conduct suffer the election to be made by a bare majority, keeping their body entire & unbroken, to act in phalanx on such ground of opposition as circumstances shall offer; and I know their determination on this question only by their vote of yesterday. Morris of V withdrew, which made Lyon’s vote that of his State. The Maryland federalists put in 4. blanks, which made the positive ticket of their colleagues the vote of the State. S Carolina & Delaware put in 6. blanks. So there were 10. States for one candidate, 4. for another, & 2. blanks. We consider this, therefore, as a declaration of war, on the part of this band. But their conduct appears to have brought over to us the whole body of the federalists, who, being alarmed with the danger of a dissolution of the government, had been made most anxiously to wish the very administration they had opposed, & to view it when obtained, as a child of their own. They [illegible] too their quondam leaders separated fairly from them, and themselves relegated under other banners. Even Hamilton & Higginson have been partisans for us. This circumstance, with the unbounded confidence which will attach to the new ministry as soon as known, will start us on right ground.” The accompanying image is of Jefferson’s letter to Madison.

The Twelfth Amendment, which laid out a procedure for electing the President and Vice Present, was proposed in light of the presidential election of 1800.


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