America’s first two elections were basically uncontested. Everyone knew George Washington would be elected to the top post, and his 100% tally in both Electoral College votes bore that out. The election of 1796, won by John Adams, was the first election that showed just how divided a country, recently united by Revolution and victory, could become. It also gave us some insight into the power of a muck-raking press not conditioned to the niceties of 21st-century subtlety.
Which brings us to the election of 1800, which may have been the most dramatic in the country’s history. There was little doubt who wasn’t going to win. President John Adams had been demonized by the Anti-Federalist Party and marginalized by his own Federalist Party. The threat of open war with France had split the powers in government into two camps. The Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, wanted peace with France…the Federalists, war.
President Adams’ envoys to France brokered peace, but the “slow boat to America” brought news of the treaty too late to act as the catalyst that almost surely would have garnered Adams another term. So it came down to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Everyone knew the election would end in an Electoral College tie, and that was verified when the ballots were opened on February 11th, 1801. The vote would go to the House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by Federalists, which spelled doom for Jefferson.
But not so fast.
Aaron Burr was a pretty unpopular fellow amongst those in power. And one of his biggest rivals was Alexander Hamilton. The two had engaged in an on-again-off-again cycle of trust, distrust, collaboration, and outright hatred that boggles the senses. Hamilton saw Burr as a two-faced hypocrite, who swapped allegiances and ideologies to suit whatever constituency gave him the most power. He (correctly) saw Burr as a man of exceeding ambition who, if he couldn’t gain power by rightful election, was capable of using any means necessary.
Burr, for his part, was initially gracious about the tie, stating that “It is highly improbable that I shall have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson, but if such should be the result, every man who knows me ought to know that I should utterly disclaim all competition.” Some Federalists were inclined to favor the ever-ambitious Burr over Jefferson.
Alexander Hamilton was horrified. He and Thomas Jefferson had also been bitter rivals for years, but in this case, Burr was the bigger evil, as we’ll begin to unravel in a few days. As always, he let his pen do the talking, writing to Congressional Federalists that “As to Burr, there is nothing in his favour…He is bankrupt beyond redemption, except by the plunder of his country. His pubilc principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement…If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power…”
The irony here is startling…Hamilton defending Jefferson by saying of Burr the same things Jefferson said of Hamilton…read that carefully. President John Adams, relegated to spectator status in this and a recipient of Hamilton’s ire just prior to the election, laughed at the situation. “The very man – the very two men – of all the world that he was most jealous of are now placed above him.”
Thirty-five ballots were cast in the House over a week’s time. And thirty-five times the deadlock remained. The politiking in the House grew as electors looked for any leeway that could break the deadlock. That leeway came to Delaware’s James Bayard. Possibly influenced by Hamilton’s constant letters to Congress, this anti-Jefferson Federalist met with Jefferson supporters and set forth a few requirements which, if promised by Jefferson, could likely win Bayard’s vote.
What Bayard heard in response must have been enough, because the thirty-sixth vote, taken on February 17, 1801, saw Bayard cast a blank ballot, removing Delaware from Burr’s column. Thomas Jefferson had a new title…President of the United States.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton