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The election of 1800 was one of the most controversial in American history, marked by intrigue, betrayals, and a tie in the electoral college between two candidates who were running mates on the same ticket. The eventual winner was decided only after days of balloting in the House of Representatives.
When it was settled, Thomas Jefferson became president, marking a philosophical change that has been characterized as the "Revolution of 1800." The result represented a significant political realignment as the first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, had been Federalists, while Jefferson represented the ascending Democratic-Republican Party.
The 1800 election result revealed a serious flaw in the U.S. Constitution, which said that candidates for president and vice president ran on the same ballot, which meant running mates could be running against each other. The 12th Amendment, which changed the Constitution to prevent the 1800 election problem from recurring, created the current system of presidents and vice presidents running on the same ticket.
The nation's fourth presidential election was the first time candidates campaigned, though the campaigning was very subdued by modern standards. The contest was also noteworthy for intensifying political and personal animosity between two men tragically linked in history, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
When Washington announced that he would not run for a third term, Adams, his vice president, ran and was elected president in 1796.
Adams became increasingly unpopular during his four years in office, especially for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, repressive legislation designed to stifle freedom of the press. As the 1800 election approached, Adams was determined to run for a second term, though his chances weren't promising.
Hamilton had been born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean Sea. While he was technically eligible to be president under the Constitution, having been a citizen when it was ratified, he was such a controversial figure that a run for high office never seemed feasible. However, he had played a formidable role in Washington's administration, serving as the first secretary of the treasury.
Over time he came to be an enemy of Adams, though they were both members of the Federalist Party. He had tried to ensure the defeat of Adams in the election of 1796 and hoped to see Adams defeated in his 1800 run.
Hamilton didn't hold governmental office in the late 1790s when he was practicing law in New York City. Yet he built a Federalist political machine in New York and could exert considerable influence in political matters.
Burr, a prominent New York political figure, was opposed to the Federalists continuing their rule and also hoped to see Adams denied a second term. A constant rival to Hamilton, Burr had built a political machine centered on Tammany Hall, which rivaled Hamilton's Federalist organization.
For the 1800 election, Burr threw his support behind Jefferson. Burr ran with Jefferson on the same ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
Jefferson had served as Washington's secretary of state and ran a close second to Adams in the election of 1796. As a critic of the Adams presidency, Jefferson was an obvious candidate on the Democratic-Republican ticket to oppose the Federalists.
Campaigning in 1800
While it is true that the 1800 election marked the first time that candidates campaigned, the campaigning mostly consisted of writing letters and articles expressing their intentions. Adams did make trips to Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that were construed as political visits, and Burr, on behalf of the Democratic-Republican ticket, visited towns throughout New England.
In that early period, the electors from the states were generally chosen by state legislatures, not by popular vote. In some cases, the elections for state legislatures were essentially substitutes for the presidential election, so any campaigning took place at the local level.
Electoral College Tie
The tickets in the election were Federalists Adams and Charles C. Pinckney against Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Burr. The ballots for the electoral college weren't counted until Feb. 11, 1801, when it was discovered that the election was a tie.
Jefferson and his running mate, Burr, each received 73 electoral votes. Adams received 65 votes and Pinckney received 64. John Jay, who had not even run, received one electoral vote.
The original wording of the Constitution, which didn't distinguish between electoral votes for president and vice president, led to the problematic outcome. In the event of a tie in the electoral college, the Constitution dictated that the election would be decided by the House of Representatives. So Jefferson and Burr, who had been running mates, became rivals.
The Federalists, who still controlled the lame-duck Congress, threw their support behind Burr in an effort to defeat Jefferson. While Burr publicly expressed his loyalty to Jefferson, he worked to win the election in the House. Hamilton, who detested Burr and considered Jefferson a safer choice for president, wrote letters and used all his influence with the Federalists to thwart Burr.
The election in the House of Representatives began on Feb. 17 in the unfinished Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The voting went on for several days, and after 36 ballots the tie was finally broken. Jefferson was declared the winner and Burr was named the vice president.
It is believed that Hamilton's influence weighed heavily on the outcome.
Legacy of the Election of 1800
The fractious outcome of the 1800 election led to the passage and ratification of the 12th Amendment, which changed the way the electoral college functioned.
Because Jefferson didn't trust Burr, he gave him nothing to do as vice president. Burr and Hamilton continued their epic feud, which finally culminated in their famous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Burr shot Hamilton, who died the next day.
Burr wasn't prosecuted for killing Hamilton, though he later was accused of treason, tried, and acquitted. He lived in exile in Europe for several years before returning to New York. He died in 1836.
Jefferson served two terms as president. He and Adams eventually put their differences behind them and wrote a series of friendly letters during the last decade of their lives. They both died on a noteworthy day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.