As we approach the inauguration of President-elect Trump, I thought it might be useful to consider our nation’s first divisive election –
The presidential election of 1800 between incumbent John Adams and his vice president Thomas Jefferson was a divisive and hard-fought election for both candidates. Federalists attacked Jefferson as an un-Christian deist, whose sympathy for the French and their revolution threatened to bring similar chaos to the United States. Democratic-Republicans attacked Adams and Federalists in Congress over the centralization of federal governmental power, and the Alien and Sedition Acts.
In the end, the Democratic-Republicans swept both houses of Congress. The decision in the Electoral College was much closer. Under the Constitution, vote for president and vice president were not listed on separate ballots. Although Jefferson and Adams were the primary opponents, Jefferson actually received the same number of electoral votes as his running mate, Aaron Burr. According to the Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, if two candidates each received a majority of the electoral votes but are tied, the House of Representatives would determine which one would be president. Therefore, the decision rested with the House of Representatives, then still under Federalist control, where each state would cast a single vote.
Most Federalists preferred Aaron Burr. But, after 35 blocked ballots, Alexander Hamilton, a well-respected Federalist party leader, helped secure the presidency for Jefferson, viewing him as the lesser of two evils. As we know, Burr went on to fatally shoot Hamilton in their infamous duel.
With Jefferson’s election and the Federalist defeat in Congress, this was the first time government under the new Constitution would change party hands. It is significant that after such a divisive election, there was a peaceful transition of political power between the opposing parties. Jefferson appreciated this moment when in his inaugural address, he said “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” You can read the full text of Jefferson’s first inaugural address here.
The tie vote between Jefferson and Burr in the Electoral College pointed to serious problems with the electoral system under the U.S. Constitution. In 1804, the 12th Amendment was passed and ratified to correct these problems by providing for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President.
This episode in our nation’s history can be used to encourage discussion of divisive elections, political parties, the Electoral College, and the peaceful transition of political power.