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Early Electoral Chaos and Party Loyalty, Part II

Last week, I started a discussion of Alexander Hamilton’s meddling in political affairs at the federal level, beginning with the Election of 1796. It closed with the fact that President John Adams discovered by the end of his four years in office that several of his cabinet members were more loyal to their party (the Federalists) and its ideological leader (Hamilton) than they were to the president. Hamilton was furious that Adams had the temerity to remove his instruments of power from the cabinet—and vowed to get revenge upon the sitting president. The opportunity for his response came in the hotly-contested Election of 1800, which once again pitted Adams as the Federalist candidate against Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans. To see a president run for re-election against his own vice-president must have been quite a sight—it’s not the only time that holders of the two offices have competed, to be sure, but it is the only time they were both still in office to do so. The same rules applied as had in 1796, meaning it might be possible for one to win and the other to serve as vice-president, if everything broke in the right fashion.

Given the slow pace of communications across the vast territory of the young nation, the election ran for more than 5 weeks. Both parties had significant representation in all of the states, although the Democratic-Republicans had a much more unified front than their opponents. Thomas Jefferson had effectively founded the party in opposition to Federalist policies, and as such, was the logical standard-bearer in the national elections. His party selected Aaron Burr of New York as a running-mate, under the assumption that Jefferson, a Virginian, would easily secure the southern and western states, while Burr would help capture the mid-Atlantic states and might even score one or two New England electoral votes. John Adams and the Federalists once again selected Thomas Pinckney for vice-president, hoping that this time everything would actually work out.

Just as had been the case in 1796, chaos defined much of the 1800 election. The propaganda campaigns run by each party quickly devolved into a series of smears against the opponent—despite the critical roles Adams and Jefferson had played in the creation of the nation. The Federalists suggested that their opponents wished to re-create the French Revolution, with all of its excesses, on American soil. For their part, the Democratic-Republicans accused Adams and his supporters of attempting to build a monarchical government that oppressed the common people to the benefit of the elite. In many ways, Alexander Hamilton was the wild-card in the process. He was the leader of the Federalists, but had decided Adams was too independent-minded for the presidency. Thus, he embarked upon yet another complicated plan to change the outcome of the election, this time by orchestrating the election of Thomas Pinckney to the presidency. Hamilton was certainly industrious in his efforts—he wrote an enormous number of letters to anyone of influence, seeking to undermine Adams while still retaining loyalty to the Federalist cause. His efforts soon came to light, when a 54-page handwritten tirade against Adams fell into the hands of an ardent Democratic-Republican, who in turn moved to publish it.

Hamilton’s jockeying had the intended effect of undercutting Adams, but it did little to advance the candidacy of Pinckney (who was mortified when it became public, and gave a convincing defense that he had known nothing of Hamilton’s actions.) Yet, no one could say with certainty what to expect when the electoral votes were opened on February 11, 1801. The official charged with tallying the ballots was Vice President Jefferson—a fact that might account for his decision to count all of the Georgia electoral votes for the Democratic-Republicans, even though they were not submitted in the proper form. Those four electoral votes proved the necessary difference, pushing Jefferson and Burr over the threshold to establish a majority in the Electoral College. But, the election was not over—a much larger controversy loomed.

According to electoral law, the president was the individual who garnered the most electoral votes, so long as they received a majority of the votes cast. In this election, Jefferson received 73 electoral votes, out of a possible 138. The vice-president was the individual with the second-highest vote total in the race. Normally, the political parties selected one elector to either abstain from casting their second vote, or to vote for an irrelevant candidate, to prevent a tie. In the 1800 election, one Federalist elector voted for John Adams and John Jay, while the rest voted for Adams and Pinckney, giving them 65 and 64 votes respectively. But, the Democratic-Republicans had failed to ensure such an outcome—and as a result, Jefferson and Burr each received 73 votes, resulting in a tie. For the first time, the House of Representatives was forced to determine the outcome of the race.

Under the electoral rules of the time, each state delegation cast one collective vote to determine the outcome of the election, and in order to claim victory, the winning candidate needed the support of an absolute majority, meaning nine of sixteen states. Once again, Hamilton went to his writing desk and began sending letters, hoping to sway the outcome of the election. Although it was clear that the Democratic-Republicans would hold both offices, Hamilton had a clear preference for who should be the next president. He ardently disliked Jefferson, but he absolutely loathed Burr—and did everything in his power to ensure that the Federalist-controlled delegations did not support his arch-enemy. Yet, there was a significant faction in the Federalist Party that believed Burr would be a better president for their interests, and as such, Burr gained six of the eight Federalist delegations’ votes on the first ballot. Jefferson won eight votes, and the Vermont and Maryland delegations evenly split their internal vote, resulting in a blank ballot from each state.

Hamilton’s politicking over the week of House votes gradually had an effect. For 35 straight ballots, the results did not change—Jefferson was always a single vote short of winning the office. But, on the 36th ballot, after a week of turmoil, the Federalist delegates of Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina, and Vermont all changed their votes to blank ballots—enough to swing two states to Jefferson’s column, and hand him the presidency. Although Burr had remained largely silent during the House’s contingent election, he had publicly refused to stand aside and refuse the office of the presidency—a decision that demonstrated his thirst for power. He soon learned of Hamilton’s efforts within the Federalist Party to block him from winning the election, and the long-standing enmity between the men only deepened. It was not the last time that the two men publicly sparred over an election to public office.


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