12 Facts About the Election of 1800
The Broadway musical Hamilton will soon makes its Canadian debut—so now is the perfect time to talk about one of Act II's most pivotal songs: "The Election of 1800." The actual event was even more vitriolic than its onstage dramatization (which is plenty dramatic). Here’s what the Broadway show didn’t tell you about this epic, game-changing race.
1. GEORGE WASHINGTON WAS URGED TO THROW HIS HAT INTO THE RING.
By 1800, a rift had divided the Federalists. Although President John Adams belonged to this party, he didn’t have its unified support. During America’s undeclared Quasi-War with France, Adams irked some of the more hawkish Federalists by sending a peace delegation to Paris in 1799.
Outraged, some partisans went so far as to start looking for an alternative Federalist candidate to replace their current president in 1800. Their first choice? Adams’s predecessor.
At 67, Washington was semi-retired from public life, but he was still one of the most popular figures in America. If the Virginian ran for a third term, he may well have won—perhaps in a landslide. During the summer of 1799, Federalist Jonathan Trumbull wrote the old general and implored him to enter the fray.
Apparently, Washington didn’t like his chances, especially among Democratic-Republican voters. “I am thoroughly convinced I should not draw a single vote from the Anti-federal side,” he told Trumbull. On top of this, the former president was fed up with politics altogether: “Prudence on my part must arrest any attempt of the well meant, but mistaken views of my friends, to introduce me again to the Chair of Government.”
Another plea arrived in Mount Vernon that December. This time, the writer was Gouverneur Morris, a prominent Federalist who’d helped author the U.S. Constitution. In his dispatch, Morris argued that “the leading Federal characters (even in Massachusetts) consider Mr. Adams as unfit for the office he now holds.” But Washington might have never read the message. On December 14—five days after it was dated—he passed away.
2. IN MOST STATES, ELECTORS WERE PICKED BY THE LEGISLATURE.
As everybody knows, 21st-century Americans don’t directly vote for their preferred presidential candidate. When we show up to the polls, we’re really voting to choose our state’s electors. These people, in turn, are the ones who go on to cast their ballots in a follow-up election that officially picks the next Commander-in-Chief. Here's how it works:
If you think this process is complicated now, be glad you weren’t around in 1800. Back then, there were 16 states. In 11 of them, everyday voters didn’t even get to choose their state’s electors. Instead, their state legislatures did that. Naturally, this legal setup had a huge impact on the White House race. By winning a majority (however slim) within one of those 11 legislatures, a given political party could often expect to cast every single electoral vote in that state’s possession.
Consider New York, for instance. In 1800, Democratic-Republicans only slightly outnumbered Federalists in the state legislature—but on a raw popular vote count, the Federalists were actually in the lead. And yet, even with their thin majority, the Democratic-Republicans were able to hand Jefferson all 12 of New York’s electoral votes. (Stay tuned for more about that.)
Over time, the practice of letting state legislatures choose electors died away. By 1833, every state except South Carolina had discarded the approach. In 1868, the state finally decided to let residents pick the electors. Before the century ended, Florida and Colorado would briefly adopt the old system, only to cast it aside just as their fellow states had.
3. JEFFERSON RECRUITED A SMEAR ARTIST.
In 1800, the Democratic-Republicans had a secret weapon, and his name was James T. Callender. An 18th-century muckraker, Callender’s rise to fame began in his native Scotland. In 1792, he published a lengthy essay which scathingly denounced Britain’s political institutions (at one point, he condemned Parliament as “a phalanx of mercenaries”), which led the British government to charge Callender with sedition.
Upon fleeing to Philadelphia in 1793, the Scotsman found a new group to lambaste: the Federalist party. Once Callendar had established himself as a Democratic-Republican journalist, he proceeded to skewer the Washington and Adams administrations in print. Then, in 1797, he dealt Alexander Hamilton a crippling blow. Through a set of pamphlets entitled History of the United States for 1796, Callender revealed that the former Treasury Secretary had an extramarital affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds. Moreover, he accused Hamilton of improperly using government funds to either keep Maria’s husband quiet, or possibly fatten his own wallet. Hamilton was forced to give a response that was utterly self-destructive. In a published statement, the Federalist admitted—at great length—to the adultery, but vehemently denied any financial wrongdoings. Still, the damage had been done; Hamilton’s reputation would never fully recover.
Knowing what Callender was capable of, Jefferson helped the journalist skewer a new target in 1800. Using subsidies provided by the Sage of Monticello, Callender wrote an anti-Adams treatise called The Prospect Before Us. In this document, the president was depicted as an ill-tempered monarchist hell-bent on starting a war with France. “Take your choice,” it declared, “between Adams, war and beggary and Jefferson, peace and competency.”
An advanced copy of the 187-page takedown was sent to Jefferson, who gleefully told Callender, “Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effect.”
They did not, however, have the “best effect” on Callender’s life. In short order, The Prospect Before Us landed its author in jail. Accused of violating the Sedition Act, Callender was prosecuted and slapped with a nine-month prison sentence on June 4, 1800 [PDF]. By the time he was released in 1801, Jefferson had won the election. Here’s where the plot thickens: Once Callender’s incarceration ended, he demanded that the new president appoint him postmaster of Richmond. Jefferson refused. So in retaliation, Callender publicly claimed that the Commander-in-Chief had fathered several children by one Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave. Is this story true? The jury’s still out.
4. FOR A WHILE, IT LOOKED LIKE PENNSYLVANIA WOULDN’T PARTICIPATE.
Just as it is today, Pennsylvania was considered a swing state in 1800. By then, America’s political landscape had begun to take shape. Up in the north, New England could be relied upon to support the Federalists. Meanwhile, the southern states—with the notable exception of moderate South Carolina—were Democratic-Republican strongholds. The real battleground was the Mid-Atlantic. How New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania would vote in 1800 was anyone’s guess: Early on, some predicted that they’d back Jefferson, while others wrote them off as Adams’ territory. But in a startling twist, Pennsylvania almost abstained from the race entirely.
In 1799, Democratic-Republicans had seized control of the state's House of Representatives—but Federalists still controlled the State Senate (albeit, by a tiny margin). The result was a partisan showdown. Usually, Pennsylvania was one of the states that chose based on popular vote, but the matter of how popular votes would be converted to electoral votes was still to be decided. The Democratic-Republicans wanted all 15 to be chosen on a statewide general ticket (which would probably give all 15 to their candidate), while the Federalists wanted the state divided into 15 districts with each district choosing an individual elector (conveniently, these districts were drawn in such a way as to help out the Federalists as much as possible).
Given the stalemate, many—including Jefferson—feared that Pennsylvania simply wouldn’t vote at all. As historian Edward J. Larson observed in A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, “Nothing in the national Constitution actually required states to cast electoral votes.”
Thankfully, Pennsylvania’s voice was heard after all. At the eleventh hour, the local House and Senate reached an agreement. By virtue of its population, the Keystone State was legally allowed to choose 15 electors. But it was too late to have a general election under either method. So, as a compromise, its legislature selected eight Democratic-Republicans and seven Federalists on December 2, 1800. Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated three months later.
5. A PROTO-TAMMANY HALL HELPED DELIVER NEW YORK TO JEFFERSON.
Were it not for Aaron Burr, Adams might have won the Empire State—and, consequently, a second term. In the spring of 1800, New York was scheduled to hold its legislative elections, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: Whichever party outperformed the other in these races might clinch a legislative majority. Once this was done, the victorious faction could then dole out as it pleased all twelve of New York’s electoral votes.
For both parties, winning big in the Big Apple would be critical. New York City had long been a Federalist town. To change that, Burr basically perfected the modern, citywide political campaign. Using his intellect and charm, the Revolutionary War veteran and Democratic-Republican won over a group of loyal followers who dubbed themselves “Burrites.” He also worked with a social group called the Tammany Society to hold regular party meetings for Manhattan’s Democratic-Republicans.
If the name “Tammany Society” sounds familiar, it should: The organization would go on to become Tammany Hall, New York City’s infamous political Party machine. Established in 1789, it started out as a friendly club best known for throwing benign get-togethers like picnics. Soon, it attracted scores of immigrants, who used Tammany Society events to make new connections. Politics were seldom discussed.
But as time wore on, the club got partisan. By 1800, it had emerged as a magnet for Jeffersonians in Federalist New York City. Under Burr’s leadership, the Tammany Society sent volunteers out to knock on doors and ask for funds. And that’s not all: As the elections approached, Burr’s hand-picked orators could be found denouncing Adams on street corners throughout Manhattan.
This was exhausting work, and Burr knew it. Volunteers in need of a drink or nap could get both at the Burr residence. According to one observer (a New York merchant), “Col. Burr kept open house for nearly two months … Refreshments were always on the table, and mattresses were set up for temporary repose in the rooms.”
The polls opened on April 29 and closed three days later. Thanks to Burr’s unparalleled organizational skills, his triumphant party swept the New York City assembly seats. All 12 electoral votes would now go to Jefferson. Understandably, Burr couldn’t help but gloat a little—after the dust settled, he told one Federalist, “We have beat you by superior management.” Duly impressed by his efforts in the Big Apple, the Democratic-Republican party selected Burr as its vice presidential candidate.
6. HAMILTON HIT ADAMS WITH A 54-PAGE ATTACK.
Even Hamilton’s most ardent supporters questioned the wisdom of this decision. That the two men despised each other was an open secret within Federalist circles. Although he ostensibly supported Adams, Hamilton made no secret of his preference for Adams’s running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Previously, the second U.S. president had accused Hamilton of organizing a “British Faction” within the Federalist party. Behind closed doors, Adams also made disparaging remarks about the former Treasury Secretary’s illegitimate birth, referring to him as a “creole bastard.”
On October 22, 1800, Hamilton unleashed a scathing anti-Adams pamphlet. Fifty-four pages long, the document rivaled Callender’s The Prospect Before Us in its brutality. After acknowledging at the onset that Adams did have “talents of a certain kind,” Hamilton proceeded to compose a laundry list of perceived character flaws, such as the president’s “disgusting egotism” and “distempered jealousy.” Weirdly though, Hamilton ended the whole rant by telling his fellow Federalists to support Adams anyway. Talk about a mixed message.
The pamphlet was intended for circulation only among a very exclusive group of Federalists. But somehow, leaked excerpts appeared in Democratic-Republican newspapers. This forced Hamilton to publish the whole thing, much to the delight of Jeffersonians everywhere. James Madison for one could barely contain his schadenfreude. “It will be a thunderbolt to both [Adams and Hamilton],” declared the Virginian. When the dust settled, Hamilton’s diatribe had spectacularly backfired. On top of hurting the Federalist ticket in 1800, the essay mortally wounded its author’s reputation. As his friend Robert Troup wrote, most party insiders now saw Hamilton as being “radically deficient in discretion” and therefore unfit to lead. Soon enough, he’d recede from the national stage altogether.
7. DURING THE RACE, JOHN ADAMS BECAME THE FIRST PRESIDENT TO LIVE INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE.
Philadelphia began a 10-year stint as America’s capital in 1790. On June 11, 1800, it officially lost this title to a little city on the Potomac. Rustic and remote, Washington didn’t exactly look like its modern self at the time: When Congress and the president arrived in D.C., neither the Capitol Building nor the White House had been finished yet.
John Adams began settling into the latter on November 1. Fifteen days afterwards, he was joined there by First Lady Abigail Adams—who found the place underwhelming. “I [would] much rather live in the house at Philadelphia. Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places,” she said.
Regardless, the Adamses realized that their new home was, in Abigail’s words, “Built for history.” After he awoke from his first night’s sleep there, John waxed poetic about the mansion in a letter to his wife. “I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it,” he wrote. “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
8. A LONE ELECTORAL VOTE WENT TO JOHN JAY.
The Constitution’s framers didn’t foresee the rise of major political parties. As such, the Electoral College was not designed with national tickets in mind. Under the original rules, every elector was given two votes of equal value. He would then cast these for his two favorite candidates. To become America’s next Commander-in-Chief, a presidential hopeful had to win votes from a majority of the electors. Whoever emerged as the runner-up would land that great silver medal called the vice presidency. And because candidates weren’t running as presidential-vice presidential tickets, it was important to ensure the primary candidate was the winner, and the secondary candidate was the runner up.
If nobody clinched a majority in the Electoral College, or if there was a tie, the House of Representatives got to decide the winner. Simple as that.
A major flaw in the system emerged in 1800. Every elector was now either a Federalist or a Democratic-Republican. Presumably, they’d all vote for their party’s standardized presidential and vice presidential nominees. But voting in synch like this had serious consequences: When the Electoral College cast and tallied its ballots, there wasn’t a clear victor. With 73 votes apiece, Jefferson and Burr tied for first place. Trailing them was Adams, who received 65 votes while his running mate got 64. Why didn’t those two tie as well? Because the Federalists, anticipating this sort of problem, made sure that Pinckney finished slightly behind Adams. Accordingly, one—and only one—Federalist elector cast a vote for John Jay. Best remembered for his eponymous treaty, Jay served as both a Supreme Court justice and as the governor of New York. Also, as fans of Hamilton can tell you, he wrote a few of the very influential Federalist Papers. (Five, to be precise.)
9. IF IT WEREN’T FOR THE THREE-FIFTHS CLAUSE, ADAMS WOULD HAVE WON.
Let’s take a closer look at how Jefferson and Burr fared. You’ll recall that both of these men netted 73 electoral votes. Analyzing their performance reveals an uncomfortable truth.
The Constitution’s notorious three-fifths clause handed a disproportionate amount of power to the slave states—both in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. Consider this: In 1800, Massachusetts (which abolished slavery 17 years prior) was home to around 575,000 free citizens. Down south, Virginia boasted a free population of only 535,000 or so. And yet, while the Bay State only had 16 electoral votes, slave-holding Virginia possessed 21.
In total, this unfair clause gave the slave states 14 extra electors. Twelve of them went on to cast their votes for Jefferson and Burr, while the remaining two backed Adams and Pinckney. You do the math: Had the three-fifths clause not existed, Adams would have beaten both of his Democratic-Republican opponents by two votes.
This fact wasn’t lost on American abolitionists. Before Jefferson’s inauguration, one Federalist newspaper—the Mercury and New England Palladium—charged that he had made his “ride into the temple of Liberty on the shoulders of slaves.”
10. TWO STATE MILITIAS WERE READY TO REBEL IF JEFFERSON LOST.
The electors gathered in their respective state capitals to cast their votes on December 3, 1800, which wouldn't be officially counted until February 11 of the following year. Still, before 1800 came to a close, the press was able to deduce that Burr and Jefferson had tied. As per Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives was tasked with breaking the stalemate—but at the time, the House was controlled by a lame duck Federalist majority. Smelling an opportunity, House Federalists schemed to destroy Jefferson’s presidential hopes by voting for Burr.
But they couldn’t just make him Commander-in-Chief right then and there. By Constitutional law, when the House settles an Electoral College tie, its members don’t vote as individuals. Instead, one vote is given to the delegation from each state within the House. So in other words, all the representatives from, say, New Hampshire cast one solitary vote as a collective bloc.
To win in the House, Jefferson (or Burr) would need nine votes. But on the first ballot, Jefferson received eight and Burr got six. Two states—Vermont and Maryland—were evenly split between Burr and Jefferson supporters. Hence, both of them abstained. Over a tiresome, five-day period, the House voted 35 times and failed to make any headway.
Jefferson supporters were incensed by the gridlock. Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean, an ardent Democratic-Republican, declared that if the House didn’t back Jefferson, he’d send his state’s 20,000-man militia to march on Washington. James Monroe, then the governor of Virginia, was prepared to do likewise.
11. ONE CONGRESSMAN TIPPED THE SCALES IN JEFFERSON’S FAVOR.
Never one to sit idly by, Hamilton wrote to his Federalist colleagues on the Hill, warning them that a Burr presidency would prove disastrous. “In a choice of Evils, let them take the least,” Hamilton told one congressman. “Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”
Among those whom he contacted was Federalist James A. Bayard, Delaware’s only representative in the House. At first, Bayard disregarded Hamilton’s advice and supported Burr during the first 35 votes. But then, going into the 36th vote, he decided to abstain. Moreover, the Delawarean convinced several other Federalists to follow suit. Thanks to Bayard’s maneuvering, the lack of a Delaware vote meant Jefferson would have won—but Maryland and Vermont also joined the Jefferson column when their Federalists abstained, breaking the tie and giving Jefferson 10 states.
Why did Bayard suddenly cast his lot with Jefferson? A backroom deal may have been involved. Later in life, Bayard claimed that he’d contacted Jefferson three days before the decisive vote and made the would-be president agree to certain Federalist terms. In 1806, Jefferson called this allegation “absolutely false.” Still, it might explain why the Democratic-Republican Commander-in-Chief didn’t shut down Hamilton’s Bank of the U.S.
12. ADAMS DIDN’T ATTEND JEFFERSON’S INAUGURATION (BUT THEY MADE UP LATER).
For many years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been close friends. Together, they’d helped create the Declaration of Independence, worked in Europe as fellow diplomats, and had even stolen a piece of Shakespeare’s favorite chair. (Seriously.) But as their political careers diverged, the two became rivals. When Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801, Adams was nowhere to be found. Eight hours before the big event, he’d left Washington and started making his way back to the family farm in Braintree, Massachusetts. This made Adams the first president who chose to skip his successor’s swearing-in ceremony. (History repeated itself 28 years later, when John Quincy Adams boycotted Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. Like father, like son.)
Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn’t make amends until 1811, when the former casually told some houseguests, “I always loved Jefferson, and I still love him.” Mutual friends forwarded this comment along to Monticello. Jefferson was thrilled. “I only needed this knowledge to revive towards [Adams] all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives,” he proclaimed. Over the next 15 years, the two ex-presidents exchanged more than 150 friendly letters. They both died within hours of each other on the same day—July 4, 1826.