The Election of 1800

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both members of the Democratic-Republican party, received 73 electoral votes. (Adams got 65.) How to break the tie? The Constitution provides for this, empowering the House of Representatives to choose the president through a direct popular vote. This was before the candidates were running for president and vice-president. The Founding Fathers assumed that voters would naturally vote this way; but in this instance, that was not what happened.

This was the fourth presidential election in the young nation's history. George Washington had been elected unanimously for both of his terms, then retired. In his farewell address, he urged the political leaders of the time not to engage in party politics, for fear of dividing the nation. The political leaders of the time did not listen, however, and formed political parties that reflected their views.

The two main political parties at this time were the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. The leaders of the Federalist Party, which favored protection of the wealthy, were Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Jay. The leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party, which favored protection of the common people, were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Burr was also a Democratic-Republican.

Jefferson was vice-president to Adams, who was elected in 1796 and ran for re-election in 1800. Many voters were fed up with Federalist policies in 1800 (especially after the passage and subsequent enforcement of the Alien and Sedition acts) and so voted for Jefferson and Burr. Trouble was, both candidates ended up with the same number of electoral votes. So into the House of Representatives the election went.

It should also be noted here that Hamilton and Jefferson, as leaders of their respective political parties, were bitter enemies. They disagreed savagely on the role of government in people's lives and the role of the United States in the larger world. They were enemies across the political divide. The rift between Hamilton and Burr, however, was a personal one. For whatever reason, the two men detested each other personally, a scorn that went far beyond the political disagreements that Hamilton and Jefferson had. And so when Hamilton saw that Burr had a chance of becoming President, he jumped into the fray.

Choosing to argue for the election of one political rival over another, Hamilton worked behind the scenes to ensure that Burr was not the new president. The House of Representatives eventually, on the 36th ballot, chose Jefferson. Burr became vice-president.

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