On this date, February 17, 1801, after one tie vote in the Electoral College and 35 indecisive ballot votes in the House of Representatives, Vice President Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States over his running mate, Aaron Burr. This difficult and confusing election, which ended just a fortnight before a new president was to be inaugurated, exposed some serious defects in the presidential electoral machinery as set forth by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. But in the end, the principle of the peaceful transfer of power, this time from one political party to another prevailed, and our young republic survived yet another threat to her existence.
From Adams to Jefferson
To attempt making a long and confusing story short: John Adams’ presidency had been controversial. While the principle of peaceful transfer of power from one LEADER to another had indeed been established with his succession of the great George Washington, that was not the last trial faced by the infant American republic. Our country’s father had worried about the formation of political parties, but such things had inevitably arisen. This election of
1800 saw the first contest between these two political parties. And whether or not our system could survive the transfer of power from one political party to another remained an open question. Adams had faced the difficult question of how to handle the newly and violently emerged French Republic. Actual combat had in fact broken out on the high seas between ships of the Revolutionary French Navy, and the magnificent ships of the new American Navy, which John Adams had fathered (Pictured above is an action from that war… Feb. 6, 1799 the French frigate “L’Insurgente” is shot to pieces by the American frigate, “U.S.S. Constellation”). But Adams had managed to keep this undeclared Naval conflict from erupting into a full-blown war.
Nevertheless, Adams suffered the fate of all those who dare bravely to steer a middle-course between two extremes: he wound up being loathed and despised by both. But the Federalists who were nominally the party of Adams swallowed hard and nominated him against his one-time friend Thomas Jefferson, who was nominated by the Democrat-Republican Party. Far from being the blatant mockery that this has been called by some of today’s more advanced political thinkers, it was actually the forerunner of
the modern day Democratic Party. Jefferson had favored avoiding conflict with the French Republic. Alexander Hamilton (left), who had been Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury had come to loathe Adams even more than he hated Jefferson, not only because he favored conciliation with France over war, but to no small degree because Adams refused to recognize Hamilton as the leader of the Federalist Party. Not only were there two would be “heads” of the Federalists there were two for the Republicans — Aaron Burr had been nominated by them as Jefferson’s running mate, which he publicly touted as his role. Back in these early days of Presidential elections, the man who was running for President would be nominated for that, and his Vice- president would also run for President with the idea that the Vice president would get the second highest total. But sometimes it did not work out that way. The Vice Presidency would actually go to whomever would come in second. It is not like it is now wherein the President are nominated specifically for those spots and run for them on the same ticket. Burr ran with the understanding that he was to be VICE President. But secretly, he longed for the top spot. And while he did not actively ENcourage those who so believed with him, neither did he DIScourage them.
Thirty SIX Ballots later….
SO the Presidential Electors were chosen that November, and on Dec. 3 it became apparent that the improbable had happened. Hamilton had discouraged enough votes for Adams and his running mate Mr. Pinkney to land them out of the running with 64 and 63 electoral votes respectively. But this left Jefferson and his running mate, Burr with 73 votes each for the top spot. So the Federalists were definitely getting the boot, and it only remained for the House of Representatives to decide which of the top two – Jefferson or Burr would get the nod. This is where the unhappiness
of the losing Federalists, and the deviousness of Aaron Burr (above) came into play. As said, he wouldn’t say “yes”, but neither would he say “no.” And the Federalist electors were inclined to go with Burr just to stick it to Jefferson. On Feb.11, they got together in the new and unfinished capitol building in Washington D.C. to make their choice. The vote was to be by state, each state being decided by majority vote within the delegation, a minimum of nine states being required for the election to be won… if the state tied, then that was cast as a blank vote. On the initial ballot Jefferson got eight, six for Burr, and two states tied, so they cast no vote. So they tried again. The second try was not successful. Nor was the third, the fourth, the twenty second nor the thirtieth. The ballots kept on coming with no change. Congressmen slept on cots in the hallways to stay in touch. One ill congressman had his sick bed moved into a committee room and his ballot brought in for him to sign. Deals were attempted. One group of Federalists offered to go with Burr if he would agree to support their policies. Burr refused, but neither would he take his name out of the running. Finally Alexander Hamilton stepped forward and convinced enough of the Federalist electors to go for Jefferson to throw the vote in his favor. It wasn’t that he liked Jefferson, he just hated Burr more. On the morning of Feb. 17, on the thirty SIXTH ballot Jefferson was elected with ten states voting his way to four for Burr.
Adams and Jefferson Reconcile, Burr and Hamilton Do Not
Burr wound up as Vice President, and Hamilton wound up six feet under when Burr settled the score with him, killing Hamilton in a duel in in 1804 (pictured below). Burr, for his part was dropped from the ticket, and left the Vice Presidency in 1805. He was charged and brought to a public trial for treason in 1807 for
having suppos- edly schemed to raise a private army to invade the Florida territory, and encourage the secession of some western states from the Union. He was acquitted of all charges, but his political career was wrecked, and he lived on ignominiously before dying in 1836. Hamilton is now enshrined on the ten dollar bill. Thomas Jefferson left the presidency after his two terms were up having grown to hate the office. This man of so many profound contradictions – he authored the famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal” yet he owned slaves and never freed them — not even in his will — this man believed in a weaker president yet strengthened the office significantly with the Louisiana Purchase. He would never regard the presidency as a high point in his career. During the strain and bitterness of his political years he had become estranged from his one time friend John Adams. But during their long retirement, he and Adams rekindled their old friendship. They conducted a long correspondence which stands as likely their greatest gift to their country. Then on July 4th, 1824 – exactly 50 years to the day that the Declaration, which Adams had talked a reluctant Jefferson into writing was adopted, John Adams died. His last full sentence was: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He was unaware that Jefferson had in fact died — on that very same day, just a few hours earlier.
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“A History of the Democratic Party” – Gary L. Hilliard, Cincinnati, 1978, Unpublished,
“Presidential Campaigns” by Paul F. Boller Jr. , Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1984.
“John Adams” by David Mc Cullough Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
Thomas Jefferson = http://www.liberty1.org/defense.htm
Naval war = http://www.oldgloryprints.com/connie.htm
Alexander Hamilton = http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlexanderHamilton
Aaron Burr = http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=151
Burr/Hamilton Duel = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hamilton-burr-duel.jpg