To answer the question of why the Election of 1800 was important, one must first understand the political reality within which our founders lived.
As the reaction to the Federalist Papers and the new Constitution suggested, not everyone was in agreement with the direction of the newly-formed United States of America. The founders constantly lived with the fear that the Union could dissolve at any moment.
With this fear in the background, every crisis the young nation faced was cause for alarm.
Almost every major event, from the controversy over Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan, to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, to George Washington stepping down after two terms, to the “XYZ” Affair and subsequent Quasi War with France cast doubt onto the chances of the Union’s survival.
Worse yet, while these events were all causes for alarm, perhaps the greatest fears were partisan in nature.
Our founders recognized the evils of political parties and their inherent ability to factionalize and drive the nation apart. In essence the political “parties” at the time were nothing like the modern iterations.
While the founders abhorred political parties, they struck temporary arrangements to defeat their enemies in order to protect the ideals of the Revolution. Both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans used this logic, truly believing in their minds that the opposing party would destroy the United States.
The election of 1800 is importantly remembered as a significant transition moment in US history as the first time where one party peacefully transitioned power to the opposing party. What is less-known is just how contentious the election was and the Constitutional crisis that nearly dissolved the Union.
Election of 1800 Candidates
The primary candidates of the election of 1800 were split between the two parties of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists supported incumbent President John Adams and his running mate Charles Pinckney from South Carolina. The Democratic-Republicans chose incumbent Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr from New York.
The election of 1800 was less a battle between two political parties and more a struggle between two fundamentally different political and constitutional systems.1
Federalists favored a larger, more centralized government that focused on capitalist expansion. On the other hand, Democratic-Republicans feared centralized power and emphasized individual liberties.
Political parties were abhorred at the time and there was no such thing as a party platform. However, each side truly believed that a victory by their opponents would spell doom for the nation.
It is thus that these new “parties” were originally organized as a temporary arrangement; a gentlemen’s agreement where men staked their honor on voting with their “party” despite major differences of opinions.2
The candidates of the election of 1800 faced a particularly nasty campaign filled with personal insults, smears, and outright fabrications of the truth. Virtually nothing was off-limits in attempting to persuade the populace to vote for a particular candidate.
John Adams was portrayed as a man lacking masculine virtues as well as a power-hungry aristocrat that would destroy individual liberties.
Meanwhile, Jefferson was attacked as an atheist who was unfit for office, as well as a francophile who wanted to mold the US like the new French republic. His relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings was exploited as rumors swirled that he had fathered multiple children with her.3
Each presidential candidate chose a running mate from the opposite region in the hopes of capturing a greater number of voters.
Who Won the Election of 1800?
The eventual winner of the election of 1800 was Thomas Jefferson. It took a vicious campaign, as well as a Constitutional crisis to arrive at this revolutionary moment. The Democratic-Republicans won the election primarily because they were much more organized than the Federalists.1
At the time most states chose their presidential electors for the electoral college via their respective state legislatures. Given the political landscape across the nation, the New York state legislature election in May 1800 was considered the most crucial of the entire election of 1800.
Aaron Burr was uniquely-suited to succeed in this election as a current Senator from New York. Burr innovated in multiple ways to turn the election towards the Democratic-Republicans, one of which reportedly involved compiling a list of every single New York City voter and their political leanings to help door-to-door electioneering efforts.2
Burr’s strategy succeeded as New York elected a majority of Democratic-Republican candidates, therefore flipping a state that helped Adams win in the 1796 election.
The Democratic-Republicans were perhaps too well-organized as every single elector voted for both Jefferson and Burr. The final tally resulted in a tie as Jefferson and Burr both received 73 electoral votes while Adams received 65, Pinckney 64, and NY Governor John Jay just one.
The Constitution at the time did not differentiate between Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates and thus the electoral tie was to be decided in the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives.
After six days and thirty-five ballots, no winner had been chosen and the Constitutional crisis deepened. Two southern states even began to organize their militias to seize the republic if Jefferson was not eventually chosen the winner.2
Finally on the thirty-sixth ballot, enough Federalists were convinced to vote for Jefferson to break the tie. Jefferson would win the contingent election ten votes to four.
It is interesting to note the role that slavery played in the election of 1800. With the three-fifths compromise embedded in the Constitution, southern states that voted Democratic-Republicans were granted an additional 14 electoral votes that helped secure the election for Jefferson.4
Hamilton’s Role in the Election of 1800
The influential Federalist Alexander Hamilton played a major role in the election of 1800. Hamilton was one of the Federalist leaders that truly believed the Union was in jeopardy should the Democratic-Republicans win the crucial election.
He thus matched Aaron Burr’s vigor in the New York state legislature election, racing from precinct to precinct attempting to sway voters to the Federalist cause. Upon realizing the Federalists lost, Hamilton proposed drastic action.
In a letter penned to New York Governor John Jay in the days following the Federalist loss, Hamilton urged Jay to immediately call the current Federalist-dominated New York legislature and attempt to change the method of selecting electors for the Electoral College.2
By switching from electors nominated by the state legislature to electors nominated by popular vote in carefully-drawn districts, Hamilton could ensure that New York would now nominate Federalist-leaning electors.
Jay ignored Hamilton’s duplicity, writing at the bottom of the letter, “Proposing a measure for party purposes wh. I think it wd. not become me to adopt.”2
With that failed attempt, Hamilton acted bizarrely in the following months, seemingly withdrawing his support of John Adams. Just two months before the Electoral College met, Hamilton published a scathing attack against Adams which no doubt played a role in his eventual defeat.4
Hamilton played one final role in the contingent election of 1801 as the House of Representatives met to decide who would be President.
The House was split on voting between Jefferson and Burr. The Federalists largely viewed Jefferson as their mortal enemy, and most thought Burr would be better to work with.
After thirty-five ballots the vote was still undecided. Hamilton ceaselessly worked throughout the process to convince enough Federalists to switch their vote to Jefferson.
Despite being diametrically opposed, Hamilton calculated that Jefferson was weak and hesitating and would therefore be a far less dangerous President than Burr.3
Hamilton’s support eventually helped enough Federalists switch from Burr to Jefferson to break the stalemate on the thirty-sixth ballot.
Why the Election of 1800 was Important
The election of 1800 was important as it was the first time in the history of the United States where one party peacefully transferred power to the other due to election results.
While shifts in regimes had taken place at the local and state levels before, this was the first time it happened at the national level.1
The election was also important due to the Constitutional crisis it spurred. The Constitution did not have a method to differentiate between Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates in the electoral college.
Given the electoral tie, it was a plausible scenario that the Vice Presidential candidate, Aaron Burr, could have been selected as the President. A result such as this could have jeopardized faith in the Constitution and the Union along with it.
The experiences of the 1796 election (where two opposing parties won the President and Vice President offices) and the 1800 election directly led to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution providing the current method of selecting a President and Vice President.
The election of 1800 was also important as it largely was the first election where political parties were loosely organized to encourage uniform support at the national level. The superior organization of the Democratic-Republicans largely contributed to their ultimate victory.
The lessons learned in the 1800 election would be replicated in subsequent years as political parties became more permanently entrenched at the national level.
Ultimately some historians suggest that the theme of the election of 1800 centered around the idea of a big vs small central government. Citizens unhappy with the perceived big government overreach of the Adams administration voted for Jefferson in a rebuke of Federalist policies.
The election of 1800 would usher in an era of Democratic-Republican dominance for over two decades until the hotly-contested “corrupt bargain” in the election of 1824.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Howe, John. “Politics in the Early Republic and the Election of 1800.” Reviews in American History, vol. 3, no. 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, pp. 316–21, https://doi.org/10.2307/2701741.
2) Freeman, Joanne B. “The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 108, no. 8, The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc., 1999, pp. 1959–94, https://doi.org/10.2307/797378.
3) Lerche, Charles O. “Jefferson and the Election of 1800: A Case Study in the Political Smear.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 4, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1948, pp. 467–91, https://doi.org/10.2307/1920636.
4) Ferling, John. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 109, no. 1, Virginia Historical Society, 2001, pp. 97–99, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249897.