Americans may not realize how close Aaron Burr (Left) came to becoming America’s third president instead of Thomas Jefferson (Right)
Presidential elections are important events in America. This is as true today as it was at the beginning of the country. At the time of the fourth presidential election under the Constitution, the future of the young republic was still in question. In 1800, the incumbent president of the United States, John Adams, ran for reelection against Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and Charles Pinckney. The close vote led to a high stakes decision by the House of Representatives between Jefferson and Burr as to who would win. After some backroom dealing and lobbying by both candidates, the House elected Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States after thirty-six rounds of voting. Some historians believe the country was headed for violence and possible separation if the election lasted much longer or Burr had won.
It’s important to understand events leading to the election of 1800. Our country’s founding generation was not above sometimes bitter political and personal quarrels. After the Constitution’s ratification in 1789, the country’s political class moved into two distinct factions, the Federalists and the Republicans, also referred to as Democratic-Republicans. Not unlike the political parties of today, these parties differed on the proper role of the federal government’s relationship with the states, with Federalists generally believing in a stronger role for the federal government than Republicans.
John Adams was a Federalist and Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, was his vice-president. In early elections under the Constitution, the second place finisher automatically became the vice-president despite any differences with the president. Adams and Jefferson, two very prominent members of the founding father generation became political adversaries.
Because the second place finisher automatically became vice-president, the two parties elected two candidates with the expectation that one would become president while the other would become vice-president. This is why Charles Pickney of South Carolina and Aaron Burr of New York were on the ballot. In the early days, the Constitution left the method of selecting members of the electoral college to the states. Eleven of the sixteen states at the time choose electors through their state legislature. The five remaining states had some form of a popular vote of electors.
As was the custom in early American elections, the candidates themselves did not campaign, leaving that to surrogates. However, what may be surprising to many Americans is that early elections also had elements of today’s politics. Candidates were called names and their adversaries tried to define them in the worst terms to the public. For instance, Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as cowardly for events that occurred during the Revolutionary War while he was governor of Virginia. As the sitting president, John Adams was labeled as a man with a temper, jealous, and even senile by his political enemies. For his part, Aaron Burr was viewed as a man who would do whatever he had to do to get power. The election of 1800 also was the first American election to have a prominent role by another institution – the media. Newspapers of the time did their part to provide sympathetic coverage for their chosen candidate.
After the campaigning was over, the electors in the crucial states of New York and South Carolina cast their ballots for the Republican candidates of Jefferson and Burr. These two men each received seventy-three electoral votes and that meant that under the Constitution, the House of Representatives would decide the election between them. After one term as president, John Adams was defeated for reelection.
Each of the sixteen states had one vote each to cast for president. Nine votes were needed to win. The rival Federalists controlled six states while the Republicans held eight and the states of Maryland and Vermont were split. The Republicans backed Jefferson and it appeared so did the public at large.
With the election deadlocked in the House of Representatives, what followed were some tense moments for America. At first, Burr appeared to be satisfied in accepting the role of vice-president. In December of 1800, Jefferson wrote to Burr and offered him a greater role in his administration. Burr appeared receptive to such overtures. However, Burr was first and foremost a politician. The Federalists had a majority in the House of Representatives and wanted to leverage their power. The Federalists offered Jefferson their support in exchange for policy concessions if he became president. Jefferson refused. After this, the Federalists backed Burr.
Voting in the House began on Wednesday, February 11, 1801. The result of the first vote was eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr and two states uncommitted because their electors were split. Jefferson failed to get the ninth state he needed to become president. At the end of the first day, nineteen votes were taken and all had the same outcome. By Saturday of the same week, thirty-three votes were completed. Still no movement.
By this time, an uneasiness hung over the entire country. Although not having reached a point of crisis, talk of violence began to appear. John Adams feared “a civil war was expected.” There was discussion that Virginia, Jefferson’s home state and the most populous state in the Union, was going to secede if Jefferson was not elected. Calls for a new constitutional convention were being made. Rumors spread that militias were arming themselves to drive the Federalists from power. At this early period of American history, the very existence of the country was in peril.
Enter one those obscure figures who had a largely unknown but important role in American history. The state of Delaware had one representative in the House of Representatives and thus controlled the entire vote of Delaware. Thirty-two year old James Bayard was that representative. A Federalist who had pledged his support for Burr, pressure began to grow on him to change his vote. Possibly fearing that his home state of Delaware would be taken over by another state if the Union dissolved, Bayard reached out to Jefferson. He wanted to determine if Jefferson would agree to the earlier concessions sought by the Federalists, principally the acceptance of the Federalist economic positions and keeping Federalists in positions of power in the government. Although Jefferson later denied any deal, Bayard appeared satisfied that Jefferson would agree to these Federalist demands.
Before dropping his support for Burr, the Federalists urged Bayard to make the same demands to Burr he had made earlier to Jefferson. He did just that. Although unclear to historians how Burr responded, it apparently was not enough to appease Bayard and the Federalists. On February 17, 1801, on ballot number thirty-six, Bayard abstained from voting on behalf of Delaware. This meant only fifteen states remained. With eight of those states, Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States and Aaron Burr became the third vice-president of the United States.
In 1804, while vice-president of the United States, Burr cemented his legacy by killing founding father Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel in New Jersey. Although he was acquitted, he later went on trial for treason for attempting to foster a rebellion against the United States.
After the election of 1800, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution changed the voting process for president. No longer would the office of the vice-president be given to the individual who finished second on the ballot for president. President and vice-president would be on separate ballots.
Smithsonian.com, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800 by John Ferling