Thomas Jefferson was officially elected to the office of president of the United States on Feb. 17, 1801, after a bitterly contested contingent election against his fellow Democratic-Republican, Aaron Burr.
The first few presidential elections following the birth of the republic included an odd mechanic for electing the vice president. Rather than presidential and vice presidential candidates running from the same party, the constitution originally stated that the candidate with the most electoral votes would become president, while the candidate who came in second in the electoral college would be the vice president.
Then, as now, electors were empowered by the popular vote in each state to vote in the presidential election. The logic was that the states as political units, rather than simply a popular vote of the people, would elect a man to the most powerful office in the nation. At the time, mirroring the voting process apportioned to the states in the U.S. Senate, each elector cast two votes.
During the elections of 1788-1789 and again in 1792, George Washington won unanimously as each elector cast one vote in his favor. In the second vote, the electors voted for the their choice of vice president. John Adams won the honor in both of those elections and served as Washington's vice president for eight years. Though Washington did not formally belong to a political party, by the election of 1796 two parties had taken shape: the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson.
Like Washington, Adams did not formally belong to a party, though he drew his support largely from the Federalists and it was generally accepted that he was Washington's heir apparent. Though personally no great admirer of Adams, Hamilton instructed the Federalists to vote for Adams because he was politically opposed to Jefferson. The result was that Adams won the presidency, while Jefferson, who represented a completely different political worldview, won the vice presidency.
Because of their opposing politics, Adams and Jefferson, once great friends, became bitter rivals. As the 1800 election approached, both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans worked out a plan to ensure that their party would capture both the presidency and the vice presidency.
In his book “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote of the 1800 election: “New York had gone decisively for Jefferson, providing his slim margin of victory. And the man who had delivered the electors of New York to Jefferson's camp was the irrepressible Aaron Burr, whose price for this important contribution was a place on the ballot alongside Jefferson.”
With the Democratic-Republicans winning the majority of state electors, the party's plan for electing both Jefferson and Burr came into action. With seven electoral votes, the electors were instructed by the party to all vote in the first round for Jefferson. In the second round, all but one was instructed to vote for Burr, giving him 72 votes — still more than the 65 electoral votes Adams received from the states the Federalists won.
And this is where the Democratic-Republican plan fell apart.
In his book “Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America,” historian Thomas Fleming wrote: “When the politicians gathered in Washington under the baleful eye of the lame-duck president, John Adams, they made the stunning discovery that the Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, had 73 electoral votes — and so did the party's vice presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. ... The cause of the deadlock was rooted in the founders' determination to ignore the possibility of political parties.”
This deadlock highlighted problems that the Constitution had not foreseen, and the race would be thrown into the House of Representatives, unless a compromise between Jefferson and Burr could be worked out. Ellis wrote:
“Even though everyone acknowledged that the American electorate had intended to choose Jefferson as its president, Burr had done nothing to indicate his willingness to defer. (Altruistic acts of deference were alien to Burr's style.) So the man greeting Jefferson as he entered the Senate chamber was an infamous political schemer.”
Indeed, Burr had no intention of stepping aside, and the race did indeed go to the House of Representatives in early 1801. Both men pulled what strings they could to ensure victory, and though the the Democratic-Republicans had won a majority in both the House and Senate in the 1800 election, they were dealing with the outgoing House, which was still dominated by Federalists.
The contingent election in the House put Hamilton in the unlikely position of kingmaker. Though Jefferson's politics infuriated Hamilton, his detestation for Burr, a fellow New Yorker, was unmatched. Hamilton stated during the general election that “Mr. Burr (is) the most unfit man in the United States for the office of President.”
Sixteen states constituted the republic at the time, with each state's delegation representing one vote. An absolute majority was required for victory, and this meant Jefferson or Burr must capture nine state delegations. Hamilton worked feverishly to ensure that Burr would not become president, and after six days and 36 ballots, Thomas Jefferson was finally declared the winner on Feb. 17, 1801.
The fiasco eventually led to the 1804 creation of the 12 amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for each party to pick their own presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Also in 1804, Burr shot Hamilton in duel over an insult, though one wonders how much Burr's resentment for Hamilton's role in the 1800 election played a part.
Burr, bitter over his loss and still seeking power after Jefferson refused to include him on the 1804 party ticket, eventually fled west. He was arrested in 1807 on a charge of treason when he was involved in a conspiracy to detach the Louisiana Territory from the U.S. and set himself up as emperor. Evidence was lacking, and Burr was acquitted.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org