This week in history: The presidential deadlock of 1801

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20 2013 7:15 p.m. MST

“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: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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