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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class


Discuss the election of 1800 and the arrival of Jeffersonian Democracy.

By 1800, President John Adams had lost the confidence of many Americans. They had let him know it. In 1798, for instance, he had issued a national thanksgiving proclamation. Instead of enjoying a day of celebration and thankfulness, Adams and his family had been forced by rioters to flee the capital city of Philadelphia until the day was over. Conversely, his prickly independence had also put him at odds with Alexander Hamilton, the leader of his own party, who offered him little support. After four years in office, Adams found himself widely reviled.

In the election of 1800, therefore, the Republicans defeated Adams in a bitter and complicated presidential race. During the election, one Federalist newspaper article predicted that a Republican victory would fill America with “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest.” A Republican newspaper, on the other hand, flung sexual slurs against President Adams, saying he had “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Both sides predicted disaster and possibly war if the other should win.


Republicans believed they had saved the United States from grave danger. An assembly of Republicans in New York City called the election a “bloodless revolution.” They thought of their victory as a revolution in part because the Constitution (and eighteenth-century political theory) made no provision for political parties. The Republicans thought they were fighting to rescue the country from an aristocratic takeover, not just taking part in a normal constitutional process.


The split in the Federalist party during the Adams administration made Thomas Jefferson's and the Republican party's prospects for winning the presidency in the election of 1800 very good.


Jefferson set out to differentiate his administration from the Federalists. He defined American union by the voluntary bonds of fellow citizens toward one another and toward the government. In contrast, the Federalists supposedly imaged a union defined by expansive state power and public submission to the rule of aristocratic elites. For Jefferson, the American nation drew its “energy” and its strength from the “confidence” of a “reasonable” and “rational” people.


Republican celebrations often credited Jefferson with saving the nation’s republican principles. In a move that enraged Federalists, they used the image of George Washington, who had passed away in 1799, linking the republican virtue Washington epitomized to the democratic liberty Jefferson championed. Leaving behind the military pomp of power-obsessed Federalists, Republicans had peacefully elected the scribe of national independence, the philosopher-patriot who had battled tyranny with his pen, not with a sword or a gun.

The Republican caucus named Thomas Jefferson as their presidential candidate and Aaron Burr for vice president, while the Federalists supported John Adams for president and C.C. Pinckney for vice president.


The final vote was 64 for Pinckney, 65 for Adams, and 73 each for Jefferson and Burr. Because of the unexpected deadlock between Jefferson and Burr, the House of Representatives would have to decide the election. According to the Constitution, voting was to be done by states (one vote each), not by individuals; thus 9 of the 16 states were needed to win.


The House of Representatives was controlled for several more months by the lame-duck Federalists, who were eager to elect Burr because he was from New York. They felt he would represent their interests more than Jefferson. Also, Burr would not step down as he was hoping to pick up the presidency through the back door.


Finally, on the 36th ballot Jefferson captured the presidency due to the failure of the Federalists to make the Republicans accept Burr.

The election of 1800 is significant in American History for three reasons:


1. The possibility of another such tie was removed by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804 which required the

electors to vote on separate ballots for president and vice president.


2. Jefferson later claimed that the election of 1800 was a "revolution" comparable to that of 1776. But it was no revolution in the sense of a massive popular upheaval or an upending of the political system. What was revolutionary was the peaceful and orderly transfer of power on the basis of an election whose results all parties accepted. This is considered a remarkable achievement by any country in this time in history as comparable developments would not take place in Britain for another generation.

3. The most important result of the election of 1800 and the Jeffersonian revolution was only in a change in the government's attitude toward the people. The Federalists openly advocated government by the rich for the rich. Chief Justice John Jay said it best: "Those who own the country ought to govern it." Let the rich rule, insisted many Federalist leaders, for they had the leisure with which to study the problems of governing. They also enjoyed all the advantages of intelligence, education and culture. The Republicans on the other hand advocated government by the rich FOR the interest of the common man. However, Jefferson did not advocate giving EVERY adult white male the vote. He favored government only for those men who were literate enough to inform themselves of the problems of society. BUT he had profound faith in the reasonableness and teachableness of the masses and in their collective wisdom when taught.