The Election of 1800

The Capitol building before it was burnt down. It is much smaller than the modern Capitol building and does not have a dome.

The year 1800 brought about a host of changes in government, in particular the first successful and peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. But the year was important for another reason: the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. (pictured here in 1800) was finally opened to be occupied by the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia. William Russell Birch, A view of the Capitol of Washington before it was burnt down by the British, c. 1800. Wikimedia.

Meanwhile, the Sedition and Alien Acts expired in 1800 and 1801. They had been relatively ineffective at suppressing dissent. On the contrary, they were much more important for the loud reactions they had inspired. They had helped many Americans decide what they didn’t want from their national government.

By 1800, therefore, President 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.

In the end, the contest came down to a tie between two Republicans, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and Aaron Burr of New York, who each had 73 electoral votes. (Adams had 65.) Burr was supposed to be a candidate for vice president, not president, but under the Constitution’s original rules, a tie-breaking vote had to take place in the House of Representatives. It was controlled by Federalists bitter at Jefferson. House members voted dozens of times without breaking the tie. Public alarm mounted as the deadlock dragged on, and Burr and his political allies conspired behind the scenes to win key state votes. In the end, however, Alexander Hamilton, believing that Burr was a dishonorable man, persuaded a few Federalists to stop supporting him. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Thomas Jefferson emerged victorious.

Thomas Jefferson

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, via White House Historical Association.

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.

In his first inaugural address, however, Thomas Jefferson offered an olive branch to the Federalists. He pledged to follow the will of the American majority, whom he believed were Republicans, but to respect the rights of the Federalist minority. And his election set an important precedent. Adams accepted his electoral defeat and left the White House peacefully. “The revolution of 1800,” Jefferson would write years later, did for American principles what the Revolution of 1776 had done for its structure. But this time, the revolution was accomplished not “by the sword” but “by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.” Four years later, when the Twelfth Amendment changed the rules for presidential elections to prevent future deadlocks, it was designed to accommodate the way political parties worked.

Despite Adams’s and Jefferson’s attempts to tame party politics, though, the tension between federal power and the liberties of states and individuals would exist long into the nineteenth century. And while Jefferson’s administration attempted to decrease federal influence, Chief Justice John Marshall, an Adams appointee, worked to increase the authority of the Supreme Court. These competing agendas clashed most famously in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, which Marshall used to establish a major precedent.

The Marbury case seemed insignificant at first. The night before leaving office in early 1801, Adams had appointed several men to serve as justices of the peace in Washington, D.C. By making these “midnight appointments,” Adams had sought to put Federalists into vacant positions at the last minute.  Upon taking office, however, Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, had refused to deliver the federal commissions to the men Adams had appointed. Several of the appointees, including William Marbury, sued the government, and the case was argued before the Supreme Court.

Marshall used Marbury’s case to make a clever ruling. On the issue of the commissions, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Jefferson administration. But Chief Justice Marshall went further in his decision, ruling that the Supreme Court reserved the right to decide whether an act of Congress violated the Constitution. In other words, the court assumed the power of judicial review. This was a major (and lasting) blow to the Republican agenda, especially after 1810, when the Supreme Court extended judicial review to state laws. Jefferson was particularly frustrated by the decision, arguing that the power of judicial review “would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.”