On the afternoon of September 23, 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson, from his Monticello home, wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush, the noted Philadelphia physician. One matter dominated Jefferson’s thoughts: that year’s presidential contest. Indeed, December 3, Election Day—the date on which the Electoral College would meet to vote—was only 71 days away.
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Jefferson was one of four presidential candidates. As he composed his letter to Rush, Jefferson paused from time to time to gather his thoughts, all the while gazing absently through an adjacent window at the shimmering heat and the foliage, now a lusterless pale green after a long, dry summer. Though he hated leaving his hilltop plantation and believed, as he told Rush, that gaining the presidency would make him “a constant butt for every shaft of calumny which malice & falsehood could form,” he nevertheless sought the office “with sincere zeal.”
He had been troubled by much that had occurred in incumbent John Adams’ presidency and was convinced that radicals within Adams’ Federalist Party were waging war against what he called the “spirit of 1776”—goals the American people had hoped to attain through the Revolution. He had earlier characterized Federalist rule as a “reign of witches,” insisting that the party was “adverse to liberty” and “calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.” If the Federalists prevailed, he believed, they would destroy the states and create a national government every bit as oppressive as that which Great Britain had tried to impose on the colonists before 1776.
The “revolution...of 1776,” Jefferson would later say, had determined the “form” of America’s government; he believed the election of 1800 would decide its “principles.” “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of Man,” he wrote.
Jefferson was not alone in believing that the election of 1800 was crucial. On the other side, Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who had been George Washington’s secretary of treasury, believed that it was a contest to save the new nation from “the fangs of Jefferson.” Hamilton agreed with a Federalist newspaper essay that argued defeat meant “happiness, constitution and laws [faced] endless and irretrievable ruin.” Federalists and Republicans appeared to agree on one thing only: that the victor in 1800 would set America’s course for generations to come, perhaps forever.
Only a quarter of a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first election of the new 19th century was carried out in an era of intensely emotional partisanship among a people deeply divided over the scope of the government’s authority. But it was the French Revolution that had imposed a truly hyperbolic quality upon the partisan strife.
That revolution, which had begun in 1789 and did not run its course until 1815, deeply divided Americans. Conservatives, horrified by its violence and social leveling, applauded Great Britain’s efforts to stop it. The most conservative Americans, largely Federalists, appeared bent on an alliance with London that would restore the ties between America and Britain that had been severed in 1776. Jeffersonian Republicans, on the other hand, insisted that these radical conservatives wanted to turn back the clock to reinstitute much of the British colonial template. (Today’s Republican Party traces its origins not to Jefferson and his allies but to the party formed in 1854-1855, which carried Lincoln to the presidency in 1860.)
A few weeks before Adams’ inauguration in 1796, France, engaged in an all-consuming struggle with England for world domination, had decreed that it would not permit America to trade with Great Britain. The French Navy soon swept American ships from the seas, idling port-city workers and plunging the economy toward depression. When Adams sought to negotiate a settlement, Paris spurned his envoys.
Adams, in fact, hoped to avoid war, but found himself riding a whirlwind. The most extreme Federalists, known as Ultras, capitalized on the passions unleashed in this crisis and scored great victories in the off-year elections of 1798, taking charge of both the party and Congress. They created a provisional army and pressured Adams into putting Hamilton in charge. They passed heavy taxes to pay for the army and, with Federalist sympathizers in the press braying that “traitors must be silent,” enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided jail terms and exorbitant fines for anyone who uttered or published “any false, scandalous, and malicious” statement against the United States government or its officials. While Federalists defended the Sedition Act as a necessity in the midst of a grave national crisis, Jefferson and his followers saw it as a means of silencing Republicans—and a violation of the Bill of Rights. The Sedition Act, Jefferson contended, proved there was no step, “however atrocious,” the Ultras would not take.
All along, Jefferson had felt that Federalist extremists might overreach. By early 1799, Adams himself had arrived at the same conclusion. He, too, came to suspect that Hamilton and the Ultras wanted to precipitate a crisis with France. Their motivation perhaps had been to get Adams to secure an alliance with Great Britain and accept the Ultras’ program in Congress. But avowing that there “is no more prospect of seeing a French Army here, than there is in Heaven,” Adams refused to go along with the scheme and sent peace envoys to Paris. (Indeed, a treaty would be signed at the end of September 1800.)
It was in this bitterly partisan atmosphere that the election of 1800 was conducted. In those days, the Constitution stipulated that each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who actually stood a chance of winning. The Constitution also stipulated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives “shall chuse by Ballot one of them for President.” Unlike today, each party nominated two candidates for the presidency.
Federalist congressmen had caucused that spring and, without indicating a preference, designated Adams and South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the party’s choices. Adams desperately wanted to be re-elected. He was eager to see the French crisis through to a satisfactory resolution and, at age 65, believed that a defeat would mean he would be sent home to Quincy, Massachusetts, to die in obscurity. Pinckney, born into Southern aristocracy and raised in England, had been the last of the four nominees to come around in favor of American independence. Once committed, however, he served valiantly, seeing action at Brandywine, Germantown and Charleston. Following the war, he sat in the Constitutional Convention; both Washington and Adams had sent him to France on diplomatic missions.