Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
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In the 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson, left, and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes, but public opinion sided with Jefferson. (The Granger Collection, New York—2)

Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and the Election of 1800

For seven days, as the two presidential candidates maneuvered and schemed, the fate of the young republic hung in the ballots

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(Continued from page 3)

Early the next morning, Monday, February 16, according to Bayard’s later testimony, Jefferson made it known through a third party that the terms demanded by the Federalists “corresponded with his views and intentions, and that we might confide in him accordingly.” The bargain was struck, at least to Bayard’s satisfaction. Unless Burr offered even better terms, Jefferson would be the third president of the United States.

At some point that Monday afternoon, Burr’s letters arrived. What exactly he said or did not say in them—they likely were destroyed soon after they reached Washington and their contents remain a mystery—disappointed his Federalist proponents. Bayard, in a letter written that Monday, told a friend that “Burr has acted a miserable paultry part. The election was in his power.” But Burr, at least according to Bayard’s interpretation, and for reasons that remain unknown to history, had refused to reach an accommodation with the Federalists. That same Monday evening a dejected Theodore Sedgwick, Speaker of the House and a passionate Jefferson hater, notified friends at home: “the gigg is up.”

The following day, February 17, the House gathered at noon to cast its 36th, and, as it turned out, final, vote. Bayard was true to his word: Delaware abstained, ending seven days of contention and the long electoral battle.

Bayard ultimately offered many reasons for his change of heart. On one occasion he claimed that he and the five other Federalists who had held the power to determine the election in their hands—four from Maryland and one from Vermont—had agreed to “give our votes to Mr. Jefferson” if it became clear that Burr could not win. Bayard also later insisted that he had acted from what he called “imperious necessity” to prevent a civil war or disunion. Still later he claimed to have been swayed by the public’s preference for Jefferson.

Had Jefferson in fact cut a deal to secure the presidency? Ever afterward, he insisted that such allegations were “absolutely false.” The historical evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Not only did many political insiders assert that Jefferson had indeed agreed to a bargain, but Bayard, in a letter dated February 17, the very day of the climactic House vote—as well as five years later, while testifying under oath in a libel suit—insisted that Jefferson had most certainly agreed to accept the Federalists’ terms. In another letter written at the time, Bayard assured a Federalist officeholder, who feared losing his position in a Republican administration: “I have taken good care of you....You are safe.”

Even Jefferson’s actions as president lend credence to the allegations. Despite having fought against the Hamiltonian economic system for nearly a decade, he acquiesced to it once in office, leaving the Bank of the United States in place and tolerating continued borrowing by the federal government. Nor did he remove most Federalist officeholders.

The mystery is not why Jefferson would deny making such an accord, but why he changed his mind after vowing never to bend. He must have concluded that he had no choice if he wished to become president by peaceful means. To permit the balloting to continue was to hazard seeing the presidency slip from his hands. Jefferson not only must have doubted the constancy of some of his supporters, but he knew that a majority of the Federalists favored Burr and were making the New Yorker the same offer they were dangling before him.

Burr’s behavior is more enigmatic. He had decided to make a play for the presidency, only apparently to refuse the very terms that would have guaranteed it to him. The reasons for his action have been lost in a confounding tangle of furtive transactions and deliberately destroyed evidence. It may have been that the Federalists demanded more of him than they did of Jefferson. Or Burr may have found it unpalatable to strike a bargain with ancient enemies, including the man he would kill in a duel three years later. Burr may also have been unwilling to embrace Federalist principles that he had opposed throughout his political career.

The final mystery of the election of 1800 is whether Jefferson and his backers would have sanctioned violence had he been denied the presidency. Soon after taking office, Jefferson claimed that “there was no idea of [using] force.” His remark proves little, yet during the ongoing battle in the House, he alternately spoke of acceding to the Federalists’ misconduct in the hope that their behavior would ruin them, or of calling a second Constitutional Convention. He probably would have chosen one, or both, of these courses before risking bloodshed and the end of the Union.

In the days that followed the House battle, Jefferson wrote letters to several surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence to explain what he believed his election had meant. It guaranteed the triumph of the American Revolution, he said, ensuring the realization of the new “chapter in the history of man” that had been promised by Thomas Paine in 1776. In the years that followed, his thoughts often returned to the election’s significance. In 1819, at age 76, he would characterize it as the “revolution of 1800,” and he rejoiced to a friend in Virginia, Spencer Roane, that it had been effected peacefully “by the rational and peaceful instruments of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

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