Though Jefferson and Burr had tied in the Electoral College, public opinion appeared to side with Jefferson. Not only had he been the choice of his party’s nominating caucus, but he had served longer at the national level than Burr, and in a more exalted capacity. But if neither man was selected by noon on March 4, when Adams’ term ended, the country would be without a chief executive until the newly elected Congress convened in December, nine months later. In the interim, the current, Federalist-dominated Congress would be in control.
Faced with such a prospect, Jefferson wrote to Burr in December. His missive was cryptic, but in it he appeared to suggest that if Burr accepted the vice presidency, he would be given greater responsibilities than previous vice presidents. Burr’s response to Jefferson was reassuring. He pledged to “disclaim all competition” and spoke of “your administration.”
Meanwhile, the Federalists caucused to discuss their options. Some favored tying up the proceedings in order to hold on to power for several more months. Some wanted to try to invalidate, on technical grounds, enough electoral votes to make Adams the winner. Some urged the party to throw its support to Burr, believing that, as a native of mercantile New York City, he would be more friendly than Jefferson to the Federalist economic program. Not a few insisted that the party should support Jefferson, as he was clearly the popular choice. Others, including Hamilton, who had long opposed Burr in the rough and tumble of New York City politics, thought Jefferson more trustworthy than Burr. Hamilton argued that Burr was “without Scruple,” an “unprincipled...voluptuary” who would plunder the country. But Hamilton also urged the party to stall, in the hope of inducing Jefferson to make a deal. Hamilton proposed that in return for the Federalist votes that would make him president, Jefferson should promise to preserve the Federalist fiscal system (a properly funded national debt and the Bank), American neutrality and a strong navy, and to agree to “keeping in office all our Foederal Friends” below the cabinet level. Even Adams joined the fray, telling Jefferson that the presidency would be his “in an instant” should he accept Hamilton’s terms. Jefferson declined, insisting that he “should never go into the office of President...with my hands tied by any conditions which should hinder me from pursuing the measures” he thought best.
In the end, the Federalists decided to back Burr. Hearing of their decision, Jefferson told Adams that any attempt “to defeat the Presidential election” would “produce resistance by force, and incalculable consequences.”
Burr, who had seemed to disavow a fight for the highest office, now let it be known that he would accept the presidency if elected by the House. In Philadelphia, he met with several Republican congressmen, allegedly telling them that he intended to fight for it.
Burr had to know that he was playing a dangerous game and risking political suicide by challenging Jefferson, his party’s reigning power. The safest course would have been to acquiesce to the vice presidency. He was yet a young man, and given Jefferson’s penchant for retiring to Monticello—he had done so in 1776, 1781 and 1793—there was a good chance that Burr would be his party’s standard-bearer as early as 1804. But Burr also knew there was no guarantee he would live to see future elections. His mother and father had died at ages 27 and 42, respectively.
Burr’s was not the only intrigue. Given the high stakes, every conceivable pressure was applied to change votes. Those in the deadlocked delegations were courted daily, but no one was lobbied more aggressively than James Bayard, Delaware’s lone congressman, who held in his hands the sole determination of how his state would vote. Thirty-two years old in 1800, Bayard had practiced law in Wilmington before winning election to the House as a Federalist four years earlier. Bayard despised Virginia’s Republican planters, including Jefferson, whom he saw as hypocrites who owned hundreds of slaves and lived “like feudal barons” as they played the role of “high priests of liberty.” He announced he was supporting Burr.
The city of Washington awoke to a crippling snowstorm Wednesday, February 11, the day the House was to begin voting. Nevertheless, only one of the 105 House members did not make it in to Congress, and his absence would not change his delegation’s tally. Voting began the moment the House was gaveled into session. When the roll call was complete, Jefferson had carried eight states, Burr six, and two deadlocked states had cast uncommitted ballots; Jefferson still needed one more vote for a majority. A second vote was held, with a similar tally, then a third. When at 3 a.m. the exhausted congressmen finally called it a day, 19 roll calls had been taken, all with the same inconclusive result.
By Saturday evening, three days later, the House had cast 33 ballots. The deadlock seemed unbreakable.
For weeks, warnings had circulated of drastic consequences if Republicans were denied the presidency. Now that danger seemed palpable. A shaken President Adams was certain the two sides had come to the “precipice” of disaster and that “a civil war was expected.” There was talk that Virginia would secede if Jefferson were not elected. Some Republicans declared they would convene another constitutional convention to restructure the federal government so that it reflected the “democratical spirit of America.” It was rumored that a mob had stormed the arsenal in Philadelphia and was preparing to march on Washington to drive the defeated Federalists from power. Jefferson said he could not restrain those of his supporters who threatened “a dissolution” of the Union. He told Adams that many Republicans were prepared to use force to prevent the Federalists’ “legislative usurpation” of the executive branch.
In all likelihood, it was these threats that ultimately broke the deadlock. The shift occurred sometime after Saturday’s final ballot; it was Delaware’s Bayard who blinked. That night, he sought out a Republican close to Jefferson, almost certainly John Nicholas, a member of Virginia’s House delegation. Were Delaware to abstain, Bayard pointed out, only 15 states would ballot. With eight states already in his column, Jefferson would have a majority and the elusive victory at last. But in return, Bayard asked, would Jefferson accept the terms that the Federalists had earlier proffered? Nicholas responded, according to Bayard’s later recollections, that these conditions were “very reasonable” and that he could vouch for Jefferson’s acceptance.
The Federalists caucused behind doors on Sunday afternoon, February 15. When Bayard’s decision to abstain was announced, it touched off a firestorm. Cries of “Traitor! Traitor!” rang down on him. Bayard himself later wrote that the “clamor was prodigious, the reproaches vehement,” and that many old colleagues were “furious” with him. Two matters in particular roiled his comrades. Some were angry that Bayard had broken ranks before it was known what kind of deal, if any, Burr might have been willing to cut. Others were upset that nothing had been heard from Jefferson himself. During a second Federalist caucus that afternoon, Bayard agreed to take no action until Burr’s answer was known. In addition, the caucus directed Bayard to seek absolute assurances that Jefferson would go along with the deal.