How John Adams Managed a Peaceful Transition of Presidential Power
In the election of 1800, for the first time in U.S. history, one party turned the executive office to another
President John Adams chased the dawn right out of Washington, D.C., departing the half-built city shortly after four o’clock in the morning on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1801. He knew it was time to go. In a battering election that pitted the incumbent Adams against his friend-turned-rival Thomas Jefferson, the New England Federalist suffered a humiliating and life-changing defeat. His popular predecessor, George Washington, swung into a second term easily. But the rules of the game had changed: Adams faced violent factionalism from within his administration, a seething press, rampant electioneering and the eruption of party politics.
To many, Adams’s track record in office was controversial at best, thanks to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts that heavily restricted freedom of speech and the press, as well as an unpopular approach to protecting a badly strained peace with the new republic in France. While Adams spent the summer of 1800 at his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, largely ignoring the pending fall election, ardent politician Alexander Hamilton and a newly minted corps of campaigners trawled for votes. Fanning out across cities and towns, they set political fires in the local press that blazed across the very states Adams needed to win, and wouldn’t. He watched from afar, loathing the campaign tactics taking root. “If my administration cannot be defended by the intrinsic merit of my measures & by my own authority, may it be damned,” he wrote to his son Thomas Boylston Adams in late August. The elder Adams held strong opinions on elections, informed by his close study of classical republics and Renaissance state formation. He hoped to be known as the 18th-century ideal of a disinterested public servant, so the subsequent hard loss at the polls meant one thing: Transfer power peacefully to a new president, thereby safeguarding the office and the nation it served.
To many eyes, the process of choosing a president looked very different as of 1800. For the first time, both political parties, Adams’ Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, used caucuses to nominate their candidates. Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a South Carolina politician, squared off against Jefferson and Aaron Burr, a former New York senator. Throughout the fall, the two sides tangled with each other in the press. At the time, mostly white, male landowners over the age of 21 could vote, and the popular vote paled in importance next to the actions of presidential electors.
The role of electors was much more than performative. Presidential electors ostensibly pledge to represent the states' interests (i.e. the popular vote), but the way that electors themselves were chosen in 1800 varied, and in some states, the legislatures picked electors who planned to pursue an openly partisan outcome. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans seized that ambiguity to great advantage, stacking the electors in their favor and cultivating their local agendas.
For many, the choice felt like a true fork in the road, since the candidates diverged widely on domestic and foreign policy. Federalist favoritism for British trade attracted some, while the Democratic-Republicans’ sympathy for France also held promise. The Federalists’ tax system, enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a split in party leadership were key, too. The election went on and on and on. Voting began in April and ended in December. The results among the electors were tight: 64 votes to Pinckney, 65 to Adams, and 73 apiece for Jefferson and Burr. Federalists swept their usual strongholds in New England, but then New York swung to the Democratic-Republicans, as did Pickney’s home state. “Your anxiety for the issue of the election is by this time allayed. How mighty a power is the spirit of party! How decisive and unanimous it is!” Adams wrote to his friend Elbridge Gerry in late 1800. Members of the House of Representatives readied to settle the dead heat between Jefferson and Burr in a contingent election.
Reactions to the election result ran hotter beyond the Adams-Jefferson bubble of the Capitol grounds. A general mood of crisis and fear of disunion plagued the press, as the House of Representatives took six days and 36 ballots before breaking Jefferson’s deadlock with Aaron Burr. Finally, James Bayard of Delaware and several Federalists from South Carolina, Vermont, and Maryland, cast blank ballots. This move ensured that Jefferson would secure the minimum number of states needed to win the presidency. With the democratic machinery intact, lawmakers turned to electoral reform.
The election of 1800 did not invent the idea of a peaceful transition of power from one set of ideals to another, but it did engrave the United States into history as a democracy. Both men vying for the presidency would have known Plato’s caution: Democracies thrived on the verge of oligarchy, and executive power—embodied by either president or king—risked turning into tyranny the longer its tenure. When did John Adams know his presidency was over, and what did he do about it? In the most technical sense, he lived (awkwardly) with the impending loss of power from December 1800, when key electoral votes failed to tip his way. He was not eager to stick around and watch the next inauguration.
Nor was his family. Wife Abigail Adams, the president’s most trusted adviser, had served as his one-woman cabinet for decades. Her view of the Adams administration as it faded into history offers scholars a new look at the power politics of the time. She hosted presidents, political adversaries, and foreign dignitaries over the years. She corresponded with Jefferson throughout the 1780s, finding common points of agreement on matters political, cultural and intellectual. Party rivalry now pulled them apart. Abigail Adams sat down to her last supper with Thomas Jefferson in January 1801, on a night when neither of them knew whether he would serve next as president or vice president. They shared “a curious conversation.” Jefferson despaired of a partisan Congress, adding that he found “more candor and liberality upon one side [the Democratic-Republicans] than there is upon the other.” Abigail pushed back, observing that, “Some are mere Brutes, others are Gentlemen—but party Spirit, is a blind spirit.”
When Jefferson later fished for a comment on her husband’s political loss, Abigail demurred. They shared a low laugh. In private, Abigail gave her gloomy view of Jefferson’s incoming administration with customary frankness: “His prospect is not a summer sea.” Like John, she began packing for home.
Historians can read plenty of pointed lessons in the presidential election of 1800. It is the revolution after the Revolution. It marks the birth of a party system and the visible decay of Federalist power. It shows a critical exercise of constitutional force by each branch of government, conducted under scrutiny that forever changed the fragile democracy with its drama, electioneering, and political partisanship. Americans would never elect their president the same way again. It is a surprisingly uncivil brawl between two aging revolutionaries, their long friendship soured by party politics.
But to citizens like Margaret Bayard Smith, the 18th-century author and political commentator, the day of Jefferson’s inauguration underscored the durability of American democracy. Raised in a Federalist household and married to a Democratic-Republican newspaper editor, Smith savored the shift. “I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness,” she wrote to her sister-in-law. “The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.” For Adams and Jefferson alike, the driving need to sustain the fledgling democracy and preserve the union overrode party demands.
The chief significance of the election of 1800, as Bayard Smith rightly identified it, was the peaceful transfer of power between two parties. As Adams battled through personal and professional defeats in 1800 and 1801, using “midnight appointments” to sculpt a Federalist judiciary as his legacy, the President reflected that the election of 1800 was about far more than two men trading power, or knowing when to let go. Rather, an election was the country’s best mirror. “In short one half the Nation has analyzed itself, within 18 months, past and the other will analyze itself in 18 months more,” he wrote to Abigail on November 15, 1800, as the election cycle wore on. “By that time the Nation if it has any Eyes, will see itself in a Glass. I hope it will not have reason to be too much disgusted with its own Countenance.”
In his last look around the presidential office, Adams weighed Jefferson’s challenges with unique appreciation. Then, quietly, he returned power to where it rightfully rests—with the people.
This is adapted from an essay written for Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association.
Editor's note, December 8, 2020: This story has been edited to clarify that some states allowed women, free blacks, and other Americans who did not fit the criteria of being male landowners.