Intrigue in US House of Representatives


“But in choosing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote.”

— U.S. Constitution,

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3

“Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself.”

— Alexander Hamilton,

Letter to Rep. Harrison Gray Otis (MA)

Recent federal elections in the United States have led many commentators, observers, and television talking heads to opine that the country is more politically divided today than it has been at any time in its history. But those spouting such an opinion have likely not studied much history of American elections, or else they would believe no such thing.

Being the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes, we are probably more familiar than most with the electoral crisis of 1876 and the questionable Electoral Commission that settled that election and handed victory to Gov. Hayes. Other mid and late 19th century elections were nearly as hotly contested.

But today marks the 222nd anniversary of one of the most momentous votes in American election history — the one that handed the presidency to Vice President Thomas Jefferson, ended a weeklong drama of voting in the U.S. House of Representatives, and ended the incredible saga of a sitting vice president ousting the very person under whom he served. It also brought to an end of one of the ugliest, most insult-ridden elections the country has ever seen.

This was a period in history in which the man receiving the most electoral votes became president and the one getting the second most was vice president. As such, the 1796 election produced a Federalist President (Adams) and a Democratic-Republican Vice President (Jefferson), who would wage a rematch in the subsequent election four years later.

Entire books have been written about the 1800 election, but it was immensely ugly. The candidates did not directly campaign, but their proxies — often newspapers, clergymen and local officials — slung plenty of mud. Adams was said to have “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” and frequently called a “tyrant.” Not to be outdone, the Adams camp said that Jefferson was “mean-spirited” and “low-lived,” and that he was “an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.” Many of the insults are simply too crude to be reprinted here.

Jefferson’s shrewd political decision to make Aaron Burr, a New Yorker, his running mate, paid off as the party flipped New York to their side, and made gains elsewhere, while holding every state that he had carried four years before.

Under the terms of the Constitution as it then existed, the parties each made a plan to have one elector abstain in the voting for their vice presidential candidate, so that their presidential choice would get one more vote and be elected to the top office. The Federalists carried out that plan, with Adams getting 65 votes and Charles Pinckney getting 64. But the Democratic-Republicans failed to execute theirs and the 73-73 tie sent the choice of president to the House of Representatives.

The House began voting on Feb. 11, 1801. If we thought the multiple ballots for Speaker were something to behold this year, they were nothing compared to the drama for the presidency 222 years ago. Some Federalists so hated Jefferson that they devised a plan to vote for Burr in order to deny Jefferson the White House. And since the Federalists still controlled the House, they had the means to potentially do so.

Enter Hamilton, who was no fan of Jefferson, but who knew that Jefferson at least had principles (even if he disagreed with them), as opposed to the scoundrel Burr, who simply had none. He engaged in a furious letter writing campaign to attempt to get his fellow Federalists to abandon the scheme.

Over the course of a week and through 35 successive ballots of the House of Representatives, eight state delegations cast the majority of their votes for Jefferson. Six cast a majority of theirs for Burr, and two — Maryland and Vermont — were equally divided. Because there were 16 states at the time, nine delegations were needed to win the day. Finally, on Feb. 17, James Bayard of Delaware abandoned the scheme and changed his vote from Burr to an abstention. It signaled Federalists in Maryland and Vermont to change their votes and those in South Carolina to abstain, permitting Jefferson to garner 10 states, Burr four, and two with only abstentions. Jefferson had won.

Four years later, Jefferson would drop Burr from the ticket in his reelection. Burr would run for governor of New York instead, lose miserably, and blame the loss, in part, on Hamilton. He would demand that Hamilton publicly retract comments attributed to him, and Hamilton would refuse, setting up the New Jersey duel in which Burr would shoot and kill Hamilton. Burr’s subsequent life was as fascinating and scandalous as his life to that point had been.

America survived those turbulent political times, just as it will survive the current one. As always, we can be informed and enlightened by a study of our past, giving hope for our future.

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