Sunday, February 18, 2007

February 17, 1801:

The US House Elects Thomas Jefferson President

On February 17, 1801, the US House of Representatives, after a week of fruitless balloting, finally elected Thomas Jefferson as the third president of the United States. The 1800 electoral vote had, unexpectedly, tied at 73 for Jefferson, 73 for Aaron Burr (the Democratic-Republican vote), 65 for John Adams, 64 for Charles Pinckney, and one for John Jay (the Federalist vote). Under the rules originally established by the US Constitution, each elector cast two votes, but without distinction as to which was for president or vice president. Whomever received a majority of votes was elected president; the second largest number won the vice presidency.

With that in mind, the Federalists had one of their number cast a ballot for John Jay, to allow John Adams the higher number. The Democratic-Republicans had planned to follow the same strategy, but unaccountably did not.

"I thought you were supposed to refrain from voting for Burr."

"Me, Sir? Didn't you receive my message?"

So the election fell to the House of Representatives -- a lame-duck body controlled by Federalists who had to select among two members of the opposition. Alexander Hamilton, though a Federalist among Federalists, was instrumental in the eventual election of Jefferson because he considered him the lesser of two evils when compared to Burr. No doubt this added fuel to Burr's hatred of Hamilton, with well-known deadly consequences a few years later.

The country has had few other presidential elections as deeply contentious as that of 1800, though it would be topped in that regard in 1860, much to the nation's sorrow. "The presidential election of 1800 was an angry, dirty, crisis-ridden contest that seemed to threaten the nation's very survival," wrote Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale, in the September 2004 issue of History Now. "A bitter partisan battle between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson, it produced a tie between Jefferson and his Republican running mate, Aaron Burr; a deadlock in the House where the tie had to be broken; an outburst of intrigue and suspicion as Federalists struggled to determine a course of action; Jefferson's election; and Burr's eventual downfall... It also pushed partisan rivalry to an extreme, inspiring a host of creative and far-reaching electoral ploys. As a sense of crisis built, there was even talk of disunion and civil war, and indeed, two states began to organize their militias to seize the government if Jefferson did not prevail."

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