America’s Long Journey: The Election of 1800

The fratricidal election of 1800: Adams against Hamilton, Adams against Jefferson, Jefferson against Hamilton, Jefferson against Burr, Hamilton against Burr. It was an ugly mess, and perhaps it was as well that Washington had died the previous December, and was spared having to observe the sorry spectacle.

Adams against Hamilton In 1800, Adams nearly single-handedly prevented a de facto naval war with revolutionary France from escalating into full scale war. In the process, he fatally alienated his Federalist base. He knew it would, too, but Adams, being Adams, did what he thought right regardless of consequences. Rank and file Federalists approved, but the party leaders didn’t. They didn’t much like Adams, first to last. That year, finally, after suffering disloyalty and sabotage from within his own Cabinet for three years, Adams took steps. He requested and accepted the resignation of one disloyal Secretary and fired another, and for the first time a majority of his Cabinet was loyal to him rather than to Hamilton. The federalists couldn’t prevent his re-nomination, but they could, and did, sabotage his chances, hoping to obtain more votes for vice-presidential nominee Charles Pinckney than Adams received. Hamilton wrote a particularly scathing letter of criticism of Adams, which the Republicans obtained and promptly published. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

Adams against Jefferson. The two old friends were honest, public-spirited patriots, who had sacrificed a good bit of their lives to public service. From the time they met in Philadelphia in 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, through the years of the revolution and afterward, they had delighted in each other’s intellect and motivation and special abilities. But Jefferson was by nature a genial Southern optimist, Adams a dour New England pessimist, and their friendship did not escape the great polarization caused by the French Revolution. Adams thought many of Jefferson’s political and social ideas were dangerously impractical, and risked having the American revolution descend into the chaos that had followed the French. But even in the depths of their estrangement, Adams said, “I have always loved Jefferson.” It wasn’t a personal animus between the men, but a deep-set opposition of convictions, that parted them. Their followers, however, excelled in bitterness, and made all manner of vile accusations in the name of their supposed chiefs.

Jefferson against Hamilton. The man who had sat across from Hamilton in Washington’s first Cabinet had no doubt whose ideas and whose machinations were causing the republic to take the wrong course. Jefferson opposed centralization of power, and concentration of population in cities, and a continuing federal debt, and the build-up of a large military and naval establishment, and the internal taxes necessary to support it, and a foreign policy that seemed tilted toward the British and against the French. He opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and everything that looked like federal interference in the affairs of states or citizens. Many of the accusations made against Adams were in fact criticisms of Hamilton’s policies, continuing, so to speak, beyond the political grave. (That is, Hamilton was too controversial to be elected, but he had a political machine, and, as said, he had moles in the Adams cabinet.)

Jefferson against Burr. Burr ran on Jefferson’s ticket, and there wasn’t a voter in the country who didn’t know which man was nominated for president and which for vice president. But when the electoral college ballots were counted on February 11, 1801, Jefferson and Burr had 73 electoral votes apiece, John Adams 65 votes, Charles C. Pinckney 64. Burr, being Burr, couldn’t resist an opportunity to pull a fast one, and he tried to win in the House of Representatives, where each state had one vote, and nine votes (a majority of the 16 states) were required. Burr didn’t make merely a token effort, either. The Federalists who controlled the lame duck Congress, desperate to defeat Jefferson and seeing no chance of electing either Adams or Pinckney, threw their support behind Burr. (Is it any wonder that Washington hadn’t trusted Burr?)

Hamilton against Burr. This wasn’t a very happy election for Alexander Hamilton. His Federalist political machine in New York City opposed Adams, whom he had never liked, but at the same time he despised Jefferson’s political philosophy and feared for the country if he should come into power. And then, worse yet, Aaron Burr, who had a political machine of his own, was running for vice-president, and then was maneuvering to become president, and just might succeed. That was Hamilton’s worst nightmare. He detested Burr, distrusted him, feared him. Once it came down to Jefferson or Burr, Hamilton used all his influence with the Federalists to thwart Burr. After several days, and 36 ballots, several Federalists abstained from voting, thus breaking the tie and making Jefferson president. Burr became vice president, but he never doubted that it was Alexander Hamilton’s influence that ultimately defeated him. It was one more item on the scales of political and personal hatred that would end three years later in a fatal duel.

So now the ship of state would proceed on the opposite tack, and Thomas Jefferson would try his policies. For a good while, all would go well, and then, not so well, a pattern (though he could not know it) that would apply to most two-term presidents.

And honest, inner-directed John Adams had the satisfaction of knowing that he had done the right thing instead of the popular thing. Years later, he said that what he wanted on his tombstone was, “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of Peace with France in the year 1800.”


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