Joe Biden was elected President in 2020. Attempts to undermine that result have been troubling, yet disputed elections are not new. While political pundits and the broader media establishment have framed attacks on the electoral outcome as unprecedented, the past says otherwise. U.S. history includes Presidential Elections even more disruptive than the recent one. Understanding those past events can provide a perspective for current times.
The first disputed election was in 1800, but the stage had been set a few years earlier. Once a new Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, George Washington became President by unanimous vote in the Electoral College. He was also re-elected unanimously in 1792.
When Washington decided not to run for a third term, Vice President John Adams was the presumptive next President in the eyes of many. However, fault lines formed in that 1796 election.
While the framers of the Constitution feared creating “factions” (i.e., political parties), these same framers moved into those divisions early on. The Federalists favored a strong central government and a powerful executive. Simultaneously, the anti-Federalists—who became known as Democratic-Republicans—wanted a weaker central government, with greater power to individual states and a robust Bill of Rights.
Across the Atlantic, war clouds loomed between England and France, and this also had a part of the developing partisanship. Federalists leaned toward allegiance to their mother country, while many anti-Federalists felt a kinship to the French Revolution.
Adams was a Federalist, but then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson led the anti-Federalists and ran against him. Under the Constitution, the first-place finisher in the Electoral College would be President, with the Vice Presidency going to the second-place finisher.
In a precursor of what was to come, the campaign included charges and counter-charges, but Adams won the Electoral College with 71 votes. Jefferson had 68 votes and would become Vice President.
A President and Vice-President with divergent political views was a recipe for disaster. The Twelfth Amendment corrected this, but not until 1804.
President Adams was caught in the middle, with Jefferson undermining him from the anti-Federalist side. At the same time, much of his Cabinet – holdovers from the Washington administration – took their cues from former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, not the moderate Adams. Hamilton held no Cabinet position but was working behind the scenes in favor of an ultra-Federalist position. This included advocating war with France, which was contrary to the sentiment of Adams and the anti-Federalist Jefferson.
Congress, dominated by Federalists, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts: a set of four laws which made it (among other things) a crime to make false statements critical of the federal government despite dubious Constitutionality.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were ripe for attack by the anti-Federalists. Jefferson anonymously helped draft the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which argued that states could nullify a federal law they felt was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Adams dismissed Cabinet secretaries who had been loyal to Hamilton, a growing sign of infighting by the Federalist party.
That was the backdrop leading to the election of 1800, with Adams running for re-election. This time, he hoped that his running mate, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney, would come in second place.
By this time, Hamilton had become entirely disillusioned with Adams, even though both fell under the Federalist banner. Continuing to work behind the scenes, he attempted to sway the election toward Pinckney, attacking Adams in the fifty-four-page screed that became public, further splintering the Federalists.
For the Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson ran as President with Aaron Burr as his running mate.
The partisan press came out in full force. One newspaper characterized Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” which in literal terms meant having both male and female genitalia. A Federalist writer claimed that “rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced” if Jefferson won.
The Constitution specifies that representatives to the Electoral College are chosen “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” In 1800, most state Legislatures selected Electors themselves, with some states using a popular vote. With an eye toward an electoral advantage, the Virginia Legislature moved to a popular vote system, correctly viewing that this would result in all twenty-one Electoral votes going to the Jefferson-Burr ticket. In a similar view toward the desired result, Federalist legislators in Massachusetts and New Hampshire moved to direct Legislature appointment, as did the Democratic-Republican legislature in Georgia. Partisanship was on full display.
(These legislative actions occurred before the election. The Constitution prohibits “Ex Post Facto” laws, i.e., changing the rules after the fact.)
Both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans believed the future of the country would be disastrous if the other side won.
Each state specified its own election day, and voting took place from April to October. Adams and Pinckney came up short. Jefferson and Burr received the most Electoral votes, tying at 73 votes each. Under the Constitution, breaking the tie would fall to the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote.
The Federalists saw an opportunity. Though neither of their candidates, Adams or Pinckney, would become President, most loathed Jefferson and did not want to see him as President. Also, they recognized Burr as highly ambitious and thought he might horse-trade toward a Federalist agenda. Burr mostly stayed silent, giving the impression that he would accept the Presidency if he won the House of Representatives vote.
History shows no direct agreement by Burr for such concessions, but Federalists believed that his intense ambition could be manipulated in their favor.
Many Federalists in Congress had been voted out of office, but it would be the lame-duck House of Representatives that would decide the Presidency.
Chaos reigned, with Republican newspapers suggesting that the foundation of the new country was under siege. Unofficial militias on both sides formed, anticipating the possibility of civil war.
House of Representatives Voting
In February 1801, the individual state delegations determined their consensus state vote. Pennsylvania representatives voted nine to four for Jefferson, giving one state vote to him. Massachusetts voted eleven to three for Burr. And so on. Maryland voted four to four, and this tie meant they submitted a blank ballot, or abstention.
The result was eight state votes for Jefferson, six for Burr, and two abstentions. But the winner needed a majority among the sixteen states of at least nine votes. Jefferson needed at least one more vote.
Over the next six days, the House voted thirty-four more times, with no state budging from their initial decision. Jefferson continued to come up one short of the total needed to become President.
Once again, Hamilton worked behind the scenes. While he opposed Jefferson’s political views, he thought Burr would be the more significant threat. In Hamilton’s mind, Jefferson had the wrong ideology, but Burr had no principles whatsoever.
Finally, on the thirty-sixth ballot, Maryland and Vermont cast votes for Jefferson, giving him ten votes and the win.
Jefferson served with distinction, obtaining vast western lands through the Louisiana Purchase and backing the Lewis and Clark expedition. He is consistently ranked as one of the ten most effective Presidents.
Jefferson pushed Vice President Burr to the sidelines, giving him no influence within the administration, and he chose a different running mate, George Clinton, in the next election.
Burr and Hamilton’s animosity only grew, leading to a dual between them in 1804 and Hamilton’s death from a bullet to the stomach. Burr was charged with murder by New York and New Jersey, but he fled to Georgia, even while he remained President of the Senate, and he was never prosecuted. In 1807 Burr was arrested for treason for an ill-fated attempt to lead disgruntled, armed colonists to New Orleans. Even though acquitted, he was widely condemned as a traitor and fled to Europe for a time.
The Federalist Party continued to splinter and never recovered, ultimately disappearing by 1815. The Democratic-Republican Party stayed dominant for the next sixteen years, through a period of lowered partisanship. Eventually, the Democratic-Republicans split into two, one part favoring a strong executive. The other selected a strong Congress.
Parallels exist between the elections of 1800 and 2020, yet the two elections have a distinctive difference. In 1800, even after the acrimony and dispute, Americans in 1800 could largely separate fact from fiction in the election process.