President Jefferson's Election and Jeffersonian Democracy

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  • 0:12 The Election of 1800
  • 3:38 The House Decides
  • 5:26 The Revolution of 1800
  • 8:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

The presidential election of 1800 was a rematch between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. An electoral tie between Jefferson and his running mate forced the House of Representatives to decide. The election inaugurated 24 years of political dominance for the Democratic-Republican Party.

The Election of 1800

If people today think the presidential election of 2000 was a circus - with its contradictions in popular votes and electoral votes, hanging chads, and the Supreme Court - they should have witnessed America's presidential election 200 years earlier. The young nation's first two elections ran pretty smoothly, considering George Washington was elected unanimously. However, the elections of 1796 and 1800 revealed serious flaws in the system.

The Electoral College didn't originally operate the same way it does today. Back then, electors cast ballots for president, and the runner-up became vice president. In 1796, John Adams was elected to the executive office in both the popular vote and by electors - no problem there. But his running mate didn't get the second-highest number of votes. Instead, his bitter political rival Thomas Jefferson came in second, making him the vice president. The two men agreed on almost nothing. So you can imagine the next election, four years later, when the president and vice president went head-to-head again, and this time they had political parties to back them up.

Reporter: We're back at election headquarters trying to bring you the story. Excuse me, sir, can you tell us what happened here tonight?

Analyst: Well, everyone knows the tension we've had in this country over the past four years. Half the men have rallied around President Adams and his new running mate. Those are the Federalists.

Reporter: Right, right. But what about Vice President Jefferson?

Analyst: Of course. All the other men are backing Jefferson and his running mate. Those are your Democratic-Republicans.

Reporter: Well, who won?

Analyst: The popular vote was pretty clear; the people want Jefferson.

Reporter: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The Jefferson and Burr ticket has made it to the top!

Analyst: No, no, no, that's not right.

Reporter: But you just said...?

Analyst: Vice President Jefferson was elected by the people, but his pick for VP wasn't chosen as the runner-up tonight by the electors.

Reporter: Oh, no. Not that again! So who's the new vice president? It's not Adams, is it?

Analyst: No, no, no. The political parties made sure that didn't happen again. In fact, the Democratic-Republicans worked really hard to make sure that Aaron Burr didn't come in third. They worked so hard that there has been a tie.

Reporter: I don't understand. A tie? Between who? Who is the new president?

Analyst: We don't know yet. It's either Jefferson or his running mate, Aaron Burr.

The election of 1800 was a rematch between Adams and Jefferson, only now, there were organized political parties trying to influence the outcome. The Federalist Party backed Adams and the Democratic-Republican Party backed Jefferson. Like primary elections today, voting didn't happen on the same day in each state. Jefferson clearly won the popular vote, and Democratic-Republicans wanted to make sure that when the electors met, his running mate, Aaron Burr, became vice president. But when the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr had the exact same number of votes. As required by the Constitution, the House of Representatives must vote for president in the case of a tie.

In 1800, Jefferson and Burr tied for president

The House Decides

It should have been a clear-cut decision. The people and the electors had obviously intended to make Jefferson president. But the House had a Federalist majority, and Vice President Jefferson opposed pretty much everything the Federalists stood for. Congress was actually on the verge of choosing Aaron Burr instead. The militia of Virginia (Jefferson's home state) was prepared to mobilize and enforce Jefferson's rightful election as president. But the decision was ultimately made by another, more personal, rivalry.

Alexander Hamilton

The outcome of the election had two interesting ripple effects. First, the 12th amendment to the Constitution changed the process for selecting the president and vice president. Never again would political rivals be placed in the executive office together. But the personal rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton continued. Four years later, Hamilton again interfered with Burr's election, this time as governor of New York. Furious, Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and killed him.

The Revolution of 1800

President Jefferson referred to his election as the so-called 'Revolution of 1800.' He felt that the nation had strayed from the principles that he had penned in the Declaration of Independence and that the patriots had fought so hard to win. He had promised that if he were elected, the Democratic-Republican Party would restore the ideals of the American Revolution. His platform has come to be known as Jeffersonian Democracy.

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