The Revolution of 1800: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 The American Party System
  • 1:49 The Revolution of 1800
  • 3:26 Impact & Significance…
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

In that year's presidential election, the 'Revolution of 1800' proved that the young United States could transfer power peacefully from one political party to another. Examine this exciting election and its outcomes in this lesson.

The American Party System

It's pretty safe to say that America has experienced some divisive presidential elections. You probably even remember a number of them from recent years, whether it was 2000 or 2008. If the pundits who are usually part of this divisiveness are to be believed, some of these elections supposedly determine the difference between the life and death of the nation.

These claims of the republic's death knell are usually exaggerated, but in the election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson became president after a contentious campaign and the need for intervention by the House of Representatives, there actually was a chance that a contested election could lead to civil war or the disillusion of the newly-formed United States. That year, Thomas Jefferson won the presidency after the election had to be determined by the House of Representatives.

Heading into the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson led the Democratic-Republicans, who were also called the Republicans, for short (though they aren't really the same Republicans as the modern-day GOP; I know, it can be confusing, but bear with me). Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans favored a small central government and supported the right to own slaves. The party also backed revolutionary France in its war with Britain. Landowners in the South and laborers across the nation formed its electoral base.

Sitting president John Adams led the Federalist Party, which promoted a stronger federal government and distrusted the unfettered democracy of the masses. The Federalists feared the chaos of revolutionary France and supported the stability resulting from strong diplomatic ties with Britain. Wealthy merchants, large landholders, and conservative-minded farmers supported the Federalists. And though Federalists weren't abolitionists, many members were less committed to the maintenance of slavery than were Jefferson's supporters.

The Revolution of 1800

The election of 1800 was the first to be fought by two distinct political parties. It was also characterized by mud slinging, something we're all too familiar with in today's elections. The Republicans told voters that Adams was a lackey of Britain and secretly wanted to be a king. Federalists slandered Jefferson as a godless atheist who would bring the terror and violence of the French Revolution to the shores of America. Think of these claims as what you would see in today's political campaign ads.

Ultimately, the Republicans were less divided than their Federalist opponents. Adams and his party were at odds over negotiations with France, and some Federalists were angry with him for not declaring war. On the other side, Republicans were highly organized and also successful at characterizing Jefferson as a friend of the farmer, an optimist, and a staunch defender of limited government and the rights of individual states.

Though Jefferson defeated Adams in the election, there was a final hurdle that had the potential to derail the democratic process. At the time, the candidate with the second-highest number of votes became vice president. The problem here was that Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, received the same amount of electoral votes.

This pushed the decision into the House of Representatives, which was controlled by Federalists. Despite this, after several tense days, the House voted to seat Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. In 1804, to avoid such a future potential calamity, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution created separate ballots for presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Jefferson's victory is considered the Revolution of 1800.

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