Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanismby Susan Dunn
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The election of 1800 was a revolution in the modern sense of a radical new beginning, but it was also a revolution in the sense of a return to the point of origin, to the principles of 1776. Federalist incumbent John Adams, and the elitism he represented, faced Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson defeated Adams but, through a quirk in Electoral College balloting, tied with his own running mate, Aaron Burr. A constitutional crisis ensued. Congress was supposed to resolve the tie, but would the Federalists hand over power peacefully to their political enemies, to Jefferson and his Republicans? For weeks on end, nothing was less certain. The Federalists delayed and plotted, while Republicans threatened to take up arms.
In a way no previous historian has done, Susan Dunn illuminates the many facets of this watershed moment in American history: she captures its great drama, gives us fresh, ﬁnely drawn portraits of the founding fathers, and brilliantly parses the enduring signiﬁcance of the crisis. The year 1800 marked the end of Federalist elitism, pointed the way to peaceful power shifts, cleared a place for states’ rights in the political landscape, and set the stage for the Civil War.
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Dunn simultaneously teaches and enthralls with her eloquent, five-sensed descriptions of the people and places that shaped our democracy.
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1 On the Brink
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” predicted the Connecticut Courant in the fall of 1800. “The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Hardly more than a dozen years after the path-breaking Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the outlook for American democracy suddenly appeared grim. There was “scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War,” the Courant editorialized.
The stability and prosperity of the young republic would abruptly halt if Thomas Jefferson, the vice president of the country and the leader of the Republicans, were to defeat President John Adams in the Electoral College in December 1800 or so Federalists believed. Reasonable, dependable government seemed unlikely to survive the leadership of a man who blithely held that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” indeed, that rebellion was “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Jefferson was a “fanatic,” they exclaimed, as they drew lurid pictures of the starry-eyed visionary in love with radical revolution, the “great arch priest of Jacobinism and inﬁdelity.” The Virginian and his Republicans would turn America upside down, permitting the hoi polloi to govern the nation and unseating the wealthy social elite, long accustomed to wielding political power and governing the nation. Jefferson’s election, wrote a Federalist in western Massachusetts, would produce “the most serious and alarming evils to this Country.”
Something had to be done to save the country from the “fangs of Jefferson,” cried an anxious Alexander Hamilton. The Virginian’s radical promises of liberty, equal rights, and a redistribution of wealth and property, another Federalist declared, would introduce anarchy, which would surely terminate, as it had in France, in military despotism.
People whispered about his “Congo Harem” and “dusky Sally Hemings.” They were incensed at his lack of respect for religion. It had come to light, an outraged Robert Troup reported to his friend Rufus King, the American minister in London, that Jefferson had once been indiscreet enough to attend a public entertainment in Virginia on a Sunday! What better proof of his “contempt for the Christian religion and his devotion to the new religion of France”?
For months during the spring and summer of 1800, Federalist editors throughout the country had been fulminating against the Virginian, smearing him for being an atheist, a dreamer, a coward, a man entirely lacking in conscience, religion, and charity. “Do you believe in the strangest of all paradoxes,” demanded one of Jefferson’s foes in the New York Commercial Advertiser, “that a spendthrift, a libertine, or an atheist is qualiﬁed to make your laws and govern you and your posterity?” Writers denounced him for seeking to poison the minds and destroy the morals of the people while spreading the seeds of confusion, anarchy, and slavery throughout the United States. And not only morality, but economic prosperity too, they concluded, would suffer.
Commerce would be plundered, farmers impoverished, and merchants ruined. “Shadows, clouds, and darkness rest on our future prospects,” wrote Troup dejectedly to his friend King.
And then, in the middle of the summer heat, jolting news! Jefferson was dead! For more than a week in early July 1800, newspapers carried shocking but unconﬁrmed reports of the Virginian’s sudden death.
Sadly the Baltimore American relayed an “alarming and truly melancholy report” that Thomas Jefferson “is no more.” He seemed to have died in a sudden manner, the Philadelphia True American informed its startled readers the following day. The next day, the Federalist newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, afﬁrmed that “the report of Mr.
Jefferson’s death appears to be entitled to some credit.”Had the author of the Declaration of Independence fallen ill or been assassinated?"
Three days later, the American Daily Advertiser still could not disprove the “distressing information” that Jefferson had mysteriously died. “Old Tories” and “haters of our independence” were giving one another sly “winks of congratulations,” reported the Republican newspaper, the Aurora.
A week later, the story still remained in doubt. One Federalist, writing in the Connecticut Courant, explained tongue-in-cheek that it had been a slow news week, and “some compassionate being,” seeking to provide the country with noteworthy news, had “very humanely killed Mr. Jefferson.” When the reports were exposed as false, Republican newspapers took aim at the Federalists’ glee. “The asses of ariistocracy, fearing the paws of this republican lion, reported his death because they wished him so!”
“I have never enjoyed better and more uninterruptedd health,” a vigoooorous, unperturbed Jefferson wrote upon receiving news of his own passing.
His friend, Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, had just written to him to describe his great relief when he learned that the reports of Jefferson’s death were false. “I am much indebted to my enemies,” Jefferson responded, “for proving by their recitals of my death, that I have friends.”
The ﬁfty-seven-year-old vice president was alive and well in Monticello.
The presiding ofﬁcer of the Senate, he had been delighted to leave Philadelphia in May of 1800 for his hilltop home in Virginia. The Senate, he felt, did not have enough business to occupy it for a halfhour a day, while the beloved estate he had so carefully planned and created for himself fully occupied his mind and, as he said, gratiﬁed his esthetic senses.
In Monticello, he would wake at dawn, slip out of his alcove bed, and spend the ﬁrst hours of the morning in the adjacent “cabinet,” reading and working on his voluminous correspondence. Then came breakfast with other members of the household at eight o’clock. After breakfast there was time to give thought to the university he was planning, to contemplate more alterations to his house, which was in a state of perpetual redesign and reconstruction, and to pursue his scientiﬁc inquiries and inventions. Science, he told his friends and family, was his “passion,” whereas politics was a “duty” as well as a “torment.”
Letters streamed in from all over the country keeping him in close touch with political events. Still, Jefferson wanted to be passive during these election months, trusting his friends and collaborators to campaign on his behalf as well as to respond to the “calumnies of the newspapers.” The “only truth to be relied on in a newspaper,” he quipped, was contained in its advertisements. Surveying his land on horseback, attending to his crops, playing with his grandchildren, conversing with his guests, he was content to spend his time in his refuge of mountains, forests, rivers, gardens, books, inventions, and ideas.
“Is this the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist . . . I have so often heard denounced by the federalists?” wondered a captivated Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer, when she ﬁrst met Jefferson in December of 1800.
“Can this man so meek and mild, yet digniﬁed in his manners, with a voice so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent, can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?”
But Federalists were not as enchanted by the Virginian’s courtly manners, pensive eyes, and gentle, lilting voice. His intellectual stature and distinguished public service author of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the age of twenty-six, wartime governor of Virginia, delegate to the Continental Congress, minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams left them unimpressed. Perhaps in the little republic of St. Marino Jefferson’s political “experiments” could be tolerated, observed Charles Carroll of Carrollton, but in America the Virginian’s “fantastic tricks” would most assuredly dissolve the union.
Carroll and his patrician Federalist friends not only wanted to remain at the helm, from which they had so ably steered the country toward stability and prosperity, but they believed that they were entitled to remain there. Clinging to the myth of the virtue of the elite few, they were convinced that only they possessed a deep commitment to public service and an unerring sense of the common good.How could the nation survive and ﬂourish without them, “the wise & good,” asked Alexander Hamilton, one of the Federalist leaders. “Obedience and submission to the powers that be,” a Pennsylvania congressman declared, “is the duty of all.” In private, the Federalist governor of New York, John Jay, was just as blunt. Conﬂating power and property, he candidly conﬁded to a friend that “those who own the country ought to participate in the government of it.”
Oddly, the pedigreed, patrician Jefferson was one of those “owners” of the country wealthier and from a more distinguished family than Federalists like Adams and the self-made Hamilton. And yet Jefferson sought to challenge their hold on power their “strident exclusivism,” in the words of historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick and even challenge the legacy of the great George Washington. The father of the country and his closest disciples, Federalists believed, had created and bequeathed to America an orderly society and well-functioning institutions. “Our government is as free as it is capable of being the country as happy as a government can make it,” they crowed.
“What more do you want? Will you grasp at a shadow, and lose the substance?”
What principles guided Jefferson and his so-called Republicans? The Jeffersonian brand of republicanism, Federalists scoffed, simply meant “an essential want of integrity, and an unprincipled pursuit of whatever promotes the interests, or gratiﬁes the passions of the individuals.” In short, Republicans were motivated only by base “self-interest” whereas Federalists were proud to be anti-individualists, committed to the notion of the common good of all.
Violence and anarchy would spread through the nation, a “Christian Federalist” warned in a political pamphlet, if Jefferson won the presidency.
Serious, thoughtful men could not doubt, he wrote, that if Jefferson was elected, he and his Jacobin cronies would trample and explode “those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence defend our property from plunder and devastation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation.” Just as wild, radical Jacobins and their guillotines had transformed France into a vast cemetery, Republicans too would leave in their wake a nation in ruins. By what right were these brazen Republicans calling into question the precious status quo?
Surely in a democracy in which the people were sovereign, the Republicans, though political outsiders, had the right to criticize and oppose those who governed. And yet, some Federalists proposed that “a few bold strokes” be used to silence all opposition to government.
But Republicans refused to be silent. They offered voters a forceful platform and an aggressive agenda for change. They blasted John Jay’s recent one-sided treaty with Great Britain in which the English had made few concessions to American claims. They attacked Adams and the other Federalists for passing the repressive Sedition Act in 1798, designed to smother opposition to the Federalist regime. They denounced the standing federal army, warning that it could be used to quash domestic dissent. They condemned the dispatching of federal troops in 1799 to crush a tax revolt Fries’s Rebellion in Pennsylvania.
Republicans pounded home their message: a simple government, low taxes, state militias instead of a standing army, repeal of the Sedition Act, and free schools. In the South and the burgeoning West, they attracted voters by offering security for slavery, access to new unsettled lands, and markets for their agricultural products. In New England, their democratic message appealed to voters with aspirations of upward mobility.
Most of all, Republicans criticized the Federalist “monocrats” for upholding the rights of the few and ignoring the rights of the many, for catering to the social and ﬁnancial elite, for disdaining the people and democracy itself. Even Federalist Gouverneur Morris, the former minister to France and now the junior senator from New York, conceded that his Federalist colleagues had given Republicans reason to believe that they wished to establish a monarchy. The Republicans’ afﬁnity for inclusion contrasted sharply with Federalist elitism. The election, declared Massachusetts Republican Elbridge Gerry, was a battle between the people and a party “utterly devoted to amonarchical system.”A Republican victory was essential, insisted Governor James Monroe of Virginia, to restore to Americans the principles of 1776, to “secure to us forever those liberties that were acquired by our revolution, which ought never to have been put in danger.”
By the late fall of 1800, most of the electors to the Electoral College had been selected. State legislatures had either chosen their presidential electors themselves or permitted voters to choose them in statewide or districtwide elections. In some states, it was winner-take-all.
The Electoral College was an indirect and largely undemocratic method for choosing a president. At the Constitutional Convention, it had been less the product of consensus or compromise than of delegates simply throwing up their hands in frustration. Indeed, no subject at the Philadelphia convention had perplexed the delegates more than the mode of choosing the president. Three times delegates had approved motions that the executive be chosen by the national legislature the equivalent of a parliamentary system but toward the end of the convention they were back to square one, having rejected every proposal for electing the executive. A Committee on Detail ﬁnally settled on the system of electors, and, by that time, the other fatigued and impatient delegates were in no mood to revisit the question again.
Now, after months of campaigning, it appeared that Federalists would win all of New England’s electoral votes, along with those of New Jersey, and would split the votes of Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland, gaining 65 votes. Republicans had won all the electoral votes of New York State and most of the South: they too could count on 65 votes. It was unclear for whom South Carolina would cast its 8 electoral votes.
“This is the day appointed for the election of President and Vice President,” Troup wrote to King from New York on a cool December morning. On that day, December 3, 1800, presidential electors all met in their respective states and cast their votes. “The calculations now are that Adams and Pinckney will outrun Jefferson & Burr,” Troup informed his friend. But he was wrong.
Ofﬁcial Electoral College results from the outlying states trickled in slowly, but there was little doubt that Republicans had won. Jefferson seemed to have 73 votes; John Adams, 65. The mood of the country had swung around. On December 15, the National Intelligencer reported a victory for Republicans and for democracy: “The storm, which has so long raged in the political world, has at length subsided,” the Intelligencer declared, encouraging Americans to celebrate an event that was “auspicious to the destinies of the world.”
But December 15 found Jefferson brooding. To his running mate Aaron Burr he revealed his doubts about the outcome of the race not questioning that he had defeated Adams, but troubled that one particular thing had been “badly managed” and “left to hazard.” He and Burr might have each received an equal number of votes, creating a tie and a crisis.
The Electoral College’s voting system was deeply ﬂawed. According to Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, each state could appoint a number of electors equal to the total number of senators and representatives of that state. Each elector was entitled to cast 2 votes, but there was no way to differentiate between the votes cast for a presidential candidate and those for a vice-presidential candidate. Electors could indicate a clear preference for the man they wanted to be president only if they all agreed that at least one elector would cast 1 of his 2 electoral votes for a man who had no chance of winning. But Jefferson worried that that had not happened.
It appeared, he reported to Burr, that Republican electors might have cast all their ballots for Jefferson and Burr, forgetting to withhold at least 1 vote from Burr so that Jefferson would be the undisputed victor.
“I never once asked whether arrangements had been made to prevent so many from dropping votes intentionally,” he conﬁded to the New Yorker, bitterly reproaching himself for his own “passivity” and negligence. Still, he ended his letter on a positive note, anticipating their inauguration day: “We shall of course see you before the 4th of March.”
Now a worried Jefferson recognized the “probable equality” of the two Republican candidates, and by the 19th, his unease had intensiﬁed, becoming distress. Jefferson and Burr had each received 73 votes.Disciplined Republican electors had toed the party line too much! The tie, Jefferson reported to Madison, had “produced great dismay and gloom on the republican gentlemen here, and equal exultation on the federalists.”
In the case of a tie in the Electoral College, the choice, according to the Constitution, would be thrown into the House of Representatives the lame-duck House controlled by Federalists, not the newly elected Republican House for a special tie-breaking presidential election in which each state would cast 1 vote, a system even more undemocratic than that of the Electoral College. The House, however, would not begin the process until February 11. And so a tense waiting and maneuvering period began.
“Federalists will have to Choose among Rotten Apples,” a despondent politician grumbled to Alexander Hamilton. But while some were resigned to relinquishing power to their enemies, others predicted chaos and violence. An alliance of “men of desperate fortunes” stood at the threshold of power, wishing “for nothing so much as a revolution,” warned the conservative Gazette of the United States. “It is fallacious, therefore, to imagine that we shall experience only a change of men. . . .
We are now in the high road which has uniformly led to despotism, through the dark valley of anarchy.” Some overwrought Federalists predicted that Jefferson would soon call upon France and Napoleon’s soldiers to invade the United States.
And some were determined not to take their loss lying down. On December 19, Jefferson heard reports about a Federalist plot to “stretch” the Constitution and steal the presidency. Federalists were openly declaring their intention to prevent an election, he informed Madison. If Federalists could prolong the deadlock beyond the expiration of Adams’s term on March 4, the country would be without a president, and then all bets were off. The Constitution said nothing about such an eventuality. Federalists were seeking to “reverse what has been understood to have been the wishes of the people,” a gloomy Jefferson wrote. “This opens upon us an abyss, at which every sincere patriot must shudder.”
A week later more pieces of the plot came to light. The “feds,” Jefferson wrote toMadison, intended to pass a bill giving executive power either to John Jay, whom they would ﬁrst reappoint chief justice, or to John Marshall, John Adams’s secretary of state. Their backup plan was to let the presidency “devolve” on the Federalist president pro tem of the Senate. Could Federalists be capable of such a “Degree of boldness as well as wickedness?” wondered a horriﬁed James Monroe.
The tie in the Electoral College presented Federalists with an unexpected golden opportunity. They could delay the transition, or better still, block it altogether. The Sedition Act had already compromised the right of citizens to criticize and oppose the men in power. The Federalists’ refusal to let Republicans govern would constitute just one more step in that same direction.
Still, how could Federalists convince themselves and the American public that it was not a major blow to democratic process and to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to impede the election of the people’s choice? Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, the Federalist Speaker of the House, admitted that the majority’s clear intention had been to elect Jefferson. But, he asked in a letter to Alexander Hamilton, why had this preference been given to Jefferson? Sedgwick believed that Jefferson had won because he was a ﬁery democrat, crafty, opportunistic, servilely devoted to revolutionary France. “Ought we then,” he concluded, “to respect the preference which is given to this man from such motives, and by such friends?” If the majority was mistaken, poorly informed, or misguided, and if its judgment was so ﬂawed as to harm the nation, Sedgwick reasoned, its decisions should be declared null and void. He insisted that the Constitution had intended elections “to secure to prominent talents and virtue the ﬁrst honors of our country.” The virtuous elite had the obligation to direct or disqualify the majority. Such a course struck Sedgwick as justiﬁed, rational, and wise.
Most Federalists were stunned that the American people had thrown the party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton out of power. Would they the men who had created the republic and governed it so successfully since its founding meekly accept an unjust, undeserved defeat?
“Resistancemust be bold, determined and unshrinking, or it is ineffectual,” declared the Gazette of the United States.
But neither would Republicans shrink from confrontation. They were not about to let their victory be snatched away from them. They stood ready to ﬁght. “We are resolv’d never to yield,” one Republican wrote to James Madison, “and sooner hazard every thing than to prevent the voice and wishes of people being carried into effect.” Federalist usurpation would signal the start of another revolution and even a civil war, predicted Virginia political activist John Beckley. “If any man should be thus appointed President by law and accept the ofﬁce,” threatened Albert Gallatin, the leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, “he would instantaneously be put to death.” In the event of a Federalist attempt to install one of their own in the presidency, the middle states would arm, Jefferson declared, emphasizing that “no such usurpation, even for a single day, should be submitted to.”
The fundamental consensus about the Constitution and the union was collapsing. During the turmoil, Jefferson wrote that his “sincere wish” was to see the government “brought back to its republican principles.” And yet he and the other great architects of the republic, on both sides of the political spectrum, appeared equally willing to dissolve the federal union and institutions that were their masterpiece.
“There is nothing more common,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in 1786, “than to confound the terms of the American Revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the ﬁrst act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.”
In 1786, Rush captured the signiﬁcance of the dilemma that would confront Americans in 1800. The American Revolution could not be equated solely with the War of Independence. On the contrary, there were crucial political transformations and social reforms to come to make that Revolution complete. Indeed, before the winter of 1800, the Revolution had been proceeding successfully from stage to stage from the war of 1776 to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the ratiﬁcation of the Bill of Rights in 1791. But then, in the 1790s, things seemed to go awry. It was a decade of turmoil and conﬂict: profound ideological disagreements in the nation as well as inWashington’s own cabinet; pressure from the top to maintain the authority of the nation’s elite leaders and populist movements from the bottom demanding a more open and inclusive political arena; two clashing visions agricultural in the South and commercial in the North of the nation’s future; the rise of embryonic political parties in an atmosphere of hostility to parties; attempts to undermine the Bill of Rights and quash opposition to elected leaders; and forceful assertions of states’ rights.
Adding to the brew was the toxic enmity among the founders themselves, the band of brothers who, only a dozen years earlier, had worked so harmoniously together.
Now, at the beginning of the new century, the colliding ideologies and personalities congealed into an acute electoral and constitutional crisis. It would be the revolutionary drama’s ﬁnal act. In 1796, power had been easily transferred from one Federalist to another, from outgoing president George Washington to his vice president, John Adams.
But now, would Federalists willingly and peacefully hand power over to their political enemies, to these Republicans, men whom they not only loathed but also considered dangerous to the republic, to private property, to economic growth and a strong federal government, to everything they respected and cherished?
Why, after all, should the nation’s distinguished, successful leaders recognize an insurgency of homespun zealots and upstarts? Why would the elite willingly transfer power to a populist party? Why should they recognize the legitimacy of the opposition? Which heads of state had ever voluntarily ceded power to their enemies? The Constitution had enshrined checks and balances, not a party system. In what land had two ﬁercely opposing parties agreed to respect each other and alternately govern? Surely a coup d’état or an assassination was more in keeping with Western political tradition. Even in the twenty- ﬁrst century, elected leaders often refuse to step aside and allow vot- ers to choose a successor; parties that win elections are often outlawed by would-be dictators. Again and again, budding democracies are quashed, their constitutions suspended.
Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, and others fully grasped the frightening dimensions of the crisis. A few Federalists candidly acknowledged their party’s malice. “Understand that the democrats in Congress are in a rage for having acted with good faith,” one Federalist explained to Rufus King. So polarized were the two parties, so severe the strain between them, that their differences appeared unbridgeable.
In the cold, overcast winter of 1800, the federal republic tottered on the brink, its future shrouded in a grim, menacing fog.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Dunn. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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