In the election of 1800, 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 certain.
The Federalists delayed and plotted, while Republicans threatened to take up arms. In a way no previous historian has done, Susan Dunn illuminates 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.
“Dunn, a scholar of eighteenth-century American history, has provided a valuable reminder of an election in which the stakes were truly enormous and the political vituperation was far more poisonous than the relatively moderate attacks heard today. . . . An excellent work that effectively explains this critical contest that shaped the history of the new republic.” —Booklist
“Dunn does a superb job of recounting the campaign, its cast of characters, and the election’s bizarre conclusion in Congress. That tense standoff could have plunged the country into a disastrous armed conflict, Dunn explains, but instead cemented the legitimacy of peaceful, if not smooth, transfers of power.” —Publishers Weekly
“Dunn simultaneously teaches and enthralls with her eloquent, five-sensed descriptions of the people and places that shaped our democracy.” —Entertainment Weekly
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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 aristocracy, fearing the paws of this republican lion, reported his death — because they wished him so!"
"I have never enjoyed better and more uninterrupted health," a vigorous, 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 half-hour 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 a monarchical 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jefferson's Second Revolution"
Copyright © 2004 Susan Dunn.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of ContentsContents illustrations ix 1. On the Brink 1 2. “If the people be governors, who shall be governed?” 13 3. Farewell to Harmony 35 4. Heir Apparent 74 5. Sedition 95 6. Life Without Father 121 7. The War of Words 137 8. Storms in the Atmosphere 153 9. On the Campaign Trail 175 10. Showdown 190 11. March 4, 1801 218 12. The New Politics 227 13. Would the System Work? 257 Epilogue 273 notes 285 acknowledgments 353 index 354