In 1800, the young republic faced another crucial test: Whether national leadership could pass peacefully from one political party to another. Once again, the nation faced a choice between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Deep substantive and ideological issues divided the two parties. Federalists feared that Jefferson would reverse all the accomplishments of the preceding 12 years. A Republican president, they thought, would overthrow the Constitution by returning power to the states, dismantling the army and navy, and overturning Hamilton's financial system. The Republicans charged that the Federalists, by creating a large standing army, imposing heavy taxes, and using federal troops and the federal courts to suppress dissent, had shown contempt for the liberties of the American people.
The contest was one of the bitterest in American history. Jefferson's opponents called him an "atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics." They claimed he was a drunkard, an enemy of religion, and the father of numerous mulatto children. Jefferson's supporters called President Adams a warmonger, a spendthrift, and a monarchist who longed to reunite Britain with its former colonies.
The election was extremely close. Because of the three-fifths representation of Southern slaves, the final outcome hinged on results in New York. Rural New York supported the Federalists and Republican fortunes therefore depended on voting in New York City. There, Jefferson's running mate, Aaron Burr, created the first modern political organization, complete with ward committees and rallies. Then known as the Tammany Society, this organization would later be known as Tammany Hall. With Burr's help, Republicans won a majority in New York's legislature, which gave the state's 12 electoral votes to Jefferson and Burr.
Jefferson appeared to have won by a margin of eight votes. But a complication arose. Because each Republican elector cast one ballot for Jefferson and one for Burr, the two men received exactly the same number of electoral votes. Under the Constitution, the election was thrown into the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Instead of emphatically declaring that he would not accept the presidency, Burr failed to say anything. So Federalists faced a choice: they could elect the hated Jefferson, or they could throw their support to the opportunistic Burr.
In this private letter to Harrison Gray Otis, a Federalist Representative and Senator from Massachusetts, Hamilton urges Federalists in the House of Representatives to support Jefferson. Hamilton considers Burr too power-hungry and personally ambitious for public service.
My opinion, after mature reflection, that if Jefferson and Burr come with equal votes to the House of Representatives, the former ought to be preferred by the Federalists. Mr. Jefferson is respectably known in Europe--Mr. Burr little and that little not advantageously for a President of the U[nited] States.--Mr. Jefferson is a man of easy fortune.--Mr. Burr, as I believe, is bankrupt beyond redemption unless by some coup at the expense of the public and his habits of expense are such that Wealth he must have at any rate,--Mr. Jefferson is a man of fair character for probity.--Very different ideas are entertained of Mr. Burr by his enemies and what his friends think, you may collect from this anecdote--A lady said to Edward Livingston ironically "I am told Mr Burr will be President. I should like it very well if I had not learned that he is a man without property."--"Let him alone for that," replied Edward,--"If he is President four years, he will remove the objection."--Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government.--Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself-Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement--and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.--No compact, that he should make with any passion in his breast except Ambition, could be relied upon by himself.--How then should we be able to rely upon our agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson I suspect will not dare much. Mr. Burr will Dare every thing in the sanguine hope of affecting every thing in the sanguine hope of affecting every thing.
If Mr. Jefferson is likely from predilection for France to draw the country into war on her side--Mr. Burr will endeavor to do it for the sake of creating the means of personal power and wealth.
This portrait is the result of long and attentive observation of a man with whom I am personally well-acquainted and in respect to whose character I have had peculiar opportunity of forming a correct judgment.
By no means, my Dear Sir, let the Federalists be responsible for his Elevation.--In a choice of Evils, let them take the least--Jefferson is in my view less dangerous than Burr.
But we ought--still to seek some advantages from our situation. It may be advisable to make it a ground of exploration with Mr. Jefferson or his confidential friends and the means of obtaining from him some assurances of his future conduct. The three essential points for us to secure is. 1 The continuance of the neutral plan bona fide towards the belligerent powers 2 The preservation of the present System of public credit--3 The maintenance & gradual increase of our navy. Other matters may be left to take their chance....