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The Revolution of 1800 Previous Next
Digital History ID 2978


In 1800, the nation again had a choice between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Federalists feared that Jefferson would return power to the states, dismantle the army and navy, and overturn 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. They worried that the Federalists' ultimate goal was to centralize power in the national government and involve the United States in the European war on the side of Britain.

Jefferson's Federalist opponents called him an "atheist in religion, and a fanatic in politics." They claimed he was a drunkard and an enemy of religion. The Federalist Connecticut Courant warned that "there is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced."

Jefferson's supporters responded by charging that President Adams was a monarchist who longed to reunite Britain with its former colonies. Republicans even claimed that the president had sent General Thomas Pinckney to England to procure four mistresses, two for himself and two for Adams. Adams's response: "I do declare if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."

The election was extremely close. It was the Constitution's Three-fifths clause, which counted three-fifths of the slave population in apportioning representation, that gave the Republicans a majority in the Electoral College. Jefferson appeared to have won by a margin of eight electoral votes. But a complication soon arose. Because each Republican elector had 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 now thrown into the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Instead of emphatically declaring that he would not accept the presidency, Burr declined to say anything. So, the Federalists faced a choice. They could help elect the hated Jefferson--"a brandy-soaked defamer of churches"--or they could throw their support to the opportunistic Burr. Hamilton disliked Jefferson, but he believed he was a far more honorable man than Burr, whose "public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement."

As the stalemate persisted, Virginia and Pennsylvania mobilized their state militias. Recognizing, as Jefferson put it, "the certainty that a legislative usurpation would be resisted by arms," the Federalists backed down. After six days of balloting and 36 ballots, the House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson the third president of the United States. And as a result of the election, Congress adopted the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives each elector in the Electoral College one vote for president and one for vice president.

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