So my son asked me last night what happens if the presidential election ends up in a tie. Putting on my historian’s hat, I began to tell him about the Election of 1800. That led into a discussion of the Electoral College, and if you ever have to try to describe that to a ten year old, good luck. His sole comment was, “Mom, that’s stupid.” I had nothing. Anyway, back to the election of 1800.
The level of bitter partisan fighting and dirty tricks in the election of 1800 made modern politics look like a Sunday School picnic. It was only the fourth presidential election in the new country’s history, and two of those had been George Washington, who had been a shoe in. Washington’s vice president, John Adams, had won the third presidential election and was seen as an extension of Washington’s administration. However, Adams had alienated both parties and was short of allies. Although nominally a Federalist, Adams disagreed with them almost as much as he did the Democratic- Republicans. It did not help that without Washington, the Federalists were divided with Alexander Hamilton doing everything he could to undercut Adams to strengthen his running mate’s chances of winning.
If this makes no sense, let me step back a moment. This election also exposed a flaw in the Constitution. The way the elections were set up, voters did not vote for a ticket. They voted for individual men, the winner became the president and the candidate with the second highest vote total became the vice-president. Although the two parties were running a ticket of president and vice-president, it was conceivable the vice-presidential nominee could get a higher vote total than the presidential nominee to take the presidency. Also, the president and the vice-president could be from different parties if the votes fell that way. This is because the framers did not anticipate the rise of political parties. Making things extremely complicated, Adams was a Federalist and his vice-president was Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Democratic-Republicans. Now they faced each other as rivals for the presidency. Making it even more complex was the two had been life long friends, who were rapidly falling out.
There was still controversy over Hamilton’s financial plan, the location of the capital and whether the new country should support the uprising in France. The French Revolution had just swept through the countryside, and many Americans, Jefferson included, felt we should go all in to help our allies. However, France was seizing our ships and the Federalists were demanding war. Adams steered the middle course and in the process made everyone mad. The Democratic-Republicans deplored the expansion of the army and navy under Adams and the centralization of federal power. The Alien and Sedition Acts passed under Adams were an attack on individual rights and were aimed at the opposition party. The Federalists wanted a strong central government, while the Democratic-Republicans wanted more autonomy to go to the states. Sound familiar?
Logistics aside, the campaign itself was ugly. Both parties believed they were fighting for the soul of the country and they were not about to pull any punches. Jefferson, who wanted the presidency very badly but felt it was beneath him to campaign, sent his surrogates at Adams with both barrels. They accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” If that wasn’t enough, they callled him a a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant. Jefferson even went so far as to hire a reporter named James Callendar to smear Adams for him. An act which would ultimately bite him in the behind as this same man exposed Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings. All the while Jefferson was attacking, Adams was getting attacked from his own party led by Alexander Hamilton. Adams returned fire by saying Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” He also attacked Jefferson by calling him an un-Christian deist, who wanted to import the French Reign of Terror to the United States.
So it came down to the vote. Because at that time each state could pick its own election day, the voting went from April to October. It ended in a tie in the electoral college between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who were ostensibly running mates. According to the Constitution, all ties had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. It was not to be resolved by the incoming House as determined by the new elections, but the outgoing House. So the vote was to be held in a House, which had a majority of Federalists- 60 seats to 46. So the members of the House of Representatives were balloted, and no one could get the absolute majority to win. The balloted again and again. Seven days and thirty-five ballots later, there was still no president. The Federalists were not about to vote in Jefferson, their chief opponent, in as president. Jefferson was always one vote short.
Since he was technically Jefferson’s running mate, Burr should have turned at least one vote over to Jefferson, but he smelled victory. He schemed to gather enough votes to defeat Jefferson and become president over the candidate on his own ticket. This was the last straw for Alexander Hamilton, whose relationship with Burr started out cordially but was rapidly deteriorating. He urged his fellow Federalists to change their votes to Jefferson to keep Burr from the presidency. He wrote Jefferson was “by far not so dangerous a man”. Hamilton’s urgings worked and James A. Bayard of Delaware and his allies in Maryland and Vermont cast blank ballots, which switched their states to Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson became president, but no longer trusted his vice-president Aaron Burr and shunned him for the rest of his term. The rivalry between Burr and Hamilton reached a new low, eventually ending in death. (For more on this, please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/hamilton-burr-clash-titans/ )
Sources available on request