On this day in 1801, Thomas Jefferson is elected the third president of the United States, bringing about the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in the US.
By 1800, when he began to run for president in earnest, Jefferson possessed impressive political credentials and was, at least on paper, well-suited to the presidency. In addition to drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had served in two Continental Congresses, as minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington and as John Adams’ vice-president.
Vicious partisan warfare characterized the campaign of 1800 between the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and Federalists led by John Adams, Charles C. Pinckney and John Jay. The election highlighted the ongoing battle between Democratic-Republican supporters of the French, who were embroiled in their own bloody revolution, and the pro-British Federalists who wanted to implement English-style policies in American government. The Federalists abhorred the French revolutionaries’ overzealous use of the guillotine and as a result were less forgiving in their foreign policy toward their former ally. They robustly advocated a strong centralized government, a standing military and financial support of emerging industries.
In contrast, Jefferson’s Republicans preferred limited government, unadulterated states’ rights and a primarily agrarian economy. They feared that Federalists would abandon revolutionary ideals and revert to the English monarchical tradition. As secretary of state under Washington, Jefferson opposed Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton’s proposal to increase military expenditures and resigned when Washington supported the leading Federalist’s plan for a national bank.
It was a notably nasty campaign, even by post-Obama standards, and the election days themselves ran from Halloween 1800, to December 3rd. Although Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran on the same ticket, as president and vice president respectively, the Constitution still demanded votes for each individual to be counted separately. As a result, by the end of January 1801, Jefferson and Burr emerged tied at 73 electoral votes apiece. Adams came in third at 65 votes. This deadlock was in turn redressed in the House of Representatives.
Sticklers in the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives insisted on following the Constitution’s flawed rules and refused to elect Jefferson and Burr together on the same ticket. To put the nation’s electorate to scale, Jefferson had garnered some 41,330 votes, as did Burr; Adams trailed at 25,952. The highly influential Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who mistrusted Jefferson but hated Burr more, urged the House to vote against Burr, whom he called the most unfit man conceivable for the office of president (until 2016). This accusation and others in turn led Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel in 1804 that resulted in Hamilton’s death, and the smash Broadway hit bearing the decedent’s name.
Jefferson and Burr nonetheless prevailed, and were inaugurated March 4, 1801. As president, Jefferson, who will always bear the stain of the “peculiar institution,” made some concessions to his opponents, including taking Hamilton’s advice to strengthen the American Navy. In 1801, Jefferson sent naval squadrons and Marines to suppress Barbary piracy against American shipping. He reduced the national debt by one-third, acquired the Louisiana Territory, doubling the nation’s sheer size, and his sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition opened the west to exploration and settlement. Jefferson’s first term ended with relative stability and prosperity, and in 1804 he was overwhelmingly elected to a second term.
The flawed voting system that was so problematic in the election of 1800 was later improved by the 12th Amendment, which was ratified in 1804, and it is here our lesson endeth.