A Pivotal Election
On March 4, 1801, a tall, narrow-shouldered man in his late fifties emerged from a boardinghouse in the capital city of the United States. He was heading for his inauguration as the country's third president. Disdaining the company of dignitaries or an honor guard, Thomas Jefferson walked with friends and supporters to the Capitol, where Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office. Only a salute from a detachment of the Alexandria mi a and the applause of the men and women gathered on the Capitol steps marked
the special occasion. He had declined to wear even the ceremonial sword that John Adams had sported four years
earlier. After thirty-five years in the public limelight, Jefferson was now to govern the nation according to ideas still deemed radical by almost half the voters. As he took office, the wounds from a searing presidential campaign and a
cliffhanger of an electoral vote had not yet begun to heal.
Nor did the day start propitiously. The nation's second president had decamped earlier that morning in high dudgeon over his defeat, leaving Jefferson a curt note informing him that there were seven horses and two carriages in the White House stables. In the waning hours of his presidency, Adams had also appointed a slew of federal judges to dog his successor's days in the White House. Despite
Jefferson's popularity with the voters, he now faced a thoroughly entrenched opposition in the Supreme Court and in a civil service honeycombed with Federalists.
Chief Justice Marshall was but the most conspicuous of the midnight judges. A Virginian like Jefferson, Marshall was no friend of the incoming administration. "Today.
. . the new order of things begins," he had written that morning, adding ominously, "The
democrats are divided into speculative theorists & absolute terrorists. With the latter I am not disposed to class Mr.
Jefferson." This was hardly the expression of confidence the new president needed after his election ordeal, but it was an honest response. The campaign had aroused fear and fury. Profound political disputes during the previous decade had rent asunder that collection of disinterested leaders the Founders had envisioned running the country.
When George Washington took office in 1789, few imagined that partisan disputes would disrupt the civic peace that the
Constitution was designed to secure. The Federalist Papers, which explained the virtues of the Constitution, had actually banked on the
formation of ad hoc majorities, not permanent ones organized to win elections. Neither did Jefferson nor James Madison imagine that they were jump-starting party politics when they went public with their concerns about the elitist cast of Washington's policies, though they certainly wanted to oust Federalists from office. Their cries of anguish about Alexander Hamilton's financial schemes and the
administration's tilt toward Great Britain exposed the tip of an iceberg. Beneath lay profound differences dividing the old revolutionary leadership. Soon the electorate itself became polarized. The ill-fated Adams presidency unfolded under the shadow of partisan activity. Events knocked against each other like so many pool balls. The Alien and Sedition Acts, meant to rein in the routine invective found in
newspaper columns, provoked the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions; the quasi-war with France prompted the expansion of the army, which was followed by a taxpayers' revolt.
Federalists depicted a Jefferson so besotted with love for France that he would pervert America's most precious institutions to aid
the French revolutionary cause. Republicans likewise wildly exaggerated the Federalist partiality to aristocratic rule. With so much at stake in the presidential election, dire warnings
filled both the public realm and private letters. Virginia, Hamilton warned, would "resort to the employment of physical force" should Republicans lose. Writing his mother from Europe, John Quincy Adams passed along a French report "that the friends of liberty in the United States.
. . [would] probably not wait for the next election, but in the mean time [would] destroy the fatal influence of the President and
Senate by a Revolution." Other Federalists feared that the Jeffersonians planned a military takeover. Theodore Sedgwick and Fisher Ames predicted that the Republicans in the large mid-Atlantic states would attempt a coup once they had made their militia as
formidable as possible. "It is obvious to me," Ames explained in early 1800, "that all other modes of decision will be spurned" as soon as the Republicans "think they have force on their side."
Republicans were no less alarmist, some even urging secession at the same time that they charged the Federalists with intending to introduce a monarchy or aristocracy before they had to yield power in March 1801. Because both parties had a strong regional basis, talk of disunion abounded in New England and the South. Both Federalists and Republicans expressed doubts that there would even be an election. Since the public had tolerated the detested Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson feared that the Federalists would pass "another act of Congress, declaring that the President shall continue in office during life." Referring to Hamilton as "our
Bonaparte," he imagined a military intervention in support of Adams with a "transfer of the succession to his heirs, and the establishment of the Senate for life."
By the time the election year rolled around (and the process did take a year, because the states chose their presidential electors in many different ways), the two parties assumed the worst about each other, and party discipline had replaced independent
balloting. Party slates like that of Jefferson and Aaron Burr replaced lists of candidates from which electors chose victor and runner-up for president and vice president.
When the actual voting ended, chimeras became real threats. Jefferson defeated Adams, but his electors had so loyalty voted for both him and Burr that they
produced a tie, catapulting the final choice into the House of Representatives that had been elected in 1798. There, a dozen devilishly partisan schemes hatched. The Constitution stipulated that when no one candidate had a majority, the names of the top five
contenders be forwarded to the House. In this case there were only four contenders in all. "One state, one vote" was the constitutional rule, even though Delaware and Rhode Island had populations under 70,000 and Virginia contained close to 900, 000 people. With only eight of the sixteen state delegations (Vermont, Tennessee, and Kentucky had now joined the union) firmly supporting Jefferson, there were not enough votes in the old House to elect him, but a sufficient number to drag out the balloting for nearly three weeks and thirty-five rounds of balloting.
The switch from the Electoral College turned Jefferson and Burr into competitors for the presidential plum. Since Burr was willing to play the spoiler, the Federalists had a field day voting on various combinations of Jefferson, Burr, Adams, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. They toyed with bizarre states, even with the outrageous reversal of their standardbearers, Pinckney and Adams. Through round after round of balloting, representatives ignored the voters' intentions. Even the defeated president deplored the possibility that
Burr -- "this dexterous gentleman" -- might become president:
"What a discouragement to all virtuous exertion, and what an encouragement to party intrigue, and corruptions Most of the Federalists could not decide what they feared more: Jefferson's election or a revolutionary break with the
new -- hence fragile -- constitutional government. Rumors of conspiracies and usurpations had been circulating since presidential voting began in the early fall. One contemporary characterized them as "uncommonly
War had again broken out in Europe. That and the raging political passions at home prompted dire conjectures about the fate of the union. As so often happens at critical moments, someone found the courage to act honorably. That someone in 1801 was James Bayard, Delaware's sole representative and a Federalist, who deferred to the will of the people by withholding his vote from Burr. Just two weeks before the official inauguration day, March 4, the House named Jefferson
president-elect. Three years later, Congress would propose and the states ratify the Twelfth Amendment, separating the ballots for president and vice president. Not men to shy away from realities, America's political leaders recognized that parties had come to stay.
After taking the oath of office, Jefferson delivered his presidential address in as inauspicious a manner as he had arrived at the Capitol. No doubt relieved by the peacefulness of his inauguration, he tried to douse the partisan flames that had burned fiercely and unchecked for months. Ingeniously, he turned the vitriol of the presidential campaign into proof of democratic vigor, describing it as mere "animation of discussion" which would worry only "strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think." He then appealed to his fellow citizens to "restore to social
intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things," a sentiment that paved the way for his famous declaration: "We are all
Republicans -- we are all Federalists." Emphasizing this point, Jefferson admonished his fellow Americans to "bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority, is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be
oppression." He also warned the people against "entangling alliances," coining a phrase commonly attributed to George Washington. At the completion of the inaugural address, the crowd dispersed, and Jefferson returned to his lodging, where he took a place among his fellow boarders at the noon dinner table.
Copyright © 2003 Joyce Appleby