U.S. Presidential Election of 1800


The U.S. presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson was elected the nation’s third president, resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in United States history. Political parties formed after the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1788, with Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, favoring a strong federal government and banking system, and Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and James Madison, preferring the balance of power to remain in the states. These disputes came to a head when a Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which, among other things, criminalized criticism of Congress and the president. The legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions threatening the nonenforcement of what they perceived as unconstitutional laws, but that move was broadly unpopular. By 1800, political rhetoric had become particularly vicious, with the parties accusing one another of all manner of religious and civil abominations. In the end, the Democratic-Republicans prevailed in the Electoral College, but their intended candidates for president and vice president, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, tied with 73 votes each. After six days of contentious debate, the lame duck U.S. House of Representatives, controlled by Federalists, voted for Jefferson. The election, which Jefferson called the “revolution of 1800,” paved the way for a more accessible, even populist style of government in the future.

Political Parties and the Jay Treaty

Alexander Hamilton

After the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, political parties began to coalesce in the United States. Federalists, including President George Washington and the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, generally supported a strong national government, including assumption of state and national debt from the American Revolution and a broad financial system with a national bank. Federalists tended to favor business interests, many of which were aligned commercially with Britain, the new nation’s largest trading partner. The emerging Democratic-Republican party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, favored maintaining power in the states, sought to limit the power of the federal government, and generally supported agrarian over commercial interests.

By the end of the 1790s, developments abroad would bring these party tensions to a boil. The French Revolution in 1789 precipitated a long-running conflict between France and Britain that only ended with Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. In the early years of the conflict, both nations sought supplies from the United States while trying to block supplies to their enemy. The result was a series of seizures of American ships, supplies, and sometimes even sailors. Hoping to avoid being dragged into the European conflict, which the still-young nation could not afford, Washington’s administration declared neutrality in April 1793, but the attacks on American shipping continued.

Portrait of John Jay

In an effort to maintain the peace, in 1795, Washington’s Federalist administration signed the Jay Treaty with Britain—named for its U.S. negotiator and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay. The treaty was very unpopular in America; it did not end British seizures of American ships trading with France (although compensation for illegal seizures was provided for), and it did not give American ships open access to British home ports (as Britain favored its own merchant marine). In the United States, the treaty was particularly vilified by the nascent Democratic-Republican Party, which favored republican France and believed that the Federalists were too closely aligned with Britain. It was said that bonfires burning in effigy John Jay lit America from Maine to Georgia.

France saw the Jay Treaty as an insult. Not only had France supported America in its revolutionary struggle against Britain, but, from France’s perspective, the 1778 treaty it had signed with the United States during its struggle for independence required U.S. support for France’s war with Britain. More viscerally, revolutionary France operated on the theory that the “friend of my enemy” must be an enemy. Outraged by U.S. actions, France started seizing U.S. ships trading with the British (more than 300 by the end of 1798 in what was referred to as the Quasi-War with France). Further heightening tensions, France refused to receive officially Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the ambassador whom President Washington sent in 1796 in an effort to preserve the peace.

The XYZ Affair

When John Adams was inaugurated president in March 1797 after the first seriously contested presidential election, he and his Federalist Party, largely controlled by Alexander Hamilton, wanted to maintain the policy of neutrality, but they were immediately faced with the conflict with France. On the one hand, President Adams, in a fiery speech delivered on May 16, 1797, sought congressional funding for a military buildup for a possible war with France. On the other, in an effort to defuse the conflict, Adams sent additional peace commissioners to France to negotiate a settlement.

Property Protected à la Francoise.

Unfortunately, the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, refused to negotiate with the U.S. envoys unless they apologized for Adams’s belligerent speech to Congress and provided a substantial bribe. When official correspondence documenting these French actions reached the United States early in 1798, both President Adams and the American people were outraged by this insult, and a new Federalist campaign slogan—”Millions for Defense, but Not a Cent for Tribute!”—was adopted. Military spending and the taxes to support it were promptly increased. This episode is referred to as the XYZ Affair, as Talleyrand’s intermediaries were initially labeled “X,” “Y,” and “Z” in messages to Congress.

Alien and Sedition Acts, Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

John Adams

As war with France seemed to be on the horizon, the Federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in the summer of 1798. The Alien Acts allowed the president to deport any alien he believed to be unfriendly to the United States without trial; the Sedition Act essentially criminalized criticism of the president and Congress. Dozens of Democratic-Republican newspaper editors were arrested and jailed for their opposition to Adams’s Federalist administration.

Still, the administration’s opponents, led by Jefferson and Madison, faced the difficulty of responding effectively to the Alien and Sedition Acts. While winning at the ballot box was obviously the preferred method for creating political change, they viewed newspapers as essential to the American electoral system and feared that the attacks on Democratic-Republican newspapers could undermine their chances in upcoming elections. Jefferson and Madison also believed that the courts should strike down unconstitutional laws. The federal judiciary was only ten years old, however, and lacked a history of withstanding unconstitutional congressional action. And with every judge being a Federalist appointee, they realized that the courts were not the answer.

Instead, late in 1798, the Democratic-Republicans convinced the state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia to adopt resolutions—initially drafted anonymously by Jefferson and Madison, respectively—threatening to oppose local enforcement of federal laws that the states believed to be unconstitutional, specifically the Alien and Sedition Acts. Kentucky and Virginia sought support for these resolutions from other state legislatures, but they were met with broad disapproval and condemnation. Other states insisted that such action exceeded state authority and that the courts should decide on the constitutionality of federal laws.

Fries’s Rebellion

While the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions failed to garner broad support from other states, they energized Jefferson and Madison’s allies. Early in 1799, in Pennsylvania, a small revolt broke out against new taxes intended to support military spending, with protestors praising Jefferson and denouncing the taxes, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams. Authorities easily quashed Fries’s Rebellion, so named for its organizer, auctioneer John Fries, and three people were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang; thirty-two others were sentenced to time in jail. In May 1800, seeing the “rebellion” as something more akin to a tax riot, President Adams issued a blanket pardon, much to the consternation of many of his fellow Federalists.

Patrick Henry

At the same time, many others were deeply concerned with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. They feared that such a direct challenge to federal authority by the states was not only a violation of the supremacy clause of the Constitution but could lead to civil war. In January 1799, George Washington convinced Patrick Henry, the great anti-Federalist from the Constitution’s ratification debates and the intellectual godfather of the states’ rights movement, to reenter politics to oppose the radical states’ rights agenda of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. While Henry had opposed the Constitution for creating a powerful government too distant from the people, he insisted that change had to be pursued in a constitutional manner at the ballot box. After winning election to the House of Delegates, Henry died in June 1799 before he could take office. Washington died in December 1799, before the presidential campaign matured. John Randolph of Roanoke, a leading Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican, later insisted that if Henry had lived, then Jefferson likely would not have been elected president in 1800.

A New Display of the United States

This series of events—the French Revolution, the Jay Treaty, the XYZ Affair, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the response of George Washington and Patrick Henry, and Fries’s Rebellion—created a political cauldron. Many believed that the nation was on the verge of collapse or worse. This was the situation going into the presidential election of 1800, which pitted President John Adams against his vice president, Thomas Jefferson.

The Campaign of 1800

Reverend Timothy Dwight

The campaign rhetoric in 1800 was vicious. For example, each party used particularly strident religious rhetoric to attack the other. The Reverend Timothy Dwight, a leading Federalist and the president of Yale College, declared that if Jefferson came to power, “we may behold a strumpet personating a Goddess on the altars of Jehovah; … the Bible cast into a bonfire, … our children, either wheedled or terrified, uniting in chanting mockeries against God, … we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” On September 6, 1800, the Gazette of the United States, one of the Federalists’ leading newspapers, accused the Democratic-Republican Party of having a “creed of atheism and revolution.” Ten days later the paper summarized Federalist attacks on Jefferson, declaring that the election came down to “GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD.”

Jefferson's Bible

The Democratic-Republicans attacked Federalists for combining church and state and, in the process, profaning the former. A Jefferson supporter wrote that “my bosom burns with indignation at the attempts to render christianity the instrument of tyrants.” Adams was accused of supporting a national religion because of his official proclamations calling for fasting and prayer during the Quasi-War, and later, in a letter to his old friend Benjamin Rush, Adams attributed his loss in the election to this issue: “The secret whisper ran … ‘Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, … rather than a Presbyterian President.’ … Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.” (It is notable that while the Democratic-Republicans were attacked for their unorthodox religion, Adams was primarily attacked for mixing church and state—and he later attributed his loss to this factor.)

Alexander Hamilton Attacks John Adams

Perhaps most remarkably, Alexander Hamilton, arguably the head of the Federalist Party, viciously and publicly attacked John Adams during the campaign for both political and personal reasons. Hamilton felt that Adams was too willing to conciliate France and Democratic-Republicans, and, perhaps equally important, Adams deeply distrusted Hamilton and would not readily bend to his will. In May 1800, after Adams dismissed his secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, and his secretary of war, James McHenry, holdovers from the Washington administration who were more loyal to Hamilton than to Adams, Hamilton openly sought to replace Adams on his party’s ticket with a different Federalist leader. In a pamphlet titled “Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams,” the former secretary of the treasury declared to the world that there were “great and intrinsic defects in his [Adams’s] character,” and that he suffered from “extreme egotism” and “ungovernable temper.” This became one of the many debacles that eventually resulted in Adams’ defeat.

Electoral College Results 1800

Beyond the vitriol of the campaign, in anticipation of a tight race between the Federalist Adams and the Democratic-Republican Jefferson, states saw an opportunity to manipulate the still relatively new Electoral College system. The Constitution awarded each state a number of electors equal to its combined number of representatives and senators, but it did not specify how the states should choose their members of the Electoral College. Initially, it was assumed that states would use a system in which voters in each district chose electors, but the Constitution did not require this approach. By adopting a winner-take-all, or statewide, ballot, or by specifying that the state legislature would pick electors, a state legislature could effectively guarantee that its preferred candidate would receive all of the state’s electoral votes. In anticipation of the 1800 election, several states, including Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, modified their systems of choosing electors in an effort to favor their candidate.

In the end, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans won a narrow Electoral College victory by a vote of 73 to 65. One of the key factors driving that result was that Aaron Burr had succeeded in obtaining New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican Party, defeating an equally energetic campaign by Hamilton on behalf of the Federalists. In return for his efforts, Burr expected to be elected vice president.

Plantation Book Listing the Enslaved

Another significant factor helping the Democratic-Republicans was the clause in the Constitution that counted enslaved persons as three-fifths of a free citizen for the purpose of allocating electoral votes (and taxes), thus giving southern states, which heavily favored Jefferson’s party, added weight in presidential elections and in the House of Representatives. Without the three-fifths clause, Adams would have won the election by an electoral vote of 63 to 61. Recognizing this fact, one Federalist newspaper, the Connecticut Courant, declared on January 26, 1801, that Jefferson and Burr rode “into the temple of liberty, upon the shoulders of slaves.”

Ironically, during the campaign and over the objection of most Federalist leaders, including Alexander Hamilton, Adams sent a second peace mission to France. This effort succeeded in ending the Quasi-War with the Treaty of Mortefontaine signed in Paris on September 30, 1800. Unfortunately for Adams, given the speed of eighteenth-century communications, word of that success did not reach America until December, too late to affect the election.

Jefferson v. Burr: The Electoral College Tie

Aaron Burr

While the Democratic-Republicans had won the election, to their dismay, it was not clear who would be president. In 1800, the Constitution provided that each elector received two votes and that whichever candidate garnered a majority of votes would be president, while the second-place candidate would be vice president. After the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson, whom the Democratic-Republicans had intended to be president, had 73 votes, but so did Aaron Burr, the intended vice president. Concerned not to offend the very prickly Burr, the Democratic-Republicans had failed to arrange for at least one of their electors not to vote for Burr so that Jefferson would have more votes—although some reports suggest that Burr had manipulated several delegations to achieve this result by suggesting that someone else was dropping a vote.

Unfortunately, many Federalists saw this tie as an opportunity to keep Jefferson out of the presidency, an outcome they would pay almost any cost to achieve. The Constitution specified that a tie had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, voting by state. As the Federalists still controlled key House delegations, they blocked Jefferson’s election for thirty-five long roll-call votes over a contentious six days, February 11 to 16. Seeking assurances from Burr that he would support some critical party policies, the Federalists ignored mounting cries from Democratic-Republicans that they were stealing the election. Rumors flew that Federalists, pointing to the constitutional deadlock, might try to insert a member of their own party into the presidency. Jefferson reportedly told Adams that any attempt “to defeat the Presidential election” would be met with “resistance by force & incalculable consequences.”

George Town and Federal City

Democratic-Republican governors were incensed, and reports suggested that some were ready to march with their militias if the Federalists stole the election from Jefferson. In a letter to Jefferson, dated March 21, 1801, Governor Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania described his plan to use the Pennsylvania militia to arrest for treason anyone involved in what Jefferson had previously termed a “usurpation.” In a letter to Governor James Monroe of Virginia, dated February 11, 1801, Samuel Tyler, observing the debate on Monroe’s behalf, told the governor that Pennsylvania already had 22,000 men ready to take up arms and that Virginia should be ready for action, including secession, if the Federalists tried to steal the election. In response to such rumors, the Washington Federalist openly boasted that any effort by Republicans to use force against the Constitution would be met by 60,000 trained militia men from Massachusetts who could easily defeat the untrained mob from Pennsylvania and Virginians practicing military maneuvers with “cornstalks.”

Even Alexander Hamilton weighed in on Jefferson’s behalf. In a letter to James A. Bayard, a Federalist member of the House from Delaware, dated January 16, 1801, Hamilton argued that while Jefferson was “a contemptible hypocrite,” he would not adopt a “violent system” to undermine the government. Burr, on the other hand, had “extreme & irregular ambition” with “no principle, public or private.” In a letter to Gouveneur Morris, the senator from New York, Hamilton warned of the “foolish game” the Federalists were playing and almost begged Federalists to give Jefferson the presidency—although by this point, Hamilton’s influence may not have been substantial.

Thomas Jefferson

Bayard eventually told his colleagues that he would withdraw his support for Burr and allow Jefferson to win to prevent political unrest. In the end, while no Federalist voted for Jefferson, several Federalist members of the House decided to abstain, throwing the vote of their state delegations to Jefferson. On February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson won a 10 to 4 victory, with two states abstaining. Bayard later insisted that Jefferson, through intermediaries, had indirectly promised to maintain the federal government’s fiscal system and a strong navy and not to dismiss Federalist office holders en masse, but Jefferson consistently maintained that he had made no deals to win the presidency.

A potentially dangerous crisis was avoided, and on March 4, 1801, Jefferson was inaugurated as the third president of the United States.

Revolution of 1800

Attempting to put partisan bickering behind him, Jefferson was conciliatory in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801, declaring, “We are all republicans: we are all federalists.” In a letter to Spencer Roane, a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals, dated September 19, 1819, the former president referred to the election as the “revolution of 1800,” arguing it “was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of [17]76. was in it’s form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

Louisiana Purchase Treaty

Notwithstanding Federalist fears and Jefferson’s claims of a revolution, in critical respects the government remained much the same under a Democratic-Republican administration. Jefferson cut the national debt, reduced the size of the government (especially the judiciary and the military), and reduced taxes. But in many ways, most dramatically with the Louisiana Purchase, he also supported a strong federal government. In discussing a “revolution,” though, Jefferson undoubtedly was referring to a deeper kind of change. Certainly the dangerous partisan rancor that threatened the collapse of the union was largely suppressed during the subsequent decades of Democratic-Republican rule. Even more importantly, Jefferson and his supporters had promised a more democratic polity, one in which the common man would play a much greater role. Jefferson sought to implement such a system, often using simple but powerful symbols. For example, Jefferson eliminated “levies” with the president in favor of many more informal gatherings and accepted a handshake rather than the former bow to the president.

In time, the Jeffersonian political philosophy played a greater and greater role, as more Americans received the vote and were given the opportunity to participate in their government, which, in turn, resulted in a dramatic increase in voter turnout and in the Jacksonian democracy of several decades later. Today the United States is, in critical respects, a Jeffersonian republic, suggesting that, indeed, Jefferson’s election revolutionized America.

  • Berkin, Carol. The Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2017.
  • Dunn, Susan. Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
  • Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Freeman, Joanne B. and Johann N. Neem, eds. Jeffersonians in Power: The Rhetoric of Opposition Meets the Realities of Governing. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.
  • Larson, Edward J. A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. New York: Free Press, 2008.
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016.
  • Weisberger, Bernard A. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
  • Wood, Gordon S. Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.
APA Citation:
Ragosta, John. U.S. Presidential Election of 1800. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/u-s-presidential-election-of-1800.
MLA Citation:
Ragosta, John. "U.S. Presidential Election of 1800" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.