February 17

This Day in History

General Interest

Feb 17, 1801:

Deadlock over presidential election ends

After one tie vote in the Electoral College and 35 indecisive ballot votes in the House of Representatives, Vice President Thomas Jefferson is elected the third president of the United States over his running mate, Aaron Burr. The confusing election, which ended just 15 days before a new president was to be inaugurated, exposed major problems in the presidential electoral process set forth by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

As dictated by Article Two of the Constitution, presidents and vice presidents are elected by "electors," a group of voters chosen by each state in a manner specified by that state's legislature. The total number of electors from each state is equal to the number of senators and representatives that state is entitled to in Congress. In the first few presidential elections, these electors were chosen by popular vote, legislative appointment, or a combination of both (by the 1820s, almost all states adopted the practice of choosing electors by popular vote). Each elector voted for two people; at least one of who did not live in their state. The individual receiving the greatest number of votes would be elected president, and the next in line, vice president.

A majority of electors was needed to win election, thus ensuring consensus across states. Because each elector voted twice, it was possible for as many as three candidates to tie with a majority--in which case the House of Representatives was to vote a winner from among the tied candidates. If no majority was achieved in the initial electoral vote, the House was to decide the winner from the top five candidates. In both cases, representatives would not vote individually but by state groups. Each state, no matter what its number of representatives, would be entitled to just one vote, and a majority of these votes was needed to elect a candidate president.

In the nation's first presidential election, in 1789, George Washington was unanimously elected, and John Adams--his unofficial running mate--came in second in electoral votes, making him vice president. Both men were conservative and favored a strong federal government as established by the Constitution. To balance his Cabinet with a liberal, and thus maintain the widest possible support for the new American government, Washington chose Thomas Jefferson--the idealistic drafter of the Declaration of Independence--as secretary of state.

During Washington's first administration, Jefferson often came into conflict with Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury. Jefferson objected to Hamilton's efforts to strengthen the national government at the expense of the states, and the two men also differed significantly on foreign policy, with Hamilton advocating improved relations with conservative England and Jefferson calling for closer ties with Revolutionary France. Although Washington detested the factional fighting, the disagreements gave rise to the nation's first political parties: Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (the forerunner of the Democratic Party) and Hamilton's Federalists.

In 1792, Washington was unanimously re-elected president, and Adams was re-elected vice president. Jefferson, his relations with Hamilton greatly deteriorated, resigned as secretary of state in 1793.

In 1796, Jefferson ran for president as the candidate of the Democratic-Republicans, and Adams, as the Federalist candidate. When the results of the election were tallied, it became clear that the nation's forefathers had failed to properly anticipate the rise of political parties. Adams won the election with 71 votes, but his Federalist running mate, Thomas Pinckney, received only 59 votes, nine less than Thomas Jefferson, who was elected vice president. Jefferson's running mate, Senator Aaron Burr of New York, received only 30 votes.

As vice president, Jefferson dedicated himself to his constitutional duty of presiding over the Senate and wrote the Manual of Parliamentary Practice, a book of congressional rules. He had little contact with the Adams administration. Meanwhile, tensions rose with France over U.S.-British trade, leading Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Act, which restricted U.S. citizenship and prohibited public criticism of the president or the government of the United States. Jefferson viewed the acts as the confirmation of the kind of federal tyranny he feared and left Philadelphia for Monticello in 1798 to pen the Kentucky Resolutions in response. He soon returned to the U.S. capital to carry on his duties in the Senate.

In the election of 1800, Jefferson and Burr again took on Adams and Pinckney. By this time, America's political tide was sweeping away from the conservative Federalists to Jefferson's more democratic party. In addition, Adams was hampered in his re-election bid by Alexander Hamilton, who advocated the election of Pinckney as president and Adams as vice president. On November 4, the national election was held. When the electoral votes were counted, the Democratic-Federalists emerged with a decisive victory, with Jefferson and Burr each earning 73 votes to Adams' 65 votes and Pinckney's 64 votes. John Jay, the governor of New York, received 1 vote.

Because Jefferson and Burr had tied, the election went to the House of Representatives, which began voting on the issue on February 11, 1801. What at first seemed but an electoral technicality--handing Jefferson victory over his running mate--developed into a major constitutional crisis when Federalists in the lame-duck Congress threw their support behind Burr. Jefferson needed a majority of nine states to win, but in the first ballot had only eight states, with Burr winning six states and Maryland and Virginia. Finally, on February 17, a small group of Federalists reasoned that the peaceful transfer of power required that the majority party have its choice as president and voted in Jefferson's favor. The 35th ballot gave Jefferson victory with 10 votes. Burr received four votes and two states voted blank.

Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated the third president of the United States on March 4. Three years later, the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing for the separate election of presidents and vice presidents, was ratified and adopted.

Under Jefferson, the power of the federal government was reduced but never to such a degree that it threatened the unity of the United States. The crowning achievement of his two terms in office was the Louisiana Purchase, an unprecedented executive action in which Jefferson violated his own constitutional scruples in the name of doubling the size of the United States.

Aaron Burr was denied renomination by his party for the office of vice president in February 1804, and George Clinton of New York was chosen in his place. Several months later, Burr challenged his long-time political antagonist Alexander Hamilton to a duel and shot him dead. In 1807, he was put on trial for treason after being accused of plotting to establish an independent republic in the American Southwest. He was acquitted and eventually resumed his law practice in New York.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826--the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Adams' last words were "Thomas Jefferson still survives," though his old political adversary had died a few hours before.

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