Deadlock over presidential election ends - HISTORY
Year
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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

China invades Vietnam

In response to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, China launches an invasion of Vietnam.Tensions between Vietnam and China increased dramatically after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Attempting to expand its influence, Vietnam established a military presence in Laos; ...read more

Gromyko becomes foreign minister

Andre Gromyko was installed as Soviet Foreign Minister on February 17, 1957. Gromyko was called to foreign service in 1939 and began by serving under a policy of cooperation with the Nazis before Hitler’s attack on Russia. After World War II he became an expert at Cold War ...read more

Madame Butterfly premieres

On this day in 1904, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly premieres at the La Scala theatre in Milan, Italy.The young Puccini decided to dedicate his life to opera after seeing a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in 1876. In his later life, he would write some of the ...read more

Kasparov defeats chess-playing computer

In the final game of a six-game match, world chess champion Garry Kasparov triumphs over Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer, and wins the match, 4-2. However, Deep Blue goes on to defeat Kasparov in a heavily publicized rematch the following year.Garry Kasparov, considered ...read more

Thomas Jefferson is elected

On this day in 1801, Thomas Jefferson is elected the third president of the United States. The election constitutes the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in the United States. By 1800, when he decided to run for president, Thomas Jefferson ...read more

Senate passes Missouri Compromise

The Senate passes the Missouri Compromise, an attempt to deal with the dangerously divisive issue of extending slavery into the western territories.From colonial days to the Civil War, slavery and western expansion both played fundamental but inherently incompatible roles in the ...read more

Lee Strasberg dies

On this day in 1982, the American director, actor and drama coach Lee Strasberg, who popularized “Method acting,” dies of a heart attack at age 80.Born in Budzanow, Poland, Strasberg immigrated to the United States in 1909 at the age of eight; he became a U.S. citizen in 1936. ...read more

Ferry sinks near Haiti

Approximately 900 people drown when a passenger ferry, the Neptune, overturns near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on this day in 1993. The ferry was dangerously overloaded, and carried no lifeboats or emergency gear.The Neptune was a 150-foot boat, with three decks, that made regular ...read more

The first “Trial of the Century”

Union leaders Bill Hayward, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone are taken into custody by Idaho authorities and the Pinkerton Detective Agency. They are put on a special train in Denver, Colorado, following a secret, direct route to Idaho because the officials had no legal right ...read more

Voice of America begins broadcasts to Russia

With the words, “Hello! This is New York calling,” the U.S. Voice of America (VOA) begins its first radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union. The VOA effort was an important part of America’s propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.The VOA began in 1942 as a ...read more

Sherman sacks Columbia, South Carolina

On this day in 1865, the soldiers from Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army ransack Columbia, South Carolina, and leave a charred city in their wake. Sherman is most famous for his March to the Sea in the closing months of 1864. After capturing Atlanta in September, ...read more

Zeppelin L-4 crashes into North Sea

After encountering a severe snowstorm on the evening of February 17, 1915, the German zeppelin L-4 crash-lands in the North Sea near the Danish coastal town of Varde. The zeppelin, a motor-driven rigid airship, was developed by German inventor Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin in ...read more