Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

The Election of 1800: The Rematch

The Election of 1800: The Rematch

Author’s note: I’ll be away for most of the month of July. As such, I will not be able to follow the presidential race, to say nothing of write about it. Therefore, before I left, I sent my editors a series of four columns. This series will take a brief look at each of the first four elections in presidential history. I have two goals with these. First, I’d like to chart the rise of presidential partisanship, from its nonexistence in 1789, to its conception in 1792, to its birth in 1796, and finally to its maturation in 1800. Second and similarly, I’d also like to show that partisan vitriol is nothing new; there was just as much in 1800 as there is in 2012.

Click here for Part I—The Election of 1789.
Click here for Part II—The Election of 1792.
Click here for Part III—The Election of 1796.

And now, the conclusion.

President John Adams was the loneliest man in America. He had few remaining political allies. His political opposition, the Democratic-Republicans, took orders from his own vice president. His ostensible political comrades, the Federalists, did not care for him much. Their de facto head and mastermind, Alexander Hamilton, had grown increasingly frustrated by a lack of influence on Adams, an understandable annoyance for Hamilton considering he was the most trusted advisor to the President’s predecessor, George Washington.

Hamilton lamented his unfortunate situation, one of not being able to influence his president while simultaneously not being able to make open criticisms of him, either. Eventually, though, his frustrations trumped party loyalty. “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government,” Hamilton said, “let it be one we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible.”

Presidential primaries were over a century away, but its primordial ancestor can be found right here. Beyond Hamilton’s frustrations, there were legitimate policy disagreements within the Federalist Party, such as the extent to which the U.S. should commit to the “quasi-war” with France.[1] This split, several others, and Hamilton’s growing irritation with his lack of influence on the President, created a rift between Adams and Hamilton’s Federalists. It didn’t matter that Adams was once again squaring off against Hamilton archenemy Thomas Jefferson. At least Jefferson he could attack without feeling badly about it.

The result was a furious effort on the part of Hamilton to block an Adams re-election. His first step was to find another Federalist to support. This alternative was former South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney, popular among Hamiltonians after rebuking French propositions during the XYZ Affair. Hamilton’s hope was that Pinckney would do far better in the south than President Adams, yet, as a Federalist, he would still break even with Adams in the north, thereby defeating and unseating the President in the Electoral College.

Much like today’s primary campaigns, the partisans went to work against a member of their own party. Hamilton circulated a letter entitled “The Public Conduct and Character of John Adams.” In it, he relentlessly maligned Adams as a Federalist, president, and man, even calling him “unfit” for the office (3 a.m. phone call, anyone?). Hamilton’s blistering assault of his president was meant for a closed circuit of Federalists. This, however, led to another familiar modern facet of presidential politics: the leak. Soon, Republicans across the country obtained copies, further hurting the President’s chances at re-election.

President Adams, of course, was furious. “Hamilton is an intriguant,” Adams told a cabinet member, “The greatest intriguant in the world—a man devoid of every principle—a Bastard.”[2]

As if the infighting within the Federalist Party wasn’t bad enough for President Adams, he had the unified Republicans with whom to deal. Unlike 1796, when he was Washington’s vice president, and therefore did not have a record to directly attack, his nearly four years in the executive’s mansion gave plenty of fodder to his opponents. The XYZ Affair, along with the alien and sedition laws, highlights the policy disagreements between Adams and the Republicans. The Republicans became desperate to put their first president in power and thusly birthed party machinery, which has been around ever since.

Party machinery—the concept of a political party putting together a unifying platform and making a concerted effort to push across that agenda through campaigning, elections, and policy—was the Republicans’ greatest advantage in 1800. While the Federalists fought each other, the Republicans mobilized state legislatures across the country to create favorable election laws.[3] Federalists accused Republicans of spending one thousand dollars per day in canvassing, an enormous cost for the time. Both parties, one unified, the other divided, dug in for months of campaigning.

The rematch was met with devious tactics from both sides. One sees the emergence of a candidate’s religion being a central issue, as seen with the modern examples of Al Smith, John Kennedy, Mitt Romney, and, fallaciously, Barack Obama.[4] Preachers from the northeast, including Yale’s Timothy Dwight, New York’s John Mason and William Linn, as well as an editorial from the Connecticut Courant, predecessor to the modern Hartford Courant, all skewer Jefferson for atheistic, or, at least, deistic, views, without any public support for the Bible or Christianity.

To combat the claim that the Federalists were too “British” in their approach to a strong central government, Federalists characterized Jefferson as a “Jacobin,” implying that Jefferson endorsed radically anarchistic French acts such as those during France’s “Reign of Terror” of the mid-1790s. One Federalist claimed that Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squad, sired by a Virginia mulatto father, raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy, with an occasional change of fricasseed bullfrog.”[5] The Columbia Centinel in Boston started a series called “The Jeffersoniad,” which repeatedly scrutinized “the crooked character and principles of the Jacobin PRETENDER to the Presidency.” The sixteenth in the series highlighted Jefferson’s “insatiable ambition,” “contempt for commerce and commercial men,” “gross tergiversation and inconsistency,” “departure from his old principles,” “rooter antipathy to the Federal Constitution and his fixed determination to overthrow it,” and his “deadly opposition to Great Britain, and his violent and ridiculous attachment to France.” Most pointedly, the Connecticut Courant warned that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”[6]

Clearly, the Federalists were getting their licks in. The Republican machine, however, was not to be outdone. Perhaps the most notable example of a ferocious Republican was pamphleteer and writer James Callender, who berated the President in the Richmond Examiner. In addition to the traditional assaults on Adams as a monarchist, Callender spearheaded personal attacks on the President. He labeled Adams a “repulsive pedant” who was, “in his private life, one of the most egregious fools upon the continent. . . . [He is] that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”[7] Callender implored the country come to its senses. “The historian . . . will ask why the United States degrades themselves to the choice of a wretch whose soul came blasted from the hand of nature, of a wretch that has neither the science of a magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor the courage of a man?”

In response to Federalists accusing Jefferson of having affairs and children with slave women, Republicans began circulating the rumor that Adams and fellow Federalist presidential candidate Charles Pinckney arranged for four English mistresses to share while abroad in Britain.[8] And that was just from the Republicans, never mind the Hamiltonian attacks from Adams’s own party.

Jefferson, it turns out, played a role in many of the partisan attacks. The Election of 1800 had, for the first time, a leading presidential candidate finally taking an active part in the campaign, yet another step toward modernity in presidential politics. Jefferson spent nearly the entirety of his vice-presidency under Adams mobilizing the Republicans—the aforementioned party machine—for the 1800 Election.

The Republican candidate had fully thrown himself into the election. Beyond approving and even masterminding partisan campaigning, Jefferson is known to have studied the Electoral math for the election, a common occurrence among politicians and pundits today.[9] Jefferson’s running mate in 1800, Aaron Burr of New York, stayed at one election ward for ten-hours without stopping, fighting for every vote. He would continue this fervor into the rest of the presidential campaign into November. Between Jefferson’s partisan campaigning and Burr’s electioneering, the dichotomy between the passivity of Washington and Adams in the first three elections to the aggressiveness of Jefferson and Burr in the fourth is clear.

President Adams could not withstand the confluence of events. His own party was fractured, the opposing party had an unprecedented campaign machine, there were verbal assaults from the country’s two most brilliant partisans, and in all of it, the Republican press reveled. Hamilton openly supported and campaigned for Pinckney to be the top vote getter of the two Federalists on the ballot, and Adams never had much of a chance.

This lack of unity ultimately hurt the Federalists while the Republicans unified behind their candidates. Of the 138 electoral voters in 1800, each with two votes, Jefferson earned 73. Burr was given votes by all of Jefferson’s electors to give him 73 votes as well. This tie among the two Republicans epitomized the lockstep of the Democratic-Republican Party. President Adams received 65 electoral votes, paired with Pinckney on 64 of the ballots.[10] Jefferson and Burr’s tie was eventually broken by the House of Representatives. As planned by the Republicans, Jefferson went on to win the Election of 1800 and Burr became his vice president.

The following March, at the completion of his term, President Adams, in an act that astounded Europe, peacefully relinquished executive power of the army, navy, and government of the United States.[11] President Jefferson rode into newly “capitalized” Washington D.C. while President Adams rode into retirement, the first defeated sitting president in American history.

[1] Franco-American relations had soured with the Jay Treaty and XYZ Affair, and soon the acrimonious relationship developed into some sea skirmishes on the Atlantic. The Francophilic Democratic-Republicans thought Adams was coming much too close to a full-fledged war with the French, the ally that was crucial in the colonial struggle against Great Britain not two decades earlier. Meanwhile, Adams’s Federalists, led by an ambitious Hamilton, who sought a principal, second-only-to-Washington role in the potential war with General Napoleon Bonaparte and the French, thought Adams was not aggressive enough against their former allies, and he urged the president to declare war. Adams understood that a full-blown conflict with a European power could have been disastrous for the fledgling nation to which he had dedicated his entire adult life, and resisted the pressures of his party to declare war.

[2] In Adams’s defense, Hamilton was, in fact, a bastard.

[3] Party machinery also leaves the average citizen feeling left out of the process. Then, as now, it is difficult to make noise as a single voter when there is a cacophony of party politics drowning the voter out. “It is perfectly well understood,” noted Adams’s youngest son, Thomas, “that the trial of strength between the two Candidates for the chief magistracy of the Union is to be seen, not in the choice of electors by the people, but in the complexion and character of the individual legislatures.” Though this product was not unintentional by the framers who were weary of pure democracy in action, party machinery and legislatures seemed to control the election.

[4] Smith, in 1928, became the first Catholic nominee for the presidency. Kennedy became the second, and first winner. Romney’s Mormonism has been the subject of many-a-poll. And Obama’s a Muslim.

[5] Oh, snap!

[6] I am not making this up.

[7] Hermaphroditical character!

[8] When Adams heard of this rumor, he assured everyone that if it were true, Pinckney had kept all four women for himself, “cheating me out of my two.”

[9] Jefferson concluded that the Republicans needed to carry the state of New York to win the election. If they did not, they then would have to win New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a task on which, Jefferson admitted, they “could not count with any confidence.” Moreover, to win New York State, the Republicans concluded they must win New York City. To maximize that possibility, this meant winning a preceding municipal election of the city’s elected positions in April.

[10] One Federalist elector, loyal to his president, dutifully voted for Federalist John Jay instead of Pinckney in order to ensure Adams received one more vote than Pinckney. Unfortunately for the Federalists, it ended up being the difference between 3rd and 4th place. The final tally: Jefferson – 73, Burr – 73, Adams – 65, Pinckney – 64, Jay – 1.

[11] One of the most underrated historical moments in history, if you ask me. Could you imagine a European monarch or general, with control over the military, stepping down if the people voted him or her out?