Election of 1800: Deadlock Broken

Electoral Tie Eventually Decided In the House of Representatives

Engraved illustration of Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr, who nearly won the deadlocked election of 1800. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The election of 1800 was one of the most controversial in American history, and was marked with intrigue, betrayals, and a tie in the electoral college between two candidates who were running mates on the same ticket. The eventual winner was only decided after days of balloting in the House of Representatives.

When it was settled, Thomas Jefferson became president. That marked a philosophical change, which has been characterized as the "Revolution of 1800."

The electoral result represented a significant political realignment as the first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, had been Federalists, and Jefferson represented the ascending Democratic-Republican Party.

The contentious result of the election revealed a serious flaw in the US Constitution. Under the original Constitution, candidates for president and vice president ran on the same ballot. And that meant running mates could essentially be running against each other.

The Twelfth Amendment, which changed the Constitution to prevent the problem of the election of 1800 from occurring again, created the current system of presidents and vice presidents running on the same ticket.

The nation's fourth presidential election was the first time candidates campaigned, though the campaigning was very subdued by modern standards. And the contest was also noteworthy as it intensified political and personal animosity between two men tragically linked in history, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The Incumbent in 1800: John Adams

When the nation's first president, George Washington, announced that he would not run for a third term, his vice president, John Adams, ran and was elected president in 1796.

Adams became increasingly unpopular during his four years in office, especially for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, repressive legislation designed to stifle freedom of the press.

As the 1800 election approached Adams was determined to run for a second term, though his chances were not promising.

The Role of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton had been born on the island of Nevis, in the Caribbean. And while he was technically eligible to be president under the Constitution (having been a citizen when the Constitution was ratified), he was such a controversial figure that a run for high office never seemed feasible. However, he had played a formidable role in the administration of George Washington, serving as the first secretary of the treasury.

Over time he came to be an enemy of John Adams, though they were both members of the Federalist Party. He had tried to ensure the defeat of Adams in the election of 1796, and hoped to see Adams defeated in his run for a second term.

Hamilton did not hold governmental office in the late 1790s, a time when he was practicing law in New York City. Yet he built a Federalist political machine in New York and could exert considerable influence in political matters.

Aaron Burr as a Candidate

Aaron Burr, a prominent New York political figure, was opposed to the Federalists continuing their rule, and also hoped to see Adams denied a second term.

A constant rival to Hamilton, Burr had built a New York political machine, centered around Tammany Hall, which rivaled Hamilton's Federalist organization.

For the 1800 election, Burr threw his support behind Thomas Jefferson. Burr ran with Jefferson on the same ticket as the vice-presidential candidate.

Thomas Jefferson in the Election of 1800

Thomas Jefferson had served as Washington's secretary of state, and ran a close second to John Adams in the election of 1796. As a critic of the Adams presidency, Jefferson was an obvious candidate on the Democratic-Republican ticket that would oppose the Federalists.

The Campaigning in 1800

While it is true that the 1800 election marks the first time that candidates campaigned, the campaigning that year mostly consisted of writing letters and articles expressing their intentions.

President John Adams did make trips to Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that were construed as political visits, and Aaron Burr, on behalf of the Democratic-Republican ticket, visited towns throughout New England.

In that early period the electors from the states were generally chosen by state legislatures, not by popular vote. In some cases the elections for state legislatures were essentially substitutes for the presidential election, so any campaigning actually took place at a local level.

A Tie in the Electoral College

The tickets in the election were Federalists John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney, and the Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The ballots for the electoral college were not counted until February 11, 1801, and it was discovered that the election was a tie.

Jefferson and his own running mate, Burr, each received 73 electoral votes. John Adams received 65 votes, Charles C. Pinckney received 64 votes. John Jay, who had not even been running, received one electoral vote.

The original wording of the Constitution, which didn't distinguish between electoral votes for president and vice president, led to the problematic outcome.

In the event of a tie in the electoral college, the Constitution dictated that the election would be decided by the House of Representatives. So Jefferson and Burr, who had been running mates, became rivals.

The Federalists, who still controlled the lame-duck Congress, threw their support behind Burr in an effort to defeat Jefferson.

And while Burr publicly expressed his loyalty to Jefferson, he worked to win the upcoming election in the House of Representatives.

And Alexander Hamilton, who detested Burr and considered Jefferson a safer choice to be president, wrote letters and used all his influence with the Federalists to thwart Burr.

Many Ballots in the House of Representatives

The election in the House of Representatives began on February 17, 1801, in the unfinished Capitol building in Washington. The voting went on for several days, and after 36 ballots the tie was finally broken. Thomas Jefferson was declared the winner. Aaron Burr was declared vice president.

And it is believed that Alexander Hamilton's influence weighed heavily on the eventual outcome.

Legacy of the Election of 1800

The fractious outcome of the 1800 election led to the passage and ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, which changed the way the electoral college functioned.

As Thomas Jefferson was distrustful of Aaron Burr, he gave him nothing to do as vice president. Burr and Hamilton continued their epic feud, which finally culminated in their famous duel in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Burr shot Hamilton, who died the next day.

Burr was not prosecuted for killing Hamilton, though he later was accused of treason, tried, and acquitted. He lived in exile in Europe for several years before returning to New York. He died in 1836.

Thomas Jefferson served two terms as president. And he and John Adams eventually put their differences behind them, and wrote a series of friendly letters during the last decade of their lives.

They both died on a noteworthy day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.