In which we see a schemer foiled by his enemy's enemy
We’re right smack in the middle of the election of 1800, kids, and Thomas Jefferson has a problem.
—I thought you said he was doing really well.
Well, yes, Kylie, I did say that the other day, more or less. I was talking about the political roller coaster for Jefferson was on. First he and his Republican allies were thrown on the defensive by supporting France just before the U.S. went to war with that country. Then his opponents, President Adams and the Federalists, pressed Alien and Sedition Acts, which backfired on the Federalists. So Republicans pressed their advantage with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, in which they said they could ignore laws legislation considered unconstitutional.
—I still don’t understand why that didn’t really hurt them. Saying they didn’t have to obey any laws they didn’t like.
—That’s a good question, Sadie, and I don’t have a straight answer for you. There are two things to keep in mind, though. The first is that President Adams finding his way to peace with the French reduced the overall stress level, even though he himself didn’t benefit much. And the reason, I think, that he didn’t benefit much—the second thing to keep in mind—is that the Federalists had just been in power too long. Their brand of strong government, a government that favored high taxes to support a large military, became increasingly wearisome to a country that was founded in suspicion of big government, hatred of taxes, and fear of armies. Alexander Hamilton had given the country a strong foundation. But with his mentor, George Washington, gone—Washington died in December of 1799, widely mourned by his countrymen—Hamilton was a loose cannon. And since he and Adams didn’t really get along, the road was open for an alternative.
—Like I said, you said Jefferson was in a good position. So what’s the problem?
Well, yes, he was. But you may also remember that I said New York had been the key in 1796: Adams had the North, Jefferson had the South, and the Empire State had swung Federalist. So going into the election of 1800, Jefferson knew he had to secure New York if he wanted to win. And he wasn’t sure he could. He needed an insurance policy. And that insurance policy’s name was Aaron Burr.
—I’ve heard that name.
I’ll bet you have. Do you know anything about him?
—Wait: didn’t shoot somebody? Was it Hamilton?
As a matter of fact, yes. But that happened later. Before that, Burr shot Jefferson, too.
Well, I mean that metaphorically. Burr was a guy with a remarkable pedigree. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards. Do you remember him?
Ugh. The First Great Awakening?
—The preacher guy?
Right. The preacher guy. Burr came from a really illustrious family. He served in the Revolution, and was a prominent New York City attorney. Worked alongside Hamilton, in fact, during the war and afterward. They were friendly. Sort of. It was never really clear who Burr’s friends were (especially to those “friends”). Or where his political loyalties were. That’s why the Jefferson camp was a little nervous about him. But they believed he could deliver the state to the Republicans, and so they offered him a deal: if he ran with Jefferson, he’d be vice president.
—So what happened?
He accepted the offer.
—So he became vice president?
No. Burr ended up in a tie. With Jefferson. For president.
—How the hell did that happen?
I don’t really know. New York was a big state, with a big haul. Political fixers sometimes arranged for electors in the Electoral College to choose someone other than their top candidate, so that the number two person would move up and lock in the VP slot. Remember: under the terms of the Constitution, the runner-up became vice president, so it made sense to split votes if it would mean you could keep your opponent out. (Remember that Adams and Jefferson, who finished first and second in 1796, were opponents—not an optimal way to govern.) This was a big flaw with the whole system, and after this was all over, the Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 12th amendment to the Constitution, which created slates—president and vice president—to run together as a team. But that’s not helping here.
—So what happened in 1800?
What happened in 1800 is what happens when nobody gets a majority in the Electoral College.
—Amd that is?
Warm my heart, someone. Tell me what the Constitution says.
Ugh. The election goes to the House of Representatives. Each state gets one vote. So the congressmen in a given state confer to choose.
—So what happened with Jefferson and Burr?
It took six days and 35 votes. A lot of the Federalists voted for Burr.
To stick it to Jefferson, for one. Because they hoped Burr would really be better, for another.
—Would he have been?
No one knows for sure. But after a certain point, you kinda have to be suspicious of someone who never really tips his hand. Although in one way, Burr did tip his hand: once there was a tie, he put the VP deal he cut with Jefferson aside. He wanted to be president and pushed for it.
—So how did it get resolved?
Ironically, a key figure in all of this was our old friend Alexander Hamilton, who in effect had the power to choose between options he considered truly awful. By this point, he had been out of power for a few years, and had made plenty of enemies. But he still had influence. Hamilton hated Jefferson. And he thought Jefferson was a wooly-headed idiot. But Hamilton was afraid of Burr, afraid of what he might to do the country. Hamilton considered Jefferson an idiot, but at least he had principles. But Burr was a snake. Smart, likeable, even a guy he could work with. But not someone he ever wanted to see run the country. Hamilton urged his fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson. And in they end, enough of them did to put Jefferson over the top.
—Wow. That’s really quite a story.
And it isn’t over yet, Sadie.
—Woo hoo. What happens next?
Jefferson enters his first term as president.
—So is that a happy ending?
More like a happy middle. We’ll get to it tomorrow.
Next: Jefferson in the saddle