House of Representatives Elects Jefferson President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The bloodless transfer of power from one political party to its bitter rival in the 1800 presidential election signified the success of the new two-party system in the United States, and President-Elect Thomas Jefferson would go on to oversee some of the most significant developments in his young nation’s history.

Summary of Event

The presidential campaign of 1800 pitted President John Adams, a Federalist, against Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a Republican who was an old political adversary and an even older friend of Adams. Adams had defeated Jefferson in the 1796 presidential election by the slim margin of three electoral votes. New England seemed to be solidly Federalist and the South seemed to be solidly Republican. The critical states were Pennsylvania and New York. Jefferson had carried Pennsylvania in 1796; he hoped to maintain his position there and to win New York to his side. South Carolina was also an important state, for the Federalists enjoyed strong support there. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1800 Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;election of 1800 Presidency, U.S.;Thomas Jefferson[Jefferson] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;election of 1800 Federalist Party;election of 1800 Republican Party (old);election of 1800 [kw]House of Representatives Elects Jefferson President (Feb. 17, 1801) [kw]Elects Jefferson President, House of Representatives (Feb. 17, 1801) [kw]Jefferson President, House of Representatives Elects (Feb. 17, 1801) [kw]President, House of Representatives Elects Jefferson (Feb. 17, 1801) Presidency, U.S.;election of 1800 Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;election of 1800 Presidency, U.S.;Thomas Jefferson[Jefferson] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;election of 1800 Federalist Party;election of 1800 Republican Party (old);election of 1800 [g]United States;Feb. 17, 1801: House of Representatives Elects Jefferson President[0080] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 17, 1801: House of Representatives Elects Jefferson President[0080] Bayard, James A. Burr, Aaron [p]Burr, Aaron;election of 1800 Hamilton, Alexander Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth

Deteriorating U.S. relations with France dominated the Adams administration and came to a showdown over the XYZ affair XYZ affair France;XYZ affair —a diplomatic incident in which corrupt French officials surreptitiously demanded an apology, a large loan, and bribes from the United States. The Federalists were able to parlay U.S. indignation over the XYZ affair into strong political support for their program. Many Federalists—including Adams, for a time, in 1798-1799—were willing to declare war or force a declaration of war from France. Influential, well-to-do Federalist Federalist Party;High Federalists political activists (called High Federalists) who often distrusted President Adams, though he was a Federalist himself, realized that their continued popularity depended on maintaining public opinion at a high emotional level against the French.

For a time, in 1799, it seemed that the Republicans, damned by their opponents as pro-French, would be out of the running in the 1800 election. However, the popular mood changed as the war fever declined, as opposition to the military program and taxes increased, and as Adams himself became less aggressive, and Republican chances proportionately improved. When the president suddenly decided to send a new peace mission to France, the High Federalists realized that they were doomed. Peace was now the major theme, and the Republicans had been committed to peace all along.

President Thomas Jefferson.

(Library of Congress)

Adams’s peace policy split the Federalist Party. Alexander Hamilton Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and John Adams[Adams] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and Alexander Hamilton[Hamilton] attacked the president directly and schemed to replace him. The Republicans, united behind Jefferson, applied themselves diligently to capturing the critical middle states, such as New York and Pennsylvania. As the election outcome would prove, the Republicans were more efficiently organized than the Federalists.

In 1800, the popular vote was conducted in the states at various times during October and November. In the majority of states, however, the state legislatures, not the voters, selected the presidential electors. Significantly, although the Federalists maintained control over the national government, in 1800 the Republicans controlled a majority of the state governments.

In New York, for example, Aaron Burr Burr, Aaron [p]Burr, Aaron;election of 1800 was the Republican leader and Hamilton directed the opposition. At stake was the composition of the state legislature. The party that captured that body would control the twelve electoral votes cast by New York. Burr outmaneuvered Hamilton, and the Republicans captured a majority in the state’s lower house, thus giving them a majority of one in the combined vote of both houses. This defeat deflated the hopes of the Federalists. The Republicans staved off an energetic Federalist campaign in South Carolina and brought Jefferson home the victor by eight electoral votes. This margin was not impressive, but it did represent a significant shift of party strength in the crucial middle states. The Republican Party did not penetrate New England, but John Adams improved his position in some southern states. Despite a serious split in his own party, President Adams looked stronger in 1800 than he had in 1796.

The Federalist Party Federalist Party had a second opportunity to prevent the election of Jefferson, whom its members regarded as an “atheistic, Jacobinic, democratic” politician. In 1800, the electors did not distinguish between the president and the vice president in casting their votes. The man who received the most electoral votes became president, and the runner-up became vice president. In a display of party unity, each Republican elector cast a vote for Jefferson and a vote for Burr Burr, Aaron [p]Burr, Aaron;election of 1800 , the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. The resulting tie meant that the decision would be made in the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. Enough Federalists preferred Burr to make Jefferson’s election dubious.

Hamilton, Hamilton, Alexander [p]Hamilton, Alexander;and Aaron Burr[Burr] Burr, Aaron [p]Burr, Aaron;and Alexander Hamilton[Hamilton] whose dislike of the devious Burr would later cause the famous duel in which he lost his life, supported Jefferson in the House. The Federalist Party Federalist Party ignored Hamilton’s advice, however, in the hope that a prolonged contest would damage the Republican Party and perhaps postpone the transfer of power. The Federalists also sought some guarantees from both candidates regarding their plans for the future, but neither Jefferson nor Burr Burr, Aaron [p]Burr, Aaron;election of 1800 would commit himself. Finally, after thirty-five ballots, James A. Bayard, Bayard, James A. the lone representative from Delaware, decided to switch this vote, and thus his state’s support, to Jefferson. Finally, on February 17, 1801, the nation had a president-elect.

Significance

Jefferson considered the election of 1800 “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” Jefferson’s view was supported by some Federalists. Many High Federalists were positive that Jefferson would lead the nation into chaos and anarchy. However, Jefferson, in his inaugural address, spoke of conciliation and moderation rather than revolution.

The most concrete issue separating Adams’s from Jefferson’s policy toward France evaporated when Adams came out for peace. Jefferson, in later days, charged Adams with monarchist and antirepublican tendencies. There was little substance to those charges. Jefferson did articulate a greater confidence in popular government than did Adams, and the former was more suspicious of centrist tendencies in government. Both men were nationalists, however, devoted to representative government, determined to disengage the United States from European politics, and convinced of the future greatness of the republic. Although Adams lost the election to Jefferson, he also defeated the High Federalists in his own party. In so doing, Adams closed the already narrow gap between him and Jefferson.

Historians consider the political campaign and election of 1800 to be highly significant. The election ushered in the basic strategies of modern electoral campaigning. Jefferson, in particular, was instrumental in clearly defining the principles and objectives of Republicanism. He and his associates effectively used the press and pamphleteers to disseminate their appeals to farmers, laborers, and townsfolk. More important, the election demonstrated that the peaceful transfer of political power between rival ideologies was possible without bloodshed or revolution. The Federalists—the party that favored a strong, centralized government and served the needs of rich merchants, speculators, and landed gentry—gave way to the Republicans, who were later called Democratic Republicans and who were the forerunners of the modern Democratic Party.

Under the Republican banner, Jefferson campaigned in 1800 on a platform calling for change: promoting individual and political liberties, safeguarding states’ rights against an encroaching central government, protecting the freedoms of press and religion, ensuring the right to dissent and criticize government, and encouraging free trade abroad but avoiding inappropriate alliances with European powers. During his two-term administration, Jefferson tried to keep those campaign promises.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunningham, Noble E. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Details Jefferson’s public carer. Provides critical resources on Jefferson’s faith in human reason, progress, and education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Re-creates the political climate in the 1790’s leading up to the election of 1800. Focuses on the conflicting visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, Thomas J. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Fleming sets the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr firmly within the chaotic political environment of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, David N. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994. Shows how Jefferson’s constitutional thinking evolved from Whig to Federalist to Republican. Scholarly but highly readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund Sears. The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. Rev. ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2004. First published in 1976, this brief volume has become a standard work on the early U.S. presidents. This edition includes a new preface in which the author reflects on his thoughts about the subject over the previous quarter century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Randall, Willard S. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. Challenges the assumptions offered by earlier scholars on the influences of Jefferson’s revolutionary political thinking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Risjord, Norman K. Thomas Jefferson. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1994. A concise bundling of existing scholarship on Jefferson’s evolving political philosophy, with Risjord’s own view that Jefferson never successfully developed a coherent ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Robert, and David Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Examines Jefferson’s ideas and his impact on U.S. foreign policy. Useful in understanding the American response to the world at large.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weisberger, Bernard A. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Engagingly written analysis of the 1800 election that examines the politics and personalities of both major candidates.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Aaron Burr. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1800 Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;election of 1800 Presidency, U.S.;Thomas Jefferson[Jefferson] Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;election of 1800 Federalist Party;election of 1800 Republican Party (old);election of 1800

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