Political Parties and the Jay Treaty
By the end of the 1790s, developments abroad would bring these party tensions to a boil. The French Revolution in 1789 precipitated a long-running conflict between France and Britain that only ended with Napoleon Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. In the early years of the conflict, both nations sought supplies from the United States while trying to block supplies to their enemy. The result was a series of seizures of American ships, supplies, and sometimes even sailors. Hoping to avoid being dragged into the European conflict, which the still-young nation could not afford, Washington's administration declared neutrality in April 1793, but the attacks on American shipping continued.
France saw the Jay Treaty as an insult. Not only had France supported America in its revolutionary struggle against Britain, but, from France's perspective, the 1778 treaty it had signed with the United States during its struggle for independence required U.S. support for France's war with Britain. More viscerally, revolutionary France operated on the theory that the "friend of my enemy" must be an enemy. Outraged by U.S. actions, France started seizing U.S. ships trading with the British (more than 300 by the end of 1798 in what was referred to as the Quasi-War with France). Further heightening tensions, France refused to receive officially Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the ambassador whom President Washington sent in 1796 in an effort to preserve the peace.
The XYZ Affair
When John Adams was inaugurated president in March 1797 after the first seriously contested presidential election, he and his Federalist Party, largely controlled by Alexander Hamilton, wanted to maintain the policy of neutrality, but they were immediately faced with the conflict with France. On the one hand, President Adams, in a fiery speech delivered on May 16, 1797, sought congressional funding for a military buildup for a possible war with France. On the other, in an effort to defuse the conflict, Adams sent additional peace commissioners to France to negotiate a settlement.
Alien and Sedition Acts, Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
Still, the administration's opponents, led by Jefferson and Madison, faced the difficulty of responding effectively to the Alien and Sedition Acts. While winning at the ballot box was obviously the preferred method for creating political change, they viewed newspapers as essential to the American electoral system and feared that the attacks on Democratic-Republican newspapers could undermine their chances in upcoming elections. Jefferson and Madison also believed that the courts should strike down unconstitutional laws. The federal judiciary was only ten years old, however, and lacked a history of withstanding unconstitutional congressional action. And with every judge being a Federalist appointee, they realized that the courts were not the answer.
Instead, late in 1798, the Democratic-Republicans convinced the state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia to adopt resolutions—initially drafted anonymously by Jefferson and Madison, respectively—threatening to oppose local enforcement of federal laws that the states believed to be unconstitutional, specifically the Alien and Sedition Acts. Kentucky and Virginia sought support for these resolutions from other state legislatures, but they were met with broad disapproval and condemnation. Other states insisted that such action exceeded state authority and that the courts should decide on the constitutionality of federal laws.
While the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions failed to garner broad support from other states, they energized Jefferson and Madison's allies. Early in 1799, in Pennsylvania, a small revolt broke out against new taxes intended to support military spending, with protestors praising Jefferson and denouncing the taxes, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Adams. Authorities easily quashed Fries's Rebellion, so named for its organizer, auctioneer John Fries, and three people were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang; thirty-two others were sentenced to time in jail. In May 1800, seeing the "rebellion" as something more akin to a tax riot, President Adams issued a blanket pardon, much to the consternation of many of his fellow Federalists.
The Campaign of 1800
In the end, Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans won a narrow Electoral College victory by a vote of 73 to 65. One of the key factors driving that result was that Aaron Burr had succeeded in obtaining New York's 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican Party, defeating an equally energetic campaign by Hamilton on behalf of the Federalists. In return for his efforts, Burr expected to be elected vice president.
Ironically, during the campaign and over the objection of most Federalist leaders, including Alexander Hamilton, Adams sent a second peace mission to France. This effort succeeded in ending the Quasi-War with the Treaty of Mortefontaine signed in Paris on September 30, 1800. Unfortunately for Adams, given the speed of eighteenth-century communications, word of that success did not reach America until December, too late to affect the election.
Jefferson v. Burr: The Electoral College Tie
Unfortunately, many Federalists saw this tie as an opportunity to keep Jefferson out of the presidency, an outcome they would pay almost any cost to achieve. The Constitution specified that a tie had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, voting by state. As the Federalists still controlled key House delegations, they blocked Jefferson's election for thirty-five long roll-call votes over a contentious six days, February 11 to 16. Seeking assurances from Burr that he would support some critical party policies, the Federalists ignored mounting cries from Democratic-Republicans that they were stealing the election. Rumors flew that Federalists, pointing to the constitutional deadlock, might try to insert a member of their own party into the presidency. Jefferson reportedly told Adams that any attempt "to defeat the Presidential election" would be met with "resistance by force & incalculable consequences."
Even Alexander Hamilton weighed in on Jefferson's behalf. In a letter to James A. Bayard, a Federalist member of the House from Delaware, dated January 16, 1801, Hamilton argued that while Jefferson was "a contemptible hypocrite," he would not adopt a "violent system" to undermine the government. Burr, on the other hand, had "extreme & irregular ambition" with "no principle, public or private." In a letter to Gouveneur Morris, the senator from New York, Hamilton warned of the "foolish game" the Federalists were playing and almost begged Federalists to give Jefferson the presidency—although by this point, Hamilton's influence may not have been substantial.
A potentially dangerous crisis was avoided, and on March 4, 1801, Jefferson was inaugurated as the third president of the United States.
Revolution of 1800
Attempting to put partisan bickering behind him, Jefferson was conciliatory in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801, declaring, "We are all republicans: we are all federalists." In a letter to Spencer Roane, a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals, dated September 19, 1819, the former president referred to the election as the "revolution of 1800," arguing it "was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76. was in it's form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people."
In time, the Jeffersonian political philosophy played a greater and greater role, as more Americans received the vote and were given the opportunity to participate in their government, which, in turn, resulted in a dramatic increase in voter turnout and in the Jacksonian democracy of several decades later. Today the United States is, in critical respects, a Jeffersonian republic, suggesting that, indeed, Jefferson's election revolutionized America.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Ragosta, J. U.S. Presidential Election of 1800. (2019, October 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/U_S_Presidential_Election_of_1800.
- MLA Citation:
Ragosta, John. "U.S. Presidential Election of 1800." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 17 Oct. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 20, 2019 | Last modified: October 17, 2019
Contributed by John Ragosta, an independent historian and lawyer who has written extensively on religious freedom. His most recent book, Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed, is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press.