Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Election of 1800 -- Adams vs. Jefferson

IN THIS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION YEAR it is interesting to take a look at America’s first “true” presidential election: the 1800 race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that ended in an electoral vote tie between Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr. That story is masterfully told in Edward Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.

Larson, professor of law and history at Pepperdine, traces the story of how the rising political factions set two founding fathers on a partisan collision course, the fires of which were stoked by Alexander Hamilton and the French Revolution.

Adams was the incumbent Federalist president and Jefferson was Adams’ Republican vice president. Political differences between the two had begun years earlier over the role of the national government versus the role of the individual states and continued into Adams’ administration over relations with Great Britain (favored by the Federalist) and with France (favored by the Republicans), among other issues. While Adams tried to steer a more moderate course he was attacked on his flank by fellow Federalist Hamilton who attempted to engineer the election of Adam’s running mate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, by manipulating the Electoral College vote.

At the time electors were chosen by a combination of methods; some states elected them by district, some by state-wide elections, and in some they were chosen by the legislature. When chosen, electors cast two votes without making any distinction between their vote for president and their vote for vice president. Banking on Pinckney’s popularity in the south, Hamilton sought to obtain enough Pinckney-Jefferson southern votes to put Pinckney ahead of Adams and into the presidency. Hamilton’s plan failed, but the electoral vote did produce a tie between Jefferson and Burr which was finally broken by the House of Representatives after thirty-six ballots in February of 1801.

The election had everything we find in modern elections: race, religion (Jefferson was accused of being an atheist), foreign affairs, and efforts in several states to “rig” the electoral vote.

And, of course, the reader must keep in mind that several years after the events in the book, Burr killed Hamilton in a duel.

A very good read for the history or political buff.

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