Anyone who is a fan of the hit musical Hamilton knows the song “Election of 1800.” It depicts an infamous election that ultimately led us to change our Constitution.
By 1800, the nation’s first two political parties were beginning to take shape. The two major candidates for President were the Federalist President, John Adams, and the Democratic-Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson.
When the electors cast their votes, the result was a tie. But the tie wasn’t between Adams and Jefferson (Adams received 65 electoral votes). It was between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, who both received 73 votes.
This happened because the Constitution did not distinguish between President and Vice President in the votes cast by each state’s electors—it simply said the top vote-getter became President; the second Vice President.
According to the Constitution, when two candidates receive a majority of the electoral votes but are tied, the House of Representatives decides who becomes President. So, the decision who would become the next President—Jefferson or Burr—rested with the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives.
Many Federalists saw Jefferson as their principal opponent, and even though they knew Jefferson was running for President, they decided to support Burr.
But prominent Federalist Alexander Hamilton was faced with a dilemma. Even though Jefferson’s principles were in direct opposition to his own, Burr, according to Hamilton, had no principles at all. (In the musical we hear Hamilton sing, “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”)
As the House of Representatives prepared to vote, Hamilton used his influence to support Jefferson. He wrote several letters outlining the dangers of a Burr Presidency and urged fellow Federalists to vote for Jefferson.
In this letter to Representative Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, Hamilton wrote:
“Burr loves nothing but himself; thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing, short of permanent power in his own hands. No compact that he should make with any passion in his breast, except ambition, could be relied upon by himself. How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him. Jefferson, I suspect, will not dare much. Burr will dare every thing, in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing.”
On February 17, 1801, after 36 ballots, the House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson to be our nation’s third President.
The tie vote in the election pointed out problems with the Electoral College system. The framers of the Constitution had not anticipated such a tie, nor had they considered the possibility of the election of a President or Vice President from opposing parties.
The 12th Amendment, which was ratified in 1804, corrected some of the system’s problems by providing for separate Electoral College votes for President and Vice President.
You can see the 1800 electoral tally and learn more about the 12th Amendment in the National Archives exhibit “Amending America,” which is in Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, through September 4, 2017.
For more information about the Electoral College, please visit the Federal Register’s U.S. Electoral College web page.
To read Hamilton’s correspondence, visit the National Archives website Founders Online.
We were live and talking about constitutional amendments and the election process! Visit our YouTube Channel to watch Christine Blackerby, co-curator of “Amending America,” and Jessie Kratz, historian of the National Archives, take us through the exhibit and talk about Presidential elections, amendments, and the Electoral College.