They were supposed to be Democratic Republican running mates but ended up with a tie vote in the Electoral College throwing the race into the House of Representatives.
It was called the Revolution of 1800. The Democratic-Republican ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had crushed the re-election hopes of Federalist John Adams sweeping to a popular vote victory of 61.4% to 38.6 and carrying the Electoral College votes of 8 of the 15 states with a total of 73 to 65.
Yet the election turned into a breathtaking cliff hanger that was finally decided February 17, 1801 when a tied vote in the House of Representatives was finally broken. Here’s how it happened.
Federalist incumbent President John Adams was clearly the looser in both the popular vote and the Electoral College but at least his party's electors remembered to withhold one vote to assure that Adams led the ticket.
The Constitution allowed each elector two votes, but only one for President. It also did not clearly define who was at the top and who was second on the party tickets because it failed to predict the rise of political parties. Both parties planned to have one elector either abstain from voting for the Vice President or cast a single ballot for an alternative candidate to make sure that the intended candidate would be elected President and the second as vice president. And one Federalist elector did withhold his vote for Adam’s running mate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina.
On the Republican side, something went amiss, however, with Jefferson and Burr both tied with 73 votes. Historians still debate whether Burr had any role in arranging a tie or if he was the beneficiary of a happy—for him—accident.
At any rate the election was thrown into the House, which was still in the hands of the Federalists. Many Federalists, for whom Jefferson was a well-established boogey man, opted to cast their votes for Burr, who may—or may not—have encouraged them as he waited in New York.
Although each Representative had a vote, the majority vote of each state’s delegation carried the state and each state had one vote. An absolute majority of the states—9—were required for election. From February 11 to February 17, the house held 35 votes. Each time the results were the same—8 states for Jefferson, 6 states for Burr, and two state delegations tied and unable to cast any vote.
Maneuvering and secret negotiations on all sides was intense. Finally Alexander Hamilton, the leader of the so-called Ultra Federalists who had sabotaged Adams’s chances with a scheme to replace him with Pinckney, chose to speak.
Hamilton had been Jefferson’s implacable enemy when they were together in George Washington’s cabinet. Hamilton was the father of the Federalists as Jefferson was the creator of the Republicans. They had always been bitter rivals. Yet Hamilton let it be known that he preferred Jefferson over Burr because “he is by far the less dangerous man,” than the Machiavellian Burr.
Hamilton’s letters finally had an effect and on ballot number 36 Maryland and Vermont moved from the no result column to Jefferson while Delaware and South Carolina switched from Burr to no result. Jefferson was finally elected President and Burr, Vice President.
The Twelfth Amendment, which provided each elector must cast distinct votes for President and Vice President, was initiated and adopted to make sure that such a debacle would never happen again.
Jefferson never trusted and came to detest Burr. The Vice President, for his part tried to trade his tie-breaking vote in the Senate to the Federalists in exchange for certain favors and became involved in a bizarre plot to seize Texas from the Spanish and create an inland empire with break-away portions of the trans-Allegany west by also wresting control of New Orleans. But that is yet another tantalizing tale.
In the end, Burr would revenge himself on his nemesis Hamilton by killing him on the dueling field.
Vice President Burr avenged himself on Hamilton by killing him in a duel.
After being acquitted of treason in the filibustering affair, the still disgraced Burr lived in Europe and Britain for some years always plotting either a political come-back or a new scheme to seize Texas. Finally returning to New York, he often used the pseudonym Edwards to hide from his creditors. After a stroke rendered him paralyzed, Burr died penniless on Staten Island in 1836.
More recently the American public became reacquainted with Burr thanks to being presented as the villain of the Broadway musical sensation Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He would probably have reveled in the attention.
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