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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 is the story of the first contentious election in the United States. This non-fiction account uses primary resources to narrate what led to the election. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were once aligned politically. However, Adams became the leader of the Federalist Party and advocated for centrality in the government. Jefferson was the leader of the Republican Party and fiercely opposed the Federalists. It was his belief that core values of the American Revolution were being lost. Jefferson advocated for a smaller government that was led by the people (of course, to him, this was limited to white men). What pursued was a grueling race, filled with drama and backstabbing. Alexander Hamilton published a letter outlining all of his disappointments in Adams, the leader of his own party. Ultimately, in this book, Ferling focuses on the repercussions this election had on American elections. It was the first election in the country that truly tested the electoral college. The vote came down to the count of a handful of ballots. It became so outrageous that the Republican Party threatened to declare a civil war if their candidate was not elected. Jefferson did end up winning, and Adams left Washington, too devastated to stay until the inauguration.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991

Only the last four of John Ferling's thirteen chapters in Adams vs. Jefferson deal directly with the 1800 election in the United States. The first five chapters (82 of 215 text pages), describing the evolution of national politics prior to 1796, contain little information beyond what introductory American history texts include. Ferling briefly narrates the work of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the election of George Washington, and the formation of the first federal government. He describes Alexander Hamilton's plan to organize the finances of the new nation and his famous compromise with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, locating the national capitol in the South in exchange for acceptance of Hamilton's financial program. The author notes Jefferson's disillusionment with Hamilton's activities, thinking them unduly favorable to mercantile interests.

Ferling stresses that disagreements among supporters of the new national government did not become emotionally powerful until the wars of the French Revolution became entangled in American politics. Jefferson and his admirers looked favorably on events in France, welcoming the spread of republicanism across the world, while Federalists reacted with horror to revolutionary excesses. Both sides approved neutrality when Britain and France went to war in 1793. However, to Jeffersonians the provisions of Jay's Treaty in 1794 seemed to take the side of Britain against France. Angry and horrified partisans believed their opponents flirted with treason. Federalists accused Jefferson of placing the interests of France above that of the United States, while Jeffersonian Republicans thought Hamilton and his supporters directed American policy to benefit Great Britain.

Ferling provides a useful description of the original presidential election system, which often puzzles students today. He might have clarified the reasons for its adoption by stressing the expectations of convention members. Not only did they not foresee the rise of political parties, it was also unclear to them that anyone other than George Washington could attract a majority in a huge nation with conflicting state and regional interests. Unwilling to trust direct popular election, they provided for a group of electors, equal in number to the state's representatives and senators, selected in such manner as the state directed, to cast the state's vote for president.

Each elector had two votes but could not cast both for citizens of the same state. Convention members expected that most states would have a favorite son who would get one vote from that state's electors; the electors would then be forced to look outside their own state and name another man qualified to lead the nation. If no one received a majority, the most likely outcome, the choice went to the House of Representatives. Voting by states, the House would choose the president from among the five with the highest number of votes. In effect, the Electoral College would serve as a nominating body, presenting the five best-qualified citizens of the republic to the representative for their choice.

Ferling terms this electoral procedure a calamity waiting to happen. The calamity did not occur in 1796, the first contested presidential election, but dangers lurking in the constitutional provisions became apparent. Candidates waited until September, when Washington announced his retirement, to start campaigning. Federalists backed John Adams for president and Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina for vice president, Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York. Rumors of manipulation, exploiting the double vote of the electors, surfaced almost immediately. Hamilton was suspected of trying to prevent Adams from becoming president by urging southern Federalists to vote for Pinckney, while withholding their second vote from Adams. When Burr toured New England, some believed he sought to lower Jefferson's total.

Although there was much partisan activity in every state in 1796, Ferling notes that party discipline was often absent—40 percent of the votes cast went to men not nominated by either party. Hamilton's intrigues backfired when eighteen suspicious New England Federalists rejected Pinckney, thereby vaulting Jefferson into second place and the vice presidency. The eight South Carolina electors voted as expected by the Constitutional Convention; each cast one vote for favorite-son Pinckney, then gave one vote to Jefferson.

Ferling points out that if North Carolina and Virginia had been unanimous for Jefferson, instead of one elector voting for Adams, Jefferson would have won the presidency, with 70 votes to Adams's 69, rather than the actual Adams's 71 to Jefferson's 68. The Republicans learned this lesson only too well, nearly bringing on the calamity noted by Ferling.

The election of 1800 evoked even greater political passion and more effective organization. The XYZ affair, revealed to the American public in April, 1798, in which the French demanded bribes from United States diplomats, led to an undeclared war with France, passionately supported by many Federalists. In June, Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Jeffersonians saw as confirming their fear that Federalists planned to revise the Constitution along authoritarian lines. Ferling, author of a laudatory biography of Adams, tries to condone Adams's vigorous enforcement of the Sedition Act but, after considering several excuses, finally concedes that Adams believed critics of his government deserved severe punishment.

In 1800, active campaigning began more than a year before Election Day—December 3, the date set by Congress for electors to meet in their state capitals and cast their votes. The Federalist Congressional caucus nominated Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina (older brother of Thomas Pinckney); Republicans again proposed Jefferson and Burr.

Ferling records vicious personal attacks on the character and patriotism of each candidate. Federalists called Jefferson a lackey of France and an atheist. New England ministers cited Jefferson's belief in strict separation of church and state as evidence he intended to abolish Christianity; they warned parishioners to hide their Bibles if Jefferson won. Republicans accused Adams of wanting to dismantle the Constitution and erect a monarchy. Hamilton openly attacked Adams, publishing a savage fifty-four-page letter specifying why Adams was unfit to be president—Hamilton clearly hoped the election would go to the House, permitting Federalist representatives to select Pinckney.

Legislatures chose electors in eleven of the sixteen states; Maryland, North Carolina, and Kentucky selected their electors by popular vote in districts, Rhode Island and Virginia by popular vote for a statewide ticket. Matters looked ominous for Adams in May when Burr led the Republicans to victory in the New York legislative elections, guaranteeing that Jefferson would receive twelve votes that had gone to Adams in 1796. South Carolina went Republican in October, ensuring that Jefferson would again get its eight votes, but it was unclear how electors would cast their second ballot. Ferling notes that if they gave them to their favorite son, as they had in 1796, Pinckney could conceivably out-poll Jefferson and become president with Jefferson continuing in second place.

Although the votes electors cast December 3 would not be officially opened and counted by the Senate until February, on December 12 a Washington newspaper learned there were no votes for Pinckney or Adams in South Carolina and declared Jefferson elected. Before Christmas it became clear that party discipline had held only too well. The only vote not for one of the four nominated candidates was for John Jay by a Rhode Island Federalist. Jefferson and Burr each received seventy-three votes; under the Constitution, the House of Representatives would choose which became president.

Ferling explains that the House that met in February, 1801, was a lame-duck legislature elected in 1798 during the undeclared war with France. By constitutional provision, the new Congress, in which Jeffersonians had a commanding majority, would not take office until the first Monday in December, nine months after Adams's term ended on March 4. Jefferson needed the assent of nine of the sixteen states, but the Republicans had majorities in only eight states. Maryland and Vermont were evenly divided between Federalists and Republicans and would not cast ballots. The six states with Federalist majorities therefore controlled the election. Hamilton urged choosing Jefferson as the less objectionable of the two. However, out of hatred for Jefferson, the Federalist states unanimously supported Burr. When Burr heard of the Federalist decision he acted coy, said nothing, and aided neither side, thereby earning the distrust of both.

On Wednesday, February 11, the House went into session, agreed to conduct no other business until the election was decided, and voted eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr, and two deadlocked. The House recessed at six o’clock, after fifteen ballots in five hours showed no change. By Saturday they had cast thirty-three ballots in four days with the same result.

Ferling records that rumors of coups which would have destroyed the Constitution swirled through Washington. Extreme Federalists wanted to prevent any election and use their congressional majority to keep control of the government after March 4. Reports circulated that Republican governors in Virginia and Pennsylvania were considering calling up their militias and marching on Washington. Some proposed a new Constitutional Convention, an almost certain recipe for disaster given the nation's extreme political polarization.

As the sole congressman from Delaware, Federalist James A. Bayard could singlehandedly decide the conflict. Under intense pressure to hold the line, he voted for Burr until the weekend. Having queried several of Jefferson's friends about Jefferson's intentions and having decided he could accept a Republican presidency, he told the Federalist caucus he intended to absent himself, turning the eight Republican states into a majority of the remaining fifteen. Bayard abstained on the thirty-sixth ballot on Tuesday. Federalist Representatives from Maryland and Vermont joined him, putting their states into Jefferson's column, giving him ten states and the presidency. South Carolina and Delaware did not vote. Federalist Congressmen from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut hated Jefferson so much they could not bring themselves to abstain, and continued doggedly supporting Burr.

Ferling accepts Bayard's claim that Jefferson agreed to a deal in which Jefferson promised to keep Federalist officeholders in place and to maintain Hamilton's financial system, in return for Bayard's abstention from voting. Few historians take Bayard's assertions at face value. As evidence for the bargain, Ferling notes that Jefferson in power did not attempt to remove Federalists, nor did he frontally attack the Hamiltonian system he had previously denounced.

Yet Ferling records that within two years, without Jefferson carrying out a political purge, half of federal officeholders were Republicans and admits that Jefferson probably would not have wanted to risk the economic consequences of destroying an effective financial system. Ferling is particularly impressed by a letter Bayard sent to a Federalist officeholder who feared losing his position, assuring him he was safe because Bayard had taken care of him. Ferling does not inform the reader that the officeholder was Allen McLane, a Revolutionary War hero appointed collector of customs for the port of Wilmington, Delaware, by George Washington; although an active Federalist, McLane vigorously enforced American navigation laws and was continued in office by seven presidents (not just Jefferson) until his death in 1829.

The contested election of 2000 stimulated American historians’ interest in the 1800 campaign; at least five books and many articles have appeared. Ferling is well aware of similarities, as his introduction reveals, but he does not explicitly comment on them. For the most part his book is a straightforward, well-written narrative, marred by occasional infelicities, such as referring to political essayists of the 1790's as “bloggers.”

Ferling rejects Jefferson's phrase “the revolution of 1800” as an exaggeration. He credits Jefferson with having set a new tone for the government, moving the nation in the direction of egalitarianism and democratization, but believes the shift would have happened anyway. The Republicans and Federalists of 1800 deserve greater credit. It was not a revolution in the strict sense—no one was killed, and the structure of government remained unchanged—but it was nevertheless amazing. In 1800, for the first time in history, an established government, controlling the Army, the legislature, and the executive power, was peacefully turned out of office by vote of the people, with the grumpy consent of the governing party.

Review Sources

The Boston Globe, October 31, 2004, p. E1.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 14 (July 15, 2004): 670.

Library Journal 129, no. 17 (October 15, 2004): 72-73.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 31 (August 2, 2004): 61.

The Washington Post, October 31, 2004, p. T3.

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