by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman
As the 1800 presidential election neared, Americans braced themselves. The Federalists, who dominated the presidency and both chambers of Congress, had become convinced that the Republicans, who functioned as the emerging opposition party, wanted to bring down the government itself and undermine the Constitution. A Connecticut Federalist predicted that if the Republicans won, “there is scarcely a possibility that we will escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
To Republicans, on the other hand, it seemed that the Federalists were using their power repeatedly to stifle any political opposition. Since the nation began, the Federalists had been pretty much in control: both presidents had been Federalists, and their faction had held the majority in the Senate continually and in the House in all but four years during the mid-1790s. Moreover, they viewed opposition as tantamount to insurrection, and had launched one action after another to repress it. By 1798, the Republicans found themselves shut out of power completely while the Federalists stacked the deck against them and prosecuted journalists who dared to criticize the government. The election of 1800, therefore, seemed to represent Republicans’ last chance to gain a foothold—and for the fledgling government to demonstrate that it was not beholden to a particular faction. They believed that if they failed, neither the Constitution nor the Union could survive.
Once the voting got under way, however, and then the states’ electors made their choices, the election yielded an unbelievable result: deadlock. Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for first place with seventy-three electoral votes each, while President John Adams netted sixty-five and two other Federalists, Charles Pinckney and John Jay, earned sixty-four and one, respectively. Though Republicans had intended for Jefferson to be the presidential candidate and Burr the vice presidential candidate, the ballots used at the time did not make that distinction. Burr, moreover, whether because of opportunism or other motives, did not stand down but instead let the ambiguity linger. Without a clear winner, the decision—as dictated by the original language of Article II, Section I—was thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state would have a single vote in its presidential choice, and the victorious candidate had to attain a majority.
The Federalist majority in the House entertained three possible ways forward. The most obvious would be to honor the intent of the Republicans for Jefferson to be the presidential candidate and to declare him the winner. Alternatively, northern Federalists, many of whom abhorred Jefferson, could throw their support to Burr, whom they preferred; this option was also appealing because it would likely divide the Republicans and weaken them. A third option, a particularly controversial one, gained support among Federalists as well, and that was to usurp the presidency altogether. A law enacted in 1792, the Presidential Succession Act, mandated that if the office of the presidency lay vacant and no vice president stood by ready to step into the position, then the Senate’s president pro tempore would become the new president. The Federalists cleverly observed that if they delayed making a decision until after inauguration day, this rule would take effect, meaning that one of their own would succeed Adams.
The nation lurched with anxiety for three long months, from December 1800 to February 1801, as it awaited a decision by the House. Rumors spread of plots and intrigue. Some reported hearing of threats to assassinate Jefferson. Mysterious fires broke out in Washington, damaging both the War and Treasury Departments, and each faction blamed the other for setting them. Republicans charged that Federalists sought to destroy evidence of corruption that had occurred while they dominated government.
The framers had hoped the nation could avoid parties and designed the Constitution in ways intended to check their power if they did emerge. Already during President George Washington’s first term in office, however, political polarization became apparent, and it intensified steadily throughout the 1790s. Federalist and Republican political leaders spent the decade locked in a series of battles, strategizing and plotting against each other through every constitutional, legal, and political means they could think of. Ordinary citizens also became highly involved in politics, the vast majority through peaceful civic engagement, though a few turned to violence. Even civic organizing outraged the Federalists, who saw it as a threat to their authority and responded forcefully.
Politics took on the proportions of mortal combat because both sides believed that the other presented an existential challenge to the nation’s survival. Each was convinced that the circumstances justified taking extreme actions. The Federalists, who held political power, ran roughshod over several principles that were fundamental to the new American experiment: they violated the rule of law, trampled on the legitimacy of the opposition, and harmed rights of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.
As Americans awaited the result of the 1800 election, the potential for violence loomed, and both parties expected bloodshed if a candidate preferred by the opposition was declared victorious. Republicans saw the nation’s project of self-government being overrun by ascendant tyranny and believed that all would be lost unless they won. Yet if they did, Federalists would believe that a faction bent on undermining the nation had taken the reins. Both braced themselves for civil war and the possible destruction of the Union. Just fourteen years after the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia, and only eleven years after the final states ratified it, the government it established stood poised to meet its demise.
© Copyright Robert C. Lieberman and Suzanne Mettler 2020
Robert C. Lieberman is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins. He has received fellowships from the Russell Sage Foundation and the American Philosophical Society.
Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions in the Government Department at Cornell University. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.
Tags: Civil War, congress, Four Threats, Robert C. Lieberman, Suzanne Mettler, Thomas Jefferson