The election of 1800 pushed the young American republic to the brink of a constitutional crisis. Just the fourth election, and the first truly competitive one, the Federalist and Republican parties — though they would bristle at such a label — organized candidate tickets, John Adams and Charles Pinckney and Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, respectively.
This innovation, a devolution into faction which so frightened the Founders, threatened the Electoral College because prior to the 12th Amendment, Electors had no way of differentiating between the president and vice-president. Designed without parties in mind, each elector cast two votes and the top two electoral vote getters receiving at least a majority (in 1800, 70 votes) would become president and vice-president.
However, with a party ticket and partisan electors choosing from preferential candidates rather than dispassionately selecting a president from the population, electors had to coordinate votes to ensure that they didn’t each cast their ballots for the president and vice-presidential hopeful; one elector had to cast one vote for a third candidate lest the presidential and vice-presidential designee end up with the same number of electoral votes.
Failing to do so would throw the election to the House of Representatives.
A Republican Coordination Failure
Federalists managed this feat, no easy task given difficultly of coordination in a nation that moved at the speed of horses, with one elector giving a vote to John Jay, leaving John Adams with 65 electoral votes and Charles Pinckney with 64. Republicans failed to execute their similar plan. Their electors cast 73 electoral votes for both Jefferson and Burr and the tied election went to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives, which threatened to overturn the election, nullify results, or even pass legislation to install an interim chief magistrate.
In the House, state delegations each cast one vote for president with a majority (9) needed for victory. While Federalists dominated the chamber — they lost their majority in 1800, but the new Congress would not be seated until March — they only controlled eight delegations, short of a majority. Republicans controlled seven states and one, Vermont, had a split delegation.
All knew that Republicans picked (or intended) Thomas Jefferson as their presidential nominee, but that did not bind Federalists, most of whom despised the former vice-president. They wanted to deny him the presidency and so a number of them voted for Burr: Six Federalist delegations initially voted for Burr (all seven Republican delegations as well as Federalist Georgia voted for Jefferson). Vermont, split, cast a blank ballot. Maryland had five Federalists and three Republicans in its delegation — four Federalists voted for Burr while one voted for Jefferson along with the Republicans, leading to a blank ballot. No president had been decided.
These divisions — six states for Burr, eight for Jefferson, two blank — held for 35 ballots.
Hamilton’s History with Jefferson
Throughout the affair, Alexander Hamilton urged his Federalist colleagues to vote for Thomas Jefferson, his longtime nemesis, because he trusted Jefferson’s character and virtue whereas he found Burr unscrupulous and too self-serving, perfectly exemplified by his unwillingness to stand down after the election went to the House despite knowing his designation as vice-president.
It’s hard to overstate the depths of the animosity that flowed between Hamilton and Jefferson. Hamilton considered Jefferson’s political views as “tinctured with fanaticism,” and, as a person, “a contemptible hypocrite.” During the 1796 election, Hamilton wrote a series of some 25 essays under the pseudonym Phocion attacking Jefferson. The most notable of the works, all published in the Gazette, accused Jefferson of having an affair with one of his female slaves.
For his part, Thomas Jefferson lambasted Hamilton and funded James Callender, a sensationalist Republican journalist who frequented the muck to attack Federalists, primarily Hamilton. Callender helped destroy Hamilton’s career and public reputation through false accusations of corruption and the popularization of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.
The Callender Affair
In 1792, information came to light that made then-senator (and future president) James Monroe believe Hamilton used his position as Secretary of the Treasury to enrich himself through speculation. Such accusations naturally angered Hamilton, who prided himself on virtuous leadership that sacrificed his own interests for those of the country. That disinterested leadership defined his views of government and explains his eventual support of Jefferson over Burr in the 1800 election.
When Monroe and other Republicans confronted Hamilton, they learned Hamilton dallied with Reynolds, but did not act corruptly or abuse his powers. Monroe and his counterparts understood the distinction between public and private life, realizing that indiscretions in marriage did not equate to corrupt or insidious public action. The investigation ended without leaks.
Some four years later, Callender uncovered the papers related to the Hamilton investigation, perhaps leaked to him by Jefferson, though more likely released by former House clerk John Beckley, a Jefferson ally. He published the documents and further editorialized the affair, lambasting Hamilton’s moral standing and falsely accusing him of corruption.
Hamilton responded in a lengthy pamphlet that he assumed would end the confrontation and restore his stature — after all, the same defense and revelation of facts had ended Monroe’s intrigue. Unfortunately, the pamphlet, in which Hamilton admitted the sordid details of his affair but denied all allegations of corruption, reached a mass audience and that audience assumed Hamilton’s moral indiscretions exposed a rotten character. Callender’s efforts, funded by Jefferson, thoroughly disgraced Hamilton.
And yet, when it came to the tied 1800 election, Hamilton put his long-standing rivalry and antipathy towards Jefferson behind him and fervently wrote Federalist congressman urging them to make Jefferson, not Burr, president.
Hamilton worried that the country would suffer, that the government would be subverted or otherwise harmed, by “an unprincipled man [who] would exploit public passion.” He warned of a latter-day Catiline (a constant fear of Hamilton’s), the Roman senator who led a populist uprising against the Republic. Burr’s populism — he was the first (vice) presidential candidate to canvass for office and helped establish the first political machine in New York — and ambition made him such a man.
Federalists believed that Burr, who held few core principles and profited from the Hamiltonian economic system, would maintain the Federalist program. But Hamilton, who did so much to consolidate government and design the Federalist programs, willingly sacrificed their rollback for character in the presidency. “Great Ambition unchecked by principle…is an unruly Tyrant,” he wrote.
“As to Burr there is nothing in his favour. His private character is not defended by his most partial friends. He is bankrupt beyond redemption except by the plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandisement per fas et nefas. If he can, he will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power and with it wealth.”
The Lesser of Two Evils
Jefferson, on the other hand, had greater ability than Burr and was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity, or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize — to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it. . . . Add to this that there is no fair reason to suppose him capable of being corrupted, which is a security that he will not go beyond certain limits.”
“He is of a temper to undertake the most hazardous enterprises because he is sanguine enough to think nothing impracticable, and of an ambition which will be content with nothing less than permanent power in his own hands. The maintenance of the existing institutions will not suit him, because under them his power will be too narrow & too precarious; yet the innovations he may attempt will not offer the substitute of a system durable & safe, calculated to give lasting prosperity, & to unite liberty with strength. It will be the system of the day, sufficient to serve his own turn, & not looking beyond himself.”
“The truth,” Hamilton wrote, “is that under forms of Government like ours, too much is practicable to men who will without scruple avail themselves of the bad passions of human nature.”
Hamilton put his hatred towards Jefferson and concerns over the longevity of his system to support a candidate with character fit to be president, eschewing his party in the process. He recognized the dangers posed by a self-serving individual without ideology of which to speak and no clear attachment to the constitutional system.
How Republicans Can Learn from Hamilton
Republicans should learn from that. Donald Trump has no interest in protecting the Constitution — in fact, his actions as president have undermined it through violating the foreign emoluments clause, the domestic emoluments clause, undermining the separation of powers, and trying to erode the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and press.
Obviously, Trump is not fit for office. He promotes falsehoods, lies to the American people, and blunders about without a clear understanding of policy, domestic and foreign. About 1/3 of his presidency is spent on properties he owns, mingling with donors and lobbyists who pay companies in which he maintains a financial stake hundreds of thousands a year simply to have access to the president. The Founders never wanted such a businessman to be president because that individual would have innumerable conflicts of interest and act on in a self-serving manner; the fears Hamilton had of Burr come true in Trump.
Our institutions do constrain him, and that’s a testament to the efforts of Hamilton and other Founding Fathers to create precedents of separated power and checks and balances, not risking the early republic for personal or factional interests, but instead recognizing the gravity of their decisions. Precedents can be overturned and the normalization of an authoritarian president coupled with weak congressional opposition does not bode well for the country going forward.
Hamilton acted for the country, not for himself. He worked ceaselessly to protect the country from the dangers of an ambitious and self-serving character. Republicans need to learn from Hamilton’s actions and recognize that our country would be best served by abandoning Donald Trump.
For more on election of 1800 and the histories of Hamilton and Jefferson, checkout Gordon S. Wood’s “Empire of Liberty.” Click the image to buy.