Guest Columnist

The longest election in American history

It was a former vice president with extensive government experience versus an outsider having never held a constitutionally elected office despite a celebrity career

Visitors walk near columns at the Jefferson Memorial. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Visitors walk near columns at the Jefferson Memorial. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

What an election! A wealthy egalitarian from the big city against a man of modest origin who overcame the throes of poverty to rise in ranks as a premier statesman. One candidate seen as a warmonger who would serve as a dictator, the other as a champion of the less fortunate who knew struggle in their lives to rise and overcome it … an ugly campaign with vicious, often unsubstantiated, claims including rumors of illicit sexual affairs and accusations of money being given by foreign powers in exchange for political favors … one candidate regularly making frequent appearances in an active campaign to engage his core supports, while the other remained at home preferring to conduct his appeal through the media.

It was a former vice president with extensive government experience versus an outsider having never held a constitutionally elected office despite a celebrity career. Theirs would be one of the most closely contested races in presidential history with results in question long after the election … an unprecedented and defining moment in the annals of democracy.

This was the 1800 race for president between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Adams, at 65, was the Harvard-educated elder statesman from a prestigious New England family of social standing and a leader of the Federalist Party, which believed in a strong central government. Thomas Jefferson, 56, received a private education at his family’s plantation in Virginia and expanded upon his family’s holdings to become a prosperous businessman and advocate of those who felt left out of government. He would go on to lead the Democratic Republican Party of the newly established United States.

As prescribed by the Constitution, the office of President was not a position directly elected by the voters, but rather by delegates known as electors, selected from each state by their respective legislatures. The number of electors was set as being equal to the number of members of Congress from each state.

In 1800, it was the second presidential race for each candidate, both believing that their philosophy was best for the country and that if the other were elected, it would be the end of the democratic republic as they knew it.

With stakes so high, accusations ran rampant. Hints started to spread that Jefferson had an affair and conceived a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (proven true by a DNA test in 1998). Adams was charged with agreeing to accept funds from the French government if he would pursue a war against England.

Jefferson traveled frequently to appeal to his agrarian base of supporters, not reached by newspapers of the day, while Adams, following the example of George Washington, did not make as many appearances, preferring instead to rely on coverage of his campaign by the printed word.

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Jefferson was greeted by his crowds as somewhat of a pop culture celebrity, having written the Declaration of Independence, whereas Adams was seen more as the old reliable statesman. The contrasts in policy and personality couldn’t be much different and the populace was nearly equally divided.

As per the Constitution, in which both men had played a role in chartering, each state was allowed to set their own election date so long as it was before the first Wednesday of December. Because of the various dates, election results were not usually known until all of the electors met in a joint session of the House of Representatives the first week of January.

As the electors gathered in Washington at the beginning of the new year in 1801, the roll call was a tie with the two top candidates each receiving 73 votes. Under the Constitution, the winning candidate must then be determined by a majority vote in the House. The lower chamber, however, was just as divided as the populace, and was gridlocked after 35 calls of the roll.

Seeing the stalemate as a threat to the future of the nation, Alexander Hamilton, who was not an advocate of Jefferson nor the Democratic Republican Party, for the benefit of the country, lobbied on behalf of the author of the Declaration of Independence, and on Feb. 17, the House members from Maryland and Vermont abstained, which awarded the election to Jefferson.

It had taken three months. But the Constitutional process had prevailed in the longest election in American history.

Adams, as the tallies became final, quickly issued executive orders (Congress was, at the time, majority Federalist) to nominate John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and to expand the federal circuit court system so that he could name Federalist judges to the bench, preserving his political philosophy long into the future. He then gracefully conceded the election, establishing the precedent of a peaceful transition of power from one political party to another. Jefferson, in his inaugural speech, proclaimed to a people in dire need of healing, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Jefferson went on authorize the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the nation in size, including land that became the state of Iowa.

Adams retired quietly to his estate in New England where he penned his memoir and spent time mentoring his son, John Quincy Adams, who, in 1824, was elected president.

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In 1812, four years after he left office, Jefferson and Adams began exchanging letters between one another addressing the latest in political issues and even comparing notes on the best of farming methods. Hundreds of pages of correspondence cordially continued back and forth the rest of their lives.

Each remained close friends until they drew their last breath. Jefferson died at 83 at 12:50 p.m. July 4, 1826. At 6 p.m. that evening, at the age of 91, Adams closed his eyes for the final time, having uttered his last words, “Jefferson survives,” having no way of knowing his former rival and newfound confidante, had died. It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Let us hope in this upcoming year of the 245th anniversary of the signing of our nation’s founding document, the country can heal, and come together, in the traditions of two of our country’s most iconic leaders.

David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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