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In the election of 1800, the Federalist incumbent John Adams ran against the rising Republican Thomas Jefferson. The extremely partisan and outright nasty campaign failed to provide a clear winner because of a constitutional quirk. Presidential electors were required to vote for two people for the offices of president and vice-president. The individual receiving the highest number of votes would become president. Unfortunately´╝îJefferson and his vice-presidential running mate Aaron Burr both received the identical number of electoral votes, and the House of Representatives voted to break the tie. When Adams’s Federalists attempted to keep Jefferson from the presidency, the stage was set for the first critical constitutional crisis of the new American federal republic.

"The storm is over, and we are in port."

Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams, March 29, 1801

Solution to Dispute over Electing President

The manner of electing a national president sparked one of the most contentious debates at the federal Constitutional Convention.  The convention rejected direct election of the president by “the people,” in favor of a system of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives and to be chosen by the states. Designed to insulate the electors from undue influence, the system required that they cast independent votes for president and vice president.

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Electoral College Becomes Target of Manipulation

Leaders of the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican parties knew that the key to the presidential election of 1800 was controlling the manner of selecting the electors. In this letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson outlines plans for manipulating the selection of presidential electors in the key states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, March 4, 1800. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (97) [Digital ID#s us0097, us0097_1]

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Accusation of Manipulating the Electoral System in Maryland

Charles Carroll of Carrollton (1737–1832) accused Thomas Jefferson’s supporters, whom he called “Jacobins,” of “arts and lies” in trying to obtain Maryland’s electoral votes by legislative manipulations, even though a majority of the residents favored the Federalist Party.

Letter from Charles Carroll to Alexander Hamilton, August 27, 1800. Manuscript. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (097.01.00) [Digital ID#s us0097_01p1, us0097_01p2]

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Jefferson Professes His Political Faith

As the campaign for the presidential election of 1800 was about to begin, Thomas Jefferson wrote a long “profession of my political faith” to Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) of Massachusetts. Although Jefferson formally insisted it be kept private, it is clear that he expected Gerry to circulate this letter among friends to assure them of Jefferson’s steadfast belief in republicanism and the federal Constitution.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (97.02.00) [Digital ID# us0097_02]

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The United States on Eve of 1800 Election

This patriotic engraving was created just before the contentious election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams. The sixteen states then in the union surround President Adams. Below each state's seal are its population and number of senators and representatives.

Over the top is the defiant motto, "Millions for our Defense Not a Cent for Tribute," a slogan that became popular during the late 1790s when the U.S. expected tensions with its Revolutionary War ally France. Americans were angered by French demands for tribute and France's seizures of U.S. merchant ships.

Amos Doolittle. A New Display of the United States. New Haven: 1799. Woodcut on wove paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (98.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-15716]

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New Federal Capital

Within a decade of deciding to move the new federal capital to the banks of the Potomac River, the city of Washington, District of Columbia began to emerge out of partisan politics and a tidal marsh. The federal city had just begun to take shape when the government moved there in 1800. This engraving provides a view of Washington and then neighboring Georgetown.

T. Cartwright after George Beck. George Town and Federal City, City of Washington. Hand-colored aquatint. London and Philadelphia: Atkins and Nightingale, 1801. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (098.01.00) [Digital ID# LC-DIG-ppmsca-15714]

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Site of Capital Before the Federal City

Before the site of the new capital was carved out of Maryland and Virginia, the land was a largely rural area of trees and farms along the Potomac River. Two small port towns, Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia, were originally included in what is today known as the “District of Columbia.” This 1795 view shows the area along the Potomac River looking toward the future site of the Federal City.

George Isham Parkyns (ca. 1750–ca.1820). Washington. New York: James Harrison, 1795. Aquatint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (098.02.00) [Digital ID# pga.02344]

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Discover!

Federalists Fear “Fangs of Jefferson”

After learning of the Republican victory in New York City, Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) argued that unity behind their candidates, John Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina, was “the only thing that can possibly save us from the fangs of Jefferson.” He wrote those words to Theodore Sedgwick (1746–1813), a Federalist who served as a representative and, later, a senator from Massachusetts. However, when the presidential election of 1800 ended in a tie, Hamilton supported his old rival Jefferson against fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, May 4, 1800. Manuscript. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (99) [Digital ID# us0099]

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“The spirit of 1776 is not dead”

Vice President Thomas Jefferson, presidential candidate of the Republican Party, predicted victory in the upcoming 1800 election. “The spirit of 1776 is not dead,” declared Jefferson, “it has only been slumbering, the body of the American people is substantially republican.”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Lomax, March 12, 1799. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (099.02.00) [Digital ID# us0099_02]

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First Map to Display the United States Flag

Published in London shortly after the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty, this map is one of the first published in Europe to recognize the new nation's independence and the first to incorporate the United States flag into the iconography of the map's cartouche.  Also included in the cartouche are the likenesses of George Washington paired with a figure representing Liberty and Benjamin Franklin paired with the figures of Wisdom and Justice.

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Fires in Federal Offices Kindle Fears of Civil Unrest

Mysterious fires in the offices of the War Department on November 8, 1800, and the Treasury Department on January 20, 1801, kindled fears of civil unrest. With tensions already running high because of the hotly contested presidential election and a slave revolt in Virginia, many Americans feared that a revolt, such as those in France or Haiti, was about to break out in the United States.

Letter from Matthew Clay to James Monroe, January 21, 1801. Manuscript. James Monroe Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (132.00.00) [Digital ID# us0132]

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Adams Accuses Opponents of Seeking Constitutional Changes

In the aftermath of his defeat in the 1800 presidential campaign, in this letter to his youngest son Thomas Boylston Adams (1772–1832), John Adams accused some of his opponents of being “old Tories” or “British Agents” and others of conspiring to foment a war with France to secure changes in the federal Constitution. The only constitutional change that resulted from the election of 1800 was the twelfth amendment requiring separate electoral votes for president and vice president.

Letter from John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, January 15, 1801. Manuscript. Adams Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (101.03.00) [Digital ID# us0101_03]

Read the transcript

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Federalists Fragment during Partisan Presidential Campaign

Alexander Hamilton viciously turned on fellow Federalist John Adams during the presidential campaign of 1800. In this tract, Hamilton pointed out several actions that could “be traced to the ungovernable temper of Mr. Adams,” which he believed proved Adams’s “unfitness for the station of Chief Magistrate.”

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  • [Alexander Hamilton]. Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. New York: John Lang, 1800. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (99.03.00) [Digital ID# us0099_03]

  • [Alexander Hamilton]. Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. New York: Printed for John Lang by George F. Hopkins, 1800. Pamphlet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (099.04.00) [Digital ID# us0099_03p1]

    Read the transcript

  • [Alexander Hamilton]. Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. New York: Printed for John Lang by George F. Hopkins, 1800. Pamphlet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (099.04.00) [Digital ID# us0099_03p2]

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Gaming the Electoral System

A special “General Committee of Correspondence” was organized among members of the Virginia Assembly to secure a system of choosing pro-Jefferson electors for the upcoming federal presidential election. The states had an option of choosing by popular vote (statewide or in districts), or legislative appointment, or any combination thereof. Virginia chose to elect a slate of electors in a statewide vote. All twenty-one of its electors voted for Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800.

Circular letter from Philip Norborne Nicholas, January 30, 1800. Broadside. James Madison Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (097.03.00) Digital ID# us0097_03]

Read the transcript

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New Federal Capital City in the District of Columbia

The Constitution calls for a federal district, separate from the states, to serve as the permanent national capital. The federal government located its new capital on land carved from Maryland and Virginia as a result of the Compromise of 1790, whereby some Southern representatives agreed to support federal assumption of state debts in return for a bill locating the permanent capital on the Potomac River. George Washington selected the site and in 1791 chose Pierre L’Enfant (1754–1825), a French engineer and veteran of the American Revolution, to design the new city.

“Plan of the City of Washington” from Universal Magazine. London: William Bent, July 1793. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (128.02.00) [Digital ID# ct000510]

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Preparing for the 1800 Presidential Election

State and federal laws governing elections and citizenship are listed in this anonymous broadside, clearly published with an eye to the elections leading up to the national presidential election of 1800. In Pennsylvania, Federalists and Republicans battled to elect supporters for the state legislature so that they could control the selection of presidential electors. In the end, Pennsylvania’s electors split their votes between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Extract from the Election Law of Pennsylvania, 1799. [Philadelphia: 1799]. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (097.04.00) [Digital ID# us0097_04]

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President Adams Moves Capital to District of Columbia

During the presidential campaign of 1800, critics accused President John Adams of rushing to move the capital to the federal district on the Potomac River to court votes from the southern states. The President’s House was unfinished (Benjamin Latrobe’s plan to complete the main floor was done in 1807) and Abigail Adams expressed her fear in this letter that moving into an unfinished house “would prove his death.”

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Selecting Presidential Electors

In 1800 Virginia and Rhode Island were the only states to choose presidential electors on a statewide general ticket. Republicans and Federalists distributed lists of electors to help voters to select their electors. These electors, pledged to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, were promoted by the Republican Party in Virginia.

Republican ticket for presidential electors. Richmond: August 9, 1800. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (132.01.00) Digital ID# us0132_01]

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