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Today in History - February 17

Jefferson Victorious

On February 17, 1801, the House of Representatives, breaking a tie in the Electoral College, elected Thomas Jefferson president of the United States. Jefferson’s triumph brought an end to one of the most acrimonious presidential campaigns in U.S. history and resolved a serious Constitutional crisis.

Thomas Jefferson, photograph of a painting in U.S. Capitol, Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950. Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Democratic-Republican Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams by a margin of seventy-three to sixty-five electoral votes in the presidential election of 1800. When presidential electors cast their votes, however, they failed to distinguish between the office of president and vice president on their ballots. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr each received seventy-three votes. With the votes tied, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives as required by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. There, each state voted as a unit to decide the election.

Still dominated by Federalists, the sitting Congress loathed to vote for Jefferson—their partisan nemesis. For six days starting on February 11, 1801, Jefferson and Burr essentially ran against each other in the House. Votes were tallied over thirty times, yet neither man captured the necessary majority of nine states. Eventually, Federalist James A. Bayard of Delaware, under intense pressure and fearing for the future of the Union, made known his intention to break the impasse. As Delaware’s lone representative, Bayard controlled the state’s entire vote.  On the thirty-sixth ballot, Bayard and other Federalists from South Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont cast blank ballots, breaking the deadlock and giving Jefferson the support of ten states, enough to win the presidency.

Jefferson was inaugurated on March 4, 1801. Ratified in 1804, the Twelfth Amendment, to the Constitution provides that electors “name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President.”

Just three years after his vice-presidential inauguration, Aaron Burr shot and fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Hamilton, a longtime political antagonist of both Burr and Jefferson, played a key role in breaking the deadlocked presidential election in Jefferson’s favor.

Capitol Building, Richmond, Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson, photographed 1909. Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

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