The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr and the Union in the Balance

By Robertson, Andrew W. | Journal of the Early Republic, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr and the Union in the Balance


Robertson, Andrew W., Journal of the Early Republic


The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr and the Union in the Balance. By James Roger Sharp. (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2010. Pp. 256; 8 ill. Cloth, $34.95.)

Reviewed by Andrew W. Robertson

The two hundredth anniversary of the election of 1800 launched a veritable cottage industry of books on the subject.1 Nothing concentrates the mind on past events better than their re-enactment, and in many of these works, the election of 2000 looms as an all-encompassing comparison. For James Roger Sharp, however, the informative parallel to the election of 1800 is not Bush v. Gore but the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Sharp calls these the "two most critical elections in American history," because each "had the potential for destroying the Union" (169).

Sharp shows us that, if the election of 1860 brought on civil war, the election of 1800 could easily have had a similarly ominous result for the survival of the Union: an extra-constitutional "solution" to a manufactured crisis. Only a dozen years into the second U.S. constitutional regime, the survival of the Union was nearly as imperiled by boardinghouse intrigues in the new capital as it was by armed rebellion sixty years later.

Sharp comes to this project very well qualified to write about the political background of this critical election. Sharp's earlier work, American Politics in the Early Republic, is an erudite, eminently readable narrative history on the politics of the 1790s.2 Because Sharp is so well versed in the political context, he brings this era to life. Refreshingly, he shies away from easy parallels to present-day politics. From Sharp we learn that late eighteenth-century politics was about both personality and principle. He reveals to us the rivalries and insecurities of brilliant, ambitious men like Jefferson and Hamilton without neglecting their ideological differences or their roles as creators and managers of mass-based popular movements, the forerunners of political parties. Sharp also describes what he sees as the "countervailing, competing and antithetical political philosophies" of the federal era: the democratic and egalitarian "popular spirit" of the American Revolution versus the "longstanding belief in classical republicanism" that assumed a disinterested elite, who would serve a unified public interest (17).

Sharp explains in vivid detail the dramatic oscillations in public support between the Federalists and Republicans in the late 1 790s. Here the author shows himself to be the master of the telling details of both state and national politics. In congressional elections and many contests for governor, the Republicans and Federalists were already engaged in a full-scale effort to mobilize as many of their voters as possible and get them to the polls. Sharp writes quite compellingly about the details of these increasingly democratic elections. He is very well informed about congressional and local elections, frequently citing the voting data collected by Philip Lampi at the American Antiquarian Society. On the other hand, as Sharp makes quite apparent, both parties increasingly attempted to restrict popular choice in presidential elections. In 1796, eight of the fifteen states provided for popular election of presidential electors. By 1800 only five of fifteen states had popular contests for electors. Among the states that decided to change the rules were Massachusetts, which feared losing electoral votes to Jefferson in Maine, and Virginia, which expected to maximize the vote for Jefferson by providing a winner-take-all popular contest for electors. In New York, the Federalists thought they had locked up the state's electoral vote for Adams by having the legislature select electors; instead, Aaron Burr waged a successful campaign to win the state legislative elections for the Republicans and wrest control of both houses of the legislature out of Federalist hands. Alexander Hamilton wrote to Governor John Jay suggesting that the lame-duck legislature revert to a system of selecting presidential electors in district elections. …

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