The House Selects a President

“Jefferson or Burr? The former without all doubt.”

Alexander Hamilton to Gouverneur Morris,
December 24,1800

By the election of 1800, the nation’s two parties had taken more definite shape. The Presidential race was hotly contested between Federalist President, John Adams, and Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson. Because the Constitution did not distinguish between President and Vice-President in the votes cast by each state’s electors in the electoral college, both Jefferson and his running mate Burr received 73 votes.

The tie threw the election into the House of Representatives, controlled by the Federalists. For weeks, on each of the 35 ballots taken, neither Democratic-Republican candidate received a majority. Many Federalists saw Jefferson as their principal foe, whose election was to be avoided at all costs, but Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton distrusted Burr more than he feared Jefferson and suggested to others in his party that a Jefferson Presidency would be a moderate one. Jefferson also indirectly conveyed this view to the Federalists and on February 17, 1801, on the 36th ballot, Jefferson was elected.

In addition to ending the political intrigue surrounding the election, Jefferson’s inauguration and the Democratic-Republican takeover of Congress set an important precedent. It marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties in American history.