The US Presidential Election of 1800 I
Bill Long 10/25/07
Understanding the Nuts and Bolts of the Election
Until a few years ago the fourth Presidential election of the United States, in 1800, was largely ignored by scholars. Everyone knew that it was the first Presidential contest that was "thrown into the House," meaning that the ultimate selection of the President was by the House of Representatives rather than by the duly-elected Electors of the Electoral College (all this will be clarified below). But since the Bush-Gore Election of 2000, where irregularities were reported in Florida--among other places--and the US Supreme Court stepped in to declare a winner, scholars have been eager to examine this first "irregular" Presidential election. Upon examining this election, historians have discovered an almost endless series of fascinating details as well as the discussion of broad principles so that now, in 2007, consideration of the Election of 1800 is becoming a cottage industry. Prof. Joanne B. Freeman's online essay lays out some of the issues, with bibliography, to understand this election. She doesn't mention the latest book to rehash the election, published in Sept. 2007, by Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson--A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. What historians are discovering is that there is enough food in the trough for many as they reconsider this election.
One of the things that is generally not made very clear in the treatments I have read, however, are what I call the "nuts and bolts" of how the election process actually worked in those days and how the decision to elect Jefferson as President by the US House of Representatative actually took place. These essays are dedicated to giving you some of those nuts and bolts. It is interesting to me that scholars give different factual information, some of which I will relay below, about this election. So complex are the numbers that mistakes are inevitable at this stage of our contemporary research.
I will not be unmindful, of course, of some of the human and national drama that unfolded as time went along; indeed, my contention is that you understand this part of drama better if you have studied and internalized the way that voting actually took place in that election. Thus, I will leave to the side for now (and maybe forever) debates over whether the Presidential election of 1800 was a "Second American Revolution" (Thomas Jefferson wanted to see it that way but, then again, he was declared President in February 1801) and turn my focus to understanding the factual and, to a much lesser extent, the human drama of this election.
By the Numbers, First of All
Here are several things you should understand by way of background. First, there were 16 states in the Union in 1800. The 13 original colonies had been supplemented by Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796). We would not have a 17th state until Ohio joined in 1802/1803 (interestingly enough, the official date of Ohio's admission to the United States was not decided until the 1950s, though March 1, 1803 is generally accepted as that date). Thus, there were 32 US Senators. I have seen disagreements online and in published sources about the number of US Representatives at this time. My best number is 106, making the total number of electoral votes (sum of Representatives and Senators) in the Presidential Election of 1800 to be 138. So, we have the basic facts: 16 States, 32 Senators, 106 Congressmen, 138 Electoral Votes. Here is a chart:
Second, the US Constitution (Art. II, Sec. 1) delegated to the Congress the time of choosing Electors and the day in which they gave their Votes--only stating that the day the Electors cast their votes would be the same throughout the United States. In 1800 the President was elected by the casting of electoral votes in the State Capitols of the 16 states on the first Wednesday in December--December 3, 1800. So on that date the President and Vice-President were supposed to have been determined. But, how were the electors selected? The US Constitution, Article II, Sec. 1, only provided:
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."
Thus it was left to the devices of the state legislators to determine the where and when of Elector selection in its states. Where there is choice, people generally chose differently. So it was here, too.
The next essay probes the methods of selecting Electors in 1800.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long