The Revolution of 1800
A crisis over Georgia electoral votes is not unheard of...
In 2020, then president Donald Trump made frantic calls to Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to demand he find the votes needed to turn Georgia. Trump’s attorneys were working behind the scenes in the courts to find those votes as well (or if needed, invalidate them). They were also searching for legal precedent to justify their actions, which took them back 220 years to the highly contested presidential election of 1800.
It was called the Revolution of 1800, it was a rematch of the 1796 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the latter having won their first presidential contest. The 1800 election was the first where the candidates, against the advice of George Washington, became entrenched in opposing political factions, making it the truly first modern election in United States history. On the Federalist ticket were John Adams and his running mate Charles Pinckney from South Carolina. Pinkney was an interesting choice to be paired with the Bostonian Adams, but despite being a slave owner, he shared Adams's Federalist beliefs. On the Democratic-Republican ticket was Thomas Jefferson with running mate Aaron Burr.
Adams learned a lesson many presidents would later learn, that it is very hard to survive an election when challenged from within your own side. George H.W. Bush learned this in ’92 with his internal challenger, Pat Buchanan. However, that was from within his own party. While Jefferson belonged to a different party but had served as Adam’s vice president. At the time, we gave the candidate with the most electoral votes the presidency and the candidate who came in second became vice president regardless of ticket. Try imagining Donald Trump as veep to President Biden. Yeah, I can’t either.
Adams and Jefferson were highly contentious rivals creating some new facets into American political life – such as the dominance of political parties, mudslinging, and media-backed propaganda. The insults included rumors that Thomas Jefferson was sleeping with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, which was in fact, no rumor. There were other outlandishly unbridled attacks; John Adams was mocked for being a hermaphrodite and Jefferson was accused of being an atheist who would import the French Revolution and start lopping off heads. In many ways, 1800 was quite the modern presidential election.
A peculiar aspect of elections at the time was that despite the vigorous attacks there really wasn’t much actual campaigning on the part of the candidates. The attacks were made by partisan newspapers or political “hatchetmen.” Candidates didn’t travel and stump until they passed out like they do nowadays. According to author and historian, Shelby Foote, before the Civil War you weren’t even supposed to say ‘I want to be president.’ It was considered too presumptuous. Others had to step up and campaign for you.
There were a number of disputes, chief among them the electoral ballot from Georgia, oddly enough. Thomas Jefferson, as the current vice president, was the sitting President of the Senate, who oversaw the counting of electoral votes. There were issues with Georgia’s certificate and some thought it may have been tampered with. When Jefferson opened it and saw all of Georgia’s four electoral votes going for him and Burr he quickly counted it and moved on.
Fast forward 220 years when Trump’s legal team used the precedent to argue the president of the Senate – Mike Pence – could validate or invalidate any state's electoral certificate submissions. However, this was directly and successfully challenged due to Jefferson counting the votes and moving on instead of making any kind of investigation into the ballot’s proper certification. Basically, the president of the Senate only needs to be concerned with what the ballot says, not if there was any certification irregularity of the envelope, or had any constitutional power whatsoever to validate or invalidate Georgia’s electoral votes. The role is a formality and performs a mechanical electoral function of Congress.
Georgia was crucial for Don and Tom in that they both desperately needed those four electoral votes. If Jefferson didn’t get Georgia, the House would have to return to the original five candidate field in a new runoff which didn’t favor TJ at all. As we know, the Don didn’t get Georgia, flipping a perennially red state to blue, contributing to his election loss.
Try imagining Donald Trump as veep to President Biden. Yeah, I can’t either.
Compounding the confusion in 1800, was the fact that electoral votes were cast in each state for the main candidates and their running mates. Jefferson pulled 73 electoral votes with Adams gaining 65. Jefferson won, but wait. Due to a miscalculation among Democratic-Republicans, their electors’ votes were tied between Jefferson and his running mate Burr. And a tie didn’t necessarily go to the primary candidate. The flaw was corrected with the passing of the 12th Amendment in 1804, simplifying the electoral college (if you can believe that it was made simpler.)
So, the vote was pushed to the House of Representatives to select the president. This is where Alexander Hamilton — brimming with confidence by some strange feeling he got from the universe that the most successful Broadway musical ever would be about his life — did his work. A Federalist who was anti-Jefferson and most definitely of course anti-Burr, lobbied the vote in the House to sway in favor of his perceived lesser of two evils. Thomas Jefferson ascended to the presidency. With the Democratic-Republicans taking over, the 1800 election represented the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in American history. Something this country failed to do 220 years later.
Still, despite the vicious nature of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson and Adams remained friends and continued a correspondence until their insanely poetic deaths within hours of each other both on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In summary, Jefferson defeated Adams in the general election but tied with his running mate Aaron Burr in the electoral college. Then the House of Reps., egged on by Burr’s enemy Hamilton, nominated Jefferson as president. An electoral college “envelope irregularity” caused reverberations to this day with Trump and his cohorts facing indictments for their activities in Georgia.
As we gear up for the 2024 presidential election we lament all the coming negative ads and mudslinging as both politically entrenched sides fire off vicious volleys. The lamentation is all the stronger because we’re definitely looking at the very real prospect of Trump being the Republican frontrunner whose presence sits in a solid, hip-deep layer of mud to sling around. The divisive politics that America started in the revolution of 1800 have now reached their full culmination. You can draw a line directly from the election of 1800 to the election of 2020 and that line continues on to 2024. The United States may have been born in 1776 but its modern-day politics was born in 1800.