Election of 1800 — Drama!

I attended a lecture by Edward J. Larson, the Pulitzer-Prize winner author of A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Such a fascinating topic — Thomas Jefferson once dubbed it “America’s second revolution”. Some points I found interesting…

  • The US is unique in that the Legislative branch is voted separately from the Executive one. So, it is possible to have a difference one (see current Democrat-lead Congress and Republican Presidency)
  • The US Constitution says nothing of political parties — by having indirect state reps (the Electoral college) elect the Executive branch , it was assumed there would be no need for them.
  • Washington was the only president to be elected with no party and no campaigning. After his term, two parties began to emerge — the Federalist (most similar to modern day Republicans) and the Democrats.
  • Federalist = central Executive and military, general distrust of the mob, aristocracy or “philosopher king”
  • Democrats (Jeffersonian) = popular rule, favored strong separation of church and state
  • In the earlier elections, especially 1796 and 1800, states voted across the time span of a year
  • The election of 1800 was so important that many members of the original Continental Congress were asked to be involved
  • Jefferson lost in the 1796 election by 2 electoral votes, but won the VP because electors couldn’t distinguish between their presidential and vice presidential choices until the passage of the Twelfth Amendment. This was the first, and last, time this would occur in US history.
  • Region was already paying a large role in the elections. Check out this map of the 1796 election results.

    So, why did the Framers not include provisions regarding political parties in the Constitution? Larson posits that the orignial intention is that the Executive leader would be a national leader as each state got the same number of votes regardless of population. Where most people lived in VA at the time, Deleware would have “equal” state representation. However, because a 50% majority was required, and not just a simple majority, it makes sense that there probably could be more than 2 parties at any given time. Larson states that even when a third party is introduced, it usually is viewed as taking away from the 2 party majority system rather than introducing a third option.


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