A Nation Divided: The Election of 1800

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams

Revolution Is Often Messy

For Thomas Jefferson, the presidential election of 1800 represented a contest over the meaning of the American Revolution. This election — one of the most contested in our nation’s history — came on the heels of 10 years of bitter partisan battles. In the end, the voting deadlocked in the Electoral College, and for the first time, the House of Representatives would decide the winner.

The future of representative government hung in the balance. Could the United States show the world that republicanism worked? That a peaceful transfer of power between one political party and another could take place? Or would the United States descend into chaos and anarchy as had been recently witnessed during the French Revolution?

A Unifying Symbol

With the end of the American Revolution came the task of nation building. After a stormy debate over ratification of the Constitution, by July 1788 the nation was functioning under the new system of government. George Washington, hero of the Revolution, was unanimously elected as the first president.

“We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”
—James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 30 June 1789


The U.S. Constitution had laid a foundation for the new nation, but the new government seemed frail and its direction seemed uncertain. Each new law, each court ruling, each presidential action took on great meaning.

Differing Visions

When differences began to emerge over laws and policies, so did suspicion as each side began to feel that their opponents would destroy the legacy of the American Revolution.

On One Side: Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans

Jefferson and his supporters feared that the new government would come under the control of men like Alexander Hamilton who were “so bewitched and perverted by the British example as to be under thorough conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation.”

The Anas of Thomas Jefferson (1818)

On the Other Side: Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists

Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist supporters saw the American Revolution as a chance to improve on the British constitutional tradition and distrusted “men in this country who believe that the most natural and happy state of society is a state of continual revolution and change — that the welfare of a nation is in exact ratio to the rapidity of the political vicissitudes, which it undergoes — to the frequency and violence of the tempests with which it is agitated.”

Defense of the President’s Neutrality Proclamation, 1793, Alexander Hamilton Papers

Learn more about Jefferson's relationship with Alexander Hamilton on monticello.org.

A Divisive Issue: The Bank of the United States

The first major controversy arose over Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton’s financial plan based upon a national bank. Modeled after the Bank of England, the Bank of the United States would be the central banking institution of the country with the power to issue paper money and make loans both to the government and to individuals. The loans would be short-term---90 days---which appealed to merchants and financiers but did not support the long-term credit needs of farmers and agricultural enterprise.

Jefferson was uneasy with the corruption he associated with the British financial system and the favoritism the bank would grant to financiers over agriculturalists. He argued that Congress did not have the Constitutional authority to approve a bank charter. Hamilton challenged Jefferson’s strict construction of the Constitution arguing that the Congress had the implied power needed to carry out its enumerated powers.

President Washington signed the bank bill on February 25, 1791, handing Jefferson his first major political defeat.

Choosing Sides: Britain vs. France

The new government debated issues that could decide its own future against the backdrop of a growing European crisis. Americans closely followed the developments in the French Revolution and initially welcomed it as an extension of their own.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Choosing Sides: The French Revolution

Enthusiasm waned as France slipped into tyranny and bloodshed.

Federalists were especially horrified by the violent course of the French revolution. Still, Jefferson voiced optimism about its ultimate outcome. His continued support would come to haunt him politically.


“The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest . . . Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”
—Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 3 January 1793

Choosing Sides: The Jay Treaty With Britain

In 1793, war broke out between revolutionary France and Britain.

Treating the United States as an enemy because of its refusal to disavow its treaties and cease trade with France, the British navy began seizing U.S. ships — damaging American commerce and raising alarm.

Caught between the two warring nations, the United States signed a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation with Great Britain. Negotiated chiefly by Chief Justice John Jay on the American side, the treaty came to be known as “Jay’s Treaty” or the “Jay Treaty.”

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Choosing Sides: The Jay Treaty With Britain

Though the treaty was narrowly ratified by the Federalist-controlled Senate, many considered it to be a capitulation to Britain and a betrayal of the U.S. alliance with France.

So strong was the reaction against the treaty that Jay was known to have complained that he could travel the country at night by the light of his burning effigy.

The Presidential Election of 1796

In 1796, George Washington announced his intention to step down from the presidency after two terms.

As vice president, John Adams appeared to be Washington’s most likely successor. But discord over the Jay Treaty, along with lingering concerns over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe, brought forth growing opposition to the established administration.

This opposition chose Thomas Jefferson as their standard bearer.

The Election Process From 1788 to 1800

Our method of selecting the president today differs significantly from the original process intended by the Constitution. At the end of the 18th century, each state set its own laws regarding the right to vote and almost all limited this right to white men who owned property. States also decided independently when to hold Election Day and whether to choose their presidential electors by popular vote, in the state legislature or some combination of both. In most states, the legislatures chose the electors.

Complicating the process, the Constitution laid out no separate ballot for vice president. Each elector voted for two people — one had to be from outside the elector’s state. Whoever captured a majority of the electors won the presidency, while the runner-up became vice president. Despite no process for “running mates,” in 1796 the emerging political parties attempted to game the system by running two candidates in the hope that their candidates would capture both the presidency and vice presidency.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

Three-Fifths Compromise

Constitutional protections for the institution of slavery also altered the political calculus in early presidential elections. The three-fifths compromise stipulated that enslaved people counted as three-fifths of a person in proportioning representation based on population. This clause enhanced the political power of states, mostly in the South, that held a significant number of human beings in bondage.

Adams Victorious

Adams won a narrow contest after running strong in northern states. His rival Jefferson beat out Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for the vice presidency.

The Quasi-War with France, 1798-1800

Largely in reaction to the Jay Treaty, France began seizing American vessels on the high seas. In turn, the United States Congress ordered the capture of armed French ships and officially renounced the country’s treaties with France.

President Adams’s buildup of the American army and navy led to increasing alarm on the part of Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republicans, who were deeply suspicious of a federal government strengthened by a large military.

Read about the XYX Affair, which had further strained the relationship between the United States and Revolutionary France.

Feuding Founders

The founding era was a time of bitter rivalry between the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic- Republicans. In the absence of an outside enemy, the men who had won the independence found new targets for their partisan zeal: each other.

Feuding Founders

Jefferson and Hamilton and Adams sometimes often employed surrogates, such as James Callender, to speak and write for them.

Many of the most salacious barbs and insults appeared in partisan newspapers such as The Anas (Federalist), The Aurora General Advertiser (Democratic-Republican) and the Philadelphia-based National Gazette, which were untethered to the nascent standards of journalism or, for that matter, to the truth itself.

Controlling the Opposition: The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

The Quasi-War with France made the Federalists uneasy because of the number of French immigrants as well as the number of Irish immigrants; both groups tended to side with the Democratic-Republicans. The Alien Friends Act of June 1798 gave the president the power to expel any alien judged “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”

Another perceived threat to the security of the country was the power of the press over public opinion. The Federalists saw the partisan Democratic-Republican press as supporting contempt for the authority of the government; this led to the passage of the Sedition Act in July 1798. This law limited a free press by making it a crime to print any scandalous or malicious writings against Congress or the president. Tellingly, the law did not cover writings about the vice president, an office held at that time by Thomas Jefferson.

Alexander Hamilton saw the danger to the Federalists in this law and that it might push more of the public toward the Democratic-Republicans — which it did.

Read about Jefferson's and Madison's legal response to the Alien and Sedition Acts with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which argued that each state had the right and duty to determine the constitutionality of federal laws.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

A Fight in Congress

Party tensions finally took a violent turn on February 15, 1798, when a fight between Irish-born Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon (VT) and Federalist Roger Griswold (CT) broke out on the floor of Congress in Philadelphia over Lyon’s Revolutionary War record.

Griswold struck first with a cane, and Lyon responded with fireplace tongs. Lyon was later prosecuted and jailed under the Sedition Act for his political speech and writings.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Fear Mongering: Attack on Thomas Jefferson

This political cartoon circa 1799 depicts Jefferson kneeling before the altar of Gallic (French) despotism as God and an American eagle attempt to prevent him from destroying the United States Constitution while the devil watches and laughs.

Jefferson’s attack on Washington’s administration in the form of a letter to Philip Mazzei falls from his hand.

Cartoon courtesy of American Antiquarian Society.

A Confidential Attack Becomes Public

In 1796, Jefferson wrote a private letter to his friend Philip Mazzei that was highly critical of the Federalist administration under George Washington.

Its public release in 1797 was a great embarrassment for Jefferson and was used against him in political attacks for the rest of his public career.

Read more about Jefferson's long friendship with Philip Mazzei.

Character Assassination: Attack on John Adams

On April 27, 1798, the Aurora General Advertiser published an anonymous letter that warned readers not to listen to the “querulous and cankered murmurs of blind, bald, crippled, toothless Adams.”

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

The Election of 1800

Fear Mongering: Attack on Thomas Jefferson

Newspaper attacks on Jefferson often depicted him as a “dangerous atheist” and used his connections with France to stir up fears of anarchy.

One writer, using the pseudonym “Burleigh,” warned Americans that if Jefferson were elected “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest, will openly be taught and practiced.”

“The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil soaked with blood,” Burleigh predicted, “and the nation black with crimes.”

Character Assassination: Attack on John Adams

Public attacks on Adams typically portrayed him as elitist and vain, pompous, and anti-republican and railed against his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

James Thomson Callender, who at the time was writing as a surrogate for Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, characterized Adams as having a:


"hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

Callender was a political writer and newspaper editor who is remembered today chiefly for his anti-Federalist writings and later for his series of newspaper articles alleging that Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings. In 1800, he was jailed under the Sedition Act for his vociferous attacks on the Adams administration in his two-volume The Prospect Before Us.

Pictured: Page 57 of Volume 2, Part 2 of The Prospect Before Us. Image courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

A Tie!

In a reversal from the election of 1796, all of New York’s electoral votes go to the Democratic-Republican candidates, thanks to the efforts of Aaron Burr.

John Adams finished third. But both Thomas Jefferson and Burr received 73 electoral votes, leaving the vote for the presidency in a tie.

According to the Constitution, the vote moved to the House of Representatives, where the recently defeated, lame-duck Federalists would choose between the tying candidates.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Burr Doesn't Bow Out

Jefferson had expected some of the electors to withhold their votes from Burr. Republican electors feared that withholding votes for Burr might hand the vice presidency to Adams, robbing Burr of his reward for bringing along New York votes.

Many expected Burr to defer to Jefferson, allowing him to win the election outright.

But as the vote moved to the House of Representatives, Burr remained silent.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Serial and Government Publications Division.

The Choice for Federalists: Jefferson or Burr

Though his standing in the Federalist party was greatly diminished following a particularly vicious attack on John Adams, Alexander Hamilton favored Jefferson over Burr as the lesser of two evils.

Stalemate in the House

For nearly a week (February 11-17, 1801) the outcome hung in suspense over the course of 35 separate ballots with no winner. Should the deadlock continue past the inauguration date of March 4, there was a real question over who should assume the executive office. The Constitution made no provisions for this.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Military Action

Republican governors James Monroe of Virginia and Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania both threatened to call out their states’ militias should the Federalists try to seize power.

Breaking the Deadlock

Federalist Congressman James Bayard of Delaware stepped in to broker a resolution. Bayard, believing he had guarantees from Jefferson not to repudiate the national debt or close the Bank of the United States, convinced the Delaware delegation to vote for Jefferson.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson denied that he made any deal to win the presidency.

Deal or No Deal

Professor Joanne Freeman discusses the deal that Aaron Burr believed Jefferson made with John Bayard to win the Election of 1800.

See more of this talk on Monticello's YouTube Channel

Jefferson Triumphant

Two weeks before the inauguration — and 16 months after Pennsylvania cast the first ballot — Jefferson was elected on the 36th ballot. Maryland and Vermont followed the lead of Bayard’s Delaware. South Carolina abstained, and Jefferson carried the election by a margin of 10 states in his favor to four for Burr.

In his inaugural address, Jefferson sought to mend party divides and reach out to his opponents.

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists.”

—Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

The 12th Amendment

In response to the experience of the electoral tie in the election of 1800, the United States ratified the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which specifically designated separate votes for the offices of president and vice president.

Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

A Strength of Character in Our Nation

Following his inauguration, Jefferson was positive about the future of the nation.

“The order & good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augers well for the duration of our republic.”
—Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestly, 21 March 1801

The system was tried, and it had succeeded in a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. Jefferson would serve two terms before retiring to Monticello in 1809, and the Democratic-Republicans would successfully hold the presidential office for the next 20 years. The Federalists never again reached the prominence they had enjoyed before the election of 1800.

For Jefferson, his victory was more than a personal triumph. It was a movement that restored the nation to its “true principles.” What he had earlier described as a “reign of witches” had come to an end in what he would later refer to as the “revolution of 1800.”

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
Credits: Story

A Nation Divided: The Election of 1880 was developed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.


Project staff:

Stephen Light, Manager of House Tours
Gaye Wilson, Shannon Senior Historian
Chad Wollerton, Director of Digital Media and Strategy


For a more in-depth look at the Election of 1800, check out the following resources:


- Thomas Jefferson and Election of 1800, a talk by Andrew O’Shaughnessy of Monticello's Robert H. Smith Center for International Jefferson Studies.

- Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic by Joanne Freeman.

- A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larsen.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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