How did campaign rhetoric and issues impact the election of Thomas Jefferson to be President in 1800, resulting in the reversal of the results of the prior Presidential election?

There was a clear choice between two different candidates in the presidential election of 1800, each with his own personality and agenda, and a long history of service to their country.  Both were also well known to the citizens of the country.  There is a sense that this election was more a clash about the meaning of the Revolution, in essence presenting a choice about the continued evolution of the national government: a strong central government preferred by the Federalists represented by Adams and Hamilton or the Jefferson Republican policy of resisting centralization.  This clear choice was amplified by continued growth and importance of the two-party system in this election.

In an age where evidence of public opinion is problematical, it is difficult to judge the impact of campaign rhetoric and issues would have even in the limited number of five states where a small franchise of voters who directly chose electors; with a voting franchise generally limited to white property-owning male adultsCampaign rhetoric was for the most part not particularly helpful to either candidate, due to its often inflammatory and misleading tenor.

And while it would be unfair and inaccurate to conclude the state legislators (picking electors in the first election of 1800) and House Representatives (voting to resolve the tie in the Electoral College in the second election of 1801) would never consider the views of their respective constituents nor be swayed by campaign rhetoric.  It is more likely that party politics and other considerations drove results of both elections, with issues being secondary.  Examples of such follows.

An important structural issue that plagued American national elections until after the Civil War was the constitutional provision permitting Southern states to count three-fifths of the number of slaves in their population when calculating the number of their Electoral College votes.  One historian estimates that this most important and most under-appreciated rule provided a constitutional bonus of 12 votes in the Electoral College to those Southern states supporting Jefferson in this election. [1]

The role of New York in the election is another particularly important illustration how political structure helped shape the outcome of the 1800 election.  New York had fourth largest number of electors among the states (12); behind Virginia (21), Massachusetts (16) and Pennsylvania (15).   The two largest states (in terms of the number of electoral votes), each had its “favorite son” running for President, mostly off-setting each other.  The New York legislature, dominated by Republicans, would be selecting the slate of electors.  Furthermore, the importance of the state to the Republican victory virtually sealed the selection of Arron Burr from New York as their vice-presidential candidate.  It also helped that Burr had distinguished himself in the state campaign as both a political strategist and organizer.  An observer noted that Burr had held "open house for nearly two months, and state legislative committees were kept in session day and night during that whole time at his house. Refreshments were always on the table and mattresses for temporary repose in the rooms. Reports were hourly received from sub-committees, and in short, no means left unemployed”. [2]  Yet not withstanding Burr’s considerable efforts on behalf of Jefferson during the actual election to the run-up to the events at the Electoral College, his opportunism got the better of him once he saw an opening to gain the presidency.

A traditional view held by many historians is that the Federalist Party “self-destructed” in the run up to the 1800 election, and that John Adams had no other to blame then himself.[3] During this election, the Federalist party was split into two parts, the main Federalist party of Adams and his supporters, and a faction lead by Hamilton (“High” or “Ultra” Federalists) whose support of Adams was questionable.  One historian even posits that Hamilton conspired to create a three-month delay for diplomatic envoys from traveling to France to complete negotiations resolving issues between the two countries; resulting in a lost opportunity for Adams to gain credit for his crowning diplomatic achievement that may have yielded him a few electoral votes.[4]

At the end of a long contentious process, Thomas Jefferson, the man who ran for President on his party’s ticket, won the popular vote, received the highest number of Electoral College votes, confirmed by special vote of the House of Representatives, and was sworn in to be the third President of the United State of America on March 4, 1801.

In an era when music was often repurposed, using old tunes with new words, we’ll end this essay with an example of a song composed in that manner to celebrate the election of Thomas Jefferson to be the third President of the United States of Amercia.

Jefferson and Liberty

Words by Robert Treat Paine, Jr.; old Irish tune “The Gobby-O”, 1801

The gloomy night before us flies,

The reign of Terror now is o’er;

No Gags, Inquisitor and Spies,

The herds of Harpies are no more.


Rejoice! Columbia’s Sons, rejoice!

To tyrants never bend the knee,

But join with heart, with soul and voice;

For Jefferson and Liberty.

No Lordlings here with gorging jaws,

Shall wring from Industry the food,

No Bigot's with their holy Laws,

Lay waste our fields and streets in blood.

            {Refrain above repeated}

Here strangers from a thousand shores,

Compell’d by Tyranny to roam,

Shall find amidst abundant stores,

            {Refrain above repeated}

[1] Wills, “Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, p. 62

[2] Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, Page 233

[3] Elkins and McKittrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, Page 732

[4] Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election Of 1800, Page 176