We don’t know how the election of 2020 is going to play out or what the post-election interim will be like, between Nov. 3, 2020, and Jan. 20, 2021. President Trump has announced several times that he may not accept the results of the election. Whole batteries of lawyers are lining up on both sides to contest or confirm the election, and tens of millions of dollars will be spent over balloting procedures and results in key states. It’s hard to think of another election year beset with so much uncertainty and anxiety. We have been warned that the results of the election may not be known on the night of Nov. 3. The president has said it may be weeks or months before we know who won. He has said, in fact, that we may never know.
Given all of that, it may be useful to turn away from the 2020 election to look at one of the most fascinating presidential elections in American history — and its aftermath.
The first and most interesting transition crisis came only a dozen years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, who served from 1789-1797, was the only unanimously elected president of the United States. The big question as the 1792 election approached was whether the great man, who had been trying to retire for 10 years, could be talked into accepting a second term. That was one of the few things that Alexander Hamilton, head of the Federalist party and the first secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state and the leader of the emerging Republican party (no relation to our modern Republican Party), could agree upon.
In the end, Washington reluctantly agreed to serve a second term to make sure the republic had achieved some stability before he retired, as he always put it, under his vine and his fig tree, at his beloved Mount Vernon. Washington retired finally in 1797, and died two and a half years later.
John Adams was not a unanimous second president, but he called himself “the heir apparent,” and there was no significant opposition to his candidacy. He served only a single term, in part thanks to the political machinations of Alexander Hamilton, who despised him, and in part because of Federalist overreach in the passage of the high-handed Alien and Sedition Acts during the quasi-war with France in 1798. Adams was bitter to be turned out after a single term, but he characteristically regarded his unpopularity as a sign that he was a truly virtuous leader.
Thomas Jefferson was elected as the third president of the United States in the fall of 1800. Or was he? Jefferson defeated his old friend John Adams in the electoral college, 73-68, and Adams quickly acknowledged his loss, though he exploded at Jefferson, “you have put me out!” But by a quirk (and imprecision) in the procedures of the Electoral College, Jefferson, who was universally understood to be the presidential candidate in 1800, and his “running mate” (the term did not yet exist) Aaron Burr, who was universally understood to be the vice presidential candidate, tied at 73 votes. (The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, would prevent this from ever happening again).
Whenever there is a tie in the Electoral College, the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state gets a single vote in determining who should be the next president. Nothing required the House to certify the known presidential candidate. Every American understood that Jefferson was to be president, Burr vice president, but the Constitution saw only a tie at 73 Electoral College votes. This is where the mischief began.
Although the Federalists had clearly lost the election, they saw in the Electoral College tie an opening either to prevent Jefferson from taking office at all, or at least to force him to make political concessions before receiving their votes. The Federalists began to flirt with Aaron Burr to see if he might accommodate their political interests and agree to retain all or most of the office holders who had been appointed under 12 years of Federalist rule. Although Burr assured a worried Jefferson that he did not intend to do business with the Federalists and displace the man chosen by the people to serve as the third president, his behavior during this uncertain period was coy and elusive, and Jefferson came to believe that Burr had seriously contemplated lending his name to what amounted to a legal coup, to embrace Federalist overtures and permit himself to be seated rather than Jefferson.
Jefferson never forgave this. In fact, once he was safely installed in the presidency, he dumped Burr unceremoniously from consideration for vice president in the election of 1804. And Burr, as everyone knows, wound up playing a much more dangerous game in the period 1806-1807 with whatever he was doing in the old Southwest — attempting to detach that region to form his own Napoleonic empire, invade Mexico on behalf of the United States, or build an army to march on Washington and take over the government. To this day, no historian is quite sure what Burr was up to, but everyone agrees he was up to no good. In dumping Burr from the second term, Jefferson violated the wise principle: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
The crisis of 1800-1801 happened because the Federalists refused to accept the simple fact that their candidate (Adams) had lost the election and the man they feared most (Jefferson) had been elected by the people of the United States. If the Federalists had been honorable, the lame-duck Federalist House of Representatives would have certified Jefferson’s election on the first ballot on Feb. 11, 1801. In the end, it took 36 ballots over six agonizing days before the Federalists finally gave up and voted Jefferson in. Whether Jefferson quietly provided assurances that he would not dismantle Hamilton’s fiscal system or engage in a wholesale purge of Federalist officeholders is still not certain. When the crisis was not yet over, Jefferson wrote, “I should certainly make no terms; should enter go into the office of President by capitulation, nor with my hands tied by any conditions.”
This was America’s first Constitutional crisis. We look back on it serenely now, because in the end everything turned out as it should and there was a peaceful transition from Federalist to Republican rule. At the time it was a political nightmare, and it was far from clear that the American republic would survive. Rumors hurtled around the country: a new election; a president pro temp; a new constitutional convention…. Jefferson’s protégé, Gov. James Monroe of Virginia, actually made arrangements to amass Virginia troops at the border of the District of Columbia to take back the presidency for Jefferson if the Federalists attempted to install Burr or perhaps Chief Justice John Marshall instead. If the Federalists had not given up on Feb. 17, 1801, we might have descended into civil war or the republic might have broken up into northern and southern confederacies. Former President Adams was not the culprit. It was high Federalist partisans who worked the mischief, with a little help apparently from the opportunistic Burr.
Aaron Burr, the man who would be president ... of something!
On March 4, 1801, Jefferson, 57, took the oath of office in the unfinished capitol building in the District of Columbia. On that day, a Washington insider named Margaret Bayard Smith wrote words that every American should study and cherish between now and Jan. 20, 2020: “I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness. The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this our happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder. This day, has one of the most amiable and worthy men taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country.” True, but we came quite close to “confusion, villainy and bloodshed.”
Chief Justice John Marshall, who was no fan of Jefferson, was less charitable than Mrs. Smith. On the day he administered the oath of office to his cousin Jefferson, Marshall wrote, “The Democrats are divided into speculative theorists & absolute terrorists. With the latter I am disposed to class Mr. Jefferson. If he ranges himself with them it is not difficult to foresee that much difficulty is in store for our country….”
The transition had one more disturbing element. John Adams may have accepted the results of the election, but he was nevertheless capable of his own brand of mischief. In the last days — even last hours — of his administration, he packed the courts with ideological Federalists determined to prevent Jefferson from fulfilling his “Second American Revolution.” These midnight appointments rankled Jefferson, who considered them not only as personally unkind coming from an old friend, but also an anti-democratic maneuver to thwart the will of the people just expressed in the national election. One of those appointments — a life appointment on “good behavior” — placed Jefferson’s cousin John Marshall on the Supreme Court, as chief justice, for the next 34 years. Since Marshall’s judicial philosophy was essentially the opposite of Jefferson’s, the Sage of Monticello believed that the appointment was a violation of the principle that the people are sovereign and elections matter.
So, midnight appointments are nothing new in American life.
But Adams was not quite done. He skipped out of Washington at dawn on March 4, 1801, the date of Jefferson’s inauguration, refusing to remain in town to hand off the presidency to his old friend, now rival and even (temporary) enemy. Adams took the dawn stage to Baltimore on his way into retirement in Quincy, Mass., (near Boston). In doing so, he violated a sacred (but unenumerated) principle of democratic culture: that the outgoing president must attend the inauguration of his successor to emphasize continuity, respect, and the peaceful transfer of authority in a free society.
Jefferson had a wildly successful first term. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1804. He chose as his second Vice President George Clinton, the 64-year-old former governor of New York, who was unlikely to make a treasonous run into the American West and who was not likely to stand in the way of Jefferson’s intended presidential successor, James Madison.
Stay tuned. The next four months may be among the most momentous in American political history. History teaches us, first, that we have been there before, and, second, that we seem always to find a way to muddle through in spite of the mischief and the disruptions.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Repairing Jefferson's America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship, is available at Amazon.com.