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The Year Another Capitol Siege Almost Took Place on the Hill

In 1800, the country struggled to survive its first transition of power between John Adams, America’s first one-term president, and Thomas Jefferson, thanks to political intrigue, chaos and panic.

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Mob, incited by President Trump, storms the U.S. Capitol and halts a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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The election of 1800 keeps coming back to inform, console and trouble us. John Adams was the incumbent. Thomas Jefferson was the challenger. After one of the most vituperative elections in American history, Jefferson emerged the winner. He had 73 electoral votes, Adams just 65. Thus, Adams became America’s first one-term president. There have been nine, depending a bit on how you count. Donald Trump is the latest. Before him, it was George H.W. Bush. 

The problem in 1800 was twofold. First, a structural weakness in the Constitution: There was no separate balloting for president and vice president. Second, by coincidence Jefferson tied in the Electoral College with his vice presidential “running mate” (no such term existed at the time) Aaron Burr. That meant that the Constitution could not differentiate between Jefferson’s 73 electoral votes and Burr’s 73. When this happens, the Constitution requires the election to be sorted out in the House of Representatives, with each state getting only one vote. This has only happened twice, once in 1801 and again in 1825 when the House elected John Quincy Adams even though he lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson.

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The Electoral College in action. In 1800, Jefferson had 73 electoral votes and Adams just 65. But Aaron Burr, running for vice president, also had 73 votes. What to do?


Everyone knew that Jefferson had been elected president. John Adams was disappointed, even bitter, but he was too much a patriot and a gentleman to refuse to accept the voice of the American people. The problem was that the Federalists (the party of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington) could not reconcile themselves to the idea that Thomas Jefferson had defeated the establishment candidate John Adams. Die-hard Federalists determined to do whatever it took to deny Jefferson the presidency. Some partisans suggested that the outgoing Federalist Congress simply vote in an entirely new president. Others said that if they could delay the House vote until after March 4, the date the new president was to be installed, they could name a president pro temp of their choice. Sound familiar?

Intrigue, Panic, Conspiracy and Chaos

It was a time of intrigue, panic, conspiracy and chaos. The raw new national capital was beset with small clusters of passionate men devising political strategy, demonizing their political adversaries, fretting in apocalyptic terms about the survival of the young republic. The Washington diarist Margaret Bayard Smith wrote that the conspiratorial Federalists “hurried to their lodgings under strong apprehensions of suffering from the just indignation of their fellow citizens” for attempting to overturn the election.

Balloting in the House of Representatives began on Feb. 11, 1801. The House immediately determined not to adjourn until they had resolved the issue and chosen a president. Food was brought into the House chamber. The votes went on day and night, deep into the night, and exhausted representatives sacked out on the floor, sometimes on pallets. One representative, Joseph Nicholson of Maryland, was so sick that he had to be carried into the House chamber on a litter through a Washington snowstorm, but he declared that he would cast his vote for Jefferson even if it killed him. He was so frail that his wife had to guide his hand as he marked his ballots. One newspaper reported that it was “ludicrous to see [Congressmen] running with anxiety from the committee rooms, with their nightcaps on.”

For six excruciating days and 35 separate ballots, the vote was invariably the same: eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr. Jefferson needed the endorsement of nine states to win. It was clear that Burr was never going to win, because that eight-vote Jefferson block would never yield to a junta — but neither would Jefferson win unless one of the Federalist states gave up the fight and changed its vote to Jefferson.  

Finally, on Saturday, Feb. 14, a Delaware Federalist named John Bayard announced that he had decided to support Jefferson, thus giving him the nine state votes he needed. Someone in the Federalist caucus immediately shouted “Deserter!” As soon as Bayard announced that he intended to do the right thing, he was subjected by Federalist die-hards to unrelenting criticism. When the Federalist met in caucus after his announcement, “the clamor was prodigious” and the “reproaches vehement.” Several Federalists from New England announced that “they meant to go without a constitution and take the risk of a Civil War.” 

James Asheton Bayard (1738-1807) lived in Wilmington, Del., the home of former Delaware senator, vice president, and now president-elect Joe Biden. Bayard served three terms in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1797, ending in 1803.On the principle that no good deed goes unpunished, Bayard was targeted by the Jeffersonian Republicans in the election of 1804 for his opposition to several of the administration’s initiatives. Accordingly, Bayard was defeated by Jeffersonian-Republican candidate Caesar Rodney. Fortunately for Bayard, he was soon selected by the legislature of Delaware to serve as a U.S. Senator, a position he held from 1814-1813. He was one of thirteen senators to vote against James Madison’s declaration of war against Great Britain.

Why did Bayard decide to switch his vote? Historical opinions vary. Some said he had found a way to negotiate with Jefferson through an intermediary and to wring a few concessions out of the president-elect in exchange for ending the impasse. Jefferson denied this all the way to his death on July 4, 1826, and the historical record appears to support his denial. Some historians say that Aaron Burr began to pull back from his earlier statement that he would accept the presidency if the Federalist-dominated Congress handed it to him. Bayard’s own explanation was that it was clear that Burr was never going to get to nine votes, and therefore it was absurd to prolong the crisis indefinitely, and that “to exclude Jefferson,” as he put it, would come “at the expense of the Constitution.” 

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Aaron Burr. Did he pull back from his earlier statement that he would accept the presidency if the Federalist-dominated Congress handed it to him?


In other words, when the crisis moment of his life came, James Bayard gave his support to due process, fairness and the Constitution of the United States rather than to the party of men he resoundingly preferred to Jefferson and the Republicans. However much he disliked and distrusted Jefferson, Bayard was devoted to the survival and stability of the Constitution more. “The step was not taken,” Bayard later wrote, “until it was admitted on all hands that we must risk the Constitution and a civil war or take Mr. Jefferson.”

Note, however, that at no time did Bayard simply acknowledge that Jefferson was clearly the presidential candidate (not Burr) and he had clearly defeated John Adams, therefore it was only fair to honor the people’s will and install him as president. 

When the final vote was cast on Feb. 17, 1801, six days into the fiasco in the House of Representatives, Bayard did not need to switch his vote after all. Bayard cast a blank vote, as did South Carolina, but Maryland now voted for Jefferson, giving him the ninth state vote he needed to be officially certified as the third president of the United States.

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John Bayard. On Feb. 14, 1800, Bayard, a Delaware Federalist, announced that he had decided to support Jefferson, thus giving him the nine state votes he needed.


 

Jefferson, who was fond of nautical metaphors in spite of the fact that he did not do well on ocean voyages, now wrote, “The storm we have passed through proves our vessel indestructible.” He called his election the Second American Revolution. He would serve two terms as president, then hand pick his successor James Madison. Archibald Stuart of Staunton, Va., wrote, “The minds of men from extreme anxiety seemed to settle down into a firm resolution to resist every attempt to give us a President who had not been the choice of the people…. I was pleased to discover this temper as it proves our liberties cannot be lost without a struggle.” 

When push came to shove (and it nearly did), the Federalists, led by John Bayard, did the right thing and curtailed their attempt to prevent Jefferson from assuming the presidency. But what if they had persisted? Jefferson and many historians have argued that if the Federalists had succeeded in overturning the election, our fragile new republic might have collapsed just a dozen years after its founding. There might have been civil war of secession. The election of 1800 was the first transfer of power from one party of men to another, from one approach to American governance to another. In the end it turned out to be a peaceful transfer of power, though not without some real political chaos.

Rumors Outrun Truth

Rumors always travel faster than truth. During the first five weeks of 1801, Virginia’s governor James Monroe was warned that the Federalists planned to remove arms and gunpowder from a depot in Virginia to store elsewhere in case the crisis devolved into armed conflict. He sent agents to make sure that did not happen. The Federalists thought they heard that Virginia and Pennsylvania militia troops were on their way to the national capitol to make sure Jefferson was seated in the presidency. Wild talk of secession by one or more sections of the country circulated through the capitol and in neighboring states. The Republicans circulated a rumor that if things fell apart, they would call for a new constitutional convention, a threat that terrified the Federalists, who feared that the United States would be refashioned into the loose association that characterized the discarded Articles of Confederation. 

Just how serious did this get? Jefferson’s greatest biographer Dumas Malone asked, “Were they [Jefferson’s republicans] prepared to use force if need be and thus risk the disruption of the Union? Did they contemplate any other form of resistance?” At the very least, the political rhetoric was incendiary. Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean (a Jefferson supporter) declared, “if bad men will dare traitorously to destroy or embarrass our general government and the union of the states, I shall conceive it my duty to oppose them at every hazard of life and fortune; for I should deem it less inglorious to submit to foreign than domestic tyranny.” McKean said he was ready to issue an order “for the arresting and bringing to justice very member of congress, or other person found in Pennsylvania, who should have been concerned in the treason.”

McKean and James Monroe of Virginia both wrote rashly about the possible need to marshal state troops at the border of the District of Columbia to take back the presidency for Jefferson, if necessary, but both acknowledged in more sober moments that they would have sullenly acquiesced if the Federalists had been successful in handing the presidency to Burr. The Republican floor manager of the House of Representatives Albert Gallatin, later Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, said, “No appeal whatever to physical force was contemplated, nor did it contain a single particle of revolutionary spirit.” 

Just what impact all this violent rhetoric and brinksmanship had on the final outcome is difficult to determine. In the end, Jefferson took office right on schedule, put together one of the greatest cabinets in American history, cut taxes, reduced the size of the army and navy, balanced the budget, paid off a considerable percentage of the national debt, and doubled the size of the United States with a single stroke of his pen. In other words, he proved to be a sensible centrist president, sometimes even a little Federalist in his actions, and he was resoundingly re-elected to a second term in 1804. Civil war was averted, as was a coup d’etat by the bitter losing party. The guardrails held — barely. 

Years later, a little weary from a lifetime of political struggle, but with his characteristic optimism, Jefferson put it all in perspective in a letter to his old friend and one-time rival John Adams: “And so we have gone on, and so we shall go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man.”

At 2021 begins, we seem to be particularly puzzled.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future in Context.

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