U.S. President Thomas Jefferson First Election

About the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, biography and history of his first presidential election.

FULL PORTRAITS OF SELECTED PRESIDENTS

3rd President

THOMAS JEFFERSON

PRESIDENCY

Election: Nov. 4, 1800 . . .

The emerging political faction known as the Democratic-Republicans settled on Jefferson as their presidential candidate, while the Federal party (or Federalists) favored the reelection of John Adams.

The electoral battle was one of the bitterest campaigns in American history, and the first one in which organized political parties played a major role. There were real differences between the two parties, including Republican distrust of a strong central government, opposition to the excise tax, and criticism of Adams's attempts to limit free speech and his monarchical pretensions. But for the most part, all substantive issues were lost beneath an avalanche of political bombast and personal abuse.

Federalist propagandists concentrated on the charge that Jefferson was an "infidel." Though he was indeed a determined opponent of organized religion in all its forms, Jefferson was hardly an atheist. He spent much of his spare time compiling and translating his own version of the teachings of Jesus, a document that is known today as "the Jefferson Bible." Nevertheless, ministers throughout the country thundered out warnings against the "ungodly" Republican, and in New England many frightened citizens actually hid their family Bibles at the bottom of wells, for fear that Jefferson, if elected, would order them confiscated. Timothy Dwight, the pious president of Yale College, warned that a Jefferson administration would see "our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution; soberly dishonored; speciously polluted." The Connecticut Courant saw even more dire consequences: "There is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced."

Meanwhile, the Republicans countered with absurd charges concerning the personal morality of the upright John Adams. According to one story, the President had sent Thomas Pinckney, the brother of his Federalist running mate, to England to procure four mistresses-two for himself and two for Adams. On hearing the story, the President observed: "I do declare if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two."

The Republicans also prepared the first true presidential campaign songs in American history, including a rousing number called "Jefferson and Liberty":

From Georgia up to Lake Champlain,

From seas to Mississippi's shore,

Ye sons of freedom loud proclaim

The reign of terror is no more.

Rejoice, Columbia's sons, rejoice!

To tyrants never bend the knee,

But join with heart and soul and voice

For Jefferson and Liberty!

In November, the forces of "Jefferson and Liberty" appeared to triumph by the slender margin of eight electoral votes, but when the final totals arrived from the electoral college, an unexpected complication developed. Under the curious system provided by the Constitution, each elector was allowed to vote twice, and the single candidate who received the most votes was named president, while the candidate who finished second was elected vice-president. Because the Jeffersonians wanted to control both of the top offices, Republican electors were supposed to vote for both Jefferson and his running mate--the suave, ambitious New Yorker Aaron Burr. It was assumed that at some point in the process, one or two of these electors would divert his vote from Burr to one of the other candidates, to make sure that the New Yorker finished just below Jefferson in the final tally. But through an incredible oversight, all the electors voted the straight party ticket and the result was a dead heat: 73 votes for Jefferson, 73 votes for Burr.

Under the Constitution, the election was then thrown to the lame-duck, Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Many Federalists were so taken in by their own propaganda that they seemed to prefer anyone--even the inscrutable Burr--to that "brandy-soaked defamer of churches" Thomas Jefferson. At this point Jefferson's old rival, Alexander Hamilton, entered the arena to persuade his colleagues in the other direction. While Hamilton conceded that his enthusiasm for Jefferson was well under control ("I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism . . . and that he is a contemptible hypocrite"), his feelings against Burr, after a decade of bitter political warfare in New York City, were even stronger. On Feb. 17, 1801, after a 36-ballot House deadlock, Jefferson was finally elected as the third president of the U.S.

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