But for One Man . . .

17, February 2017
Sepia-toned image of Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson, ca. 1825–1828. Lithograph by Pendleton's Lithography. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Missouri owes a lot to Thomas Jefferson, who signed off on the land agreement that almost doubled the size of the United States. When we look back at history, it seems almost guaranteed that Jefferson—former governor of Virginia, U.S. ambassador to France, first Secretary of State, and second vice president—would become president at some point. But history is often messier than it seems at first glance.

Jefferson’s second attempt at winning the presidency was part of the contentious election of 1800. He was up against three candidates—fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr, Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Federalist incumbent John Adams—but his political firepower was aimed firmly at Adams. Ever the proponent of states’ rights, Jefferson saw Adams and the Federalists as a threat to the “spirit of 1776.” Adams fired back, and a wave of personal attacks from both sides flooded newspapers, revealing a growing divide over visions of the country’s future.

Members of the Electoral College met on December 3, 1800, to cast votes that were supposed to remain secret until the official count occurred on February 11, 1801. Yet news leaked quickly: Jefferson and Burr had each received 73 votes, Adams 65, and Pinckney 64. The Federalists’ days in presidential power were now numbered, but a new problem had become apparent. Although Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican Party’s favored son, the electors hadn’t specifically voted that he should be president over Burr.

Scan of tally of electoral votes for the 1800 presidential electionTally of electoral votes for the 1800 presidential election, February 11, 1801. Image courtesy of the National Archives.

According to the U.S. Constitution, it was now up to the House of Representatives to elect Adams’s successor. Each of the 16 states would get a single vote, which meant each state’s representatives needed to agree on a candidate. The Federalists in the House despised Jefferson and didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of becoming president. Many saw Burr as a better, safer alternative; others, including Alexander Hamilton, viewed Burr’s malleability as a more dangerous threat to the country than Jefferson’s beliefs.

Sepia-toned image of James BayardDelaware legislator James Bayard, 1859. Photo by Julian Vannerson. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

After 33 ballots failed to give a clear majority to either candidate, tensions grew. Threats of Virginia’s separation from the Union and even armed resistance raised the stakes ever higher. Yet the House deadlock continued.

Ultimately, Delaware’s lone Congressman, James Bayard, made an important decision. Whether he was looking out for the good of the country, his home state, or something else altogether, the ardent Federalist chose to abstain on the 36th ballot. And so it was that Thomas Jefferson was elected president on February 17, 1801.

Shortly before and after securing the presidency, Jefferson received letters from enthusiastic supporters who saw his election as the nation’s saving grace. Our Thomas Jefferson Papers Collection—the third-largest such collection in existence—contains letters from supporters Nathaniel Niles, an attorney and physician from Vermont, and Israel Israel, an innkeeper and livery stabler from Pennsylvania. (You can read the respective translations here and here or visit our Library and Research Center to view the original letters and other correspondence to and from Thomas Jefferson.)

Digital copies of letters from Jefferson supporters congratulating him on winning the presidencyNathaniel Niles (left) and Israel Israel (right) congratulate Thomas Jefferson on winning the presidency in February 1801. Missouri History Museum.

The final outcome of the election of 1800? Three years later, the 12th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, mandating that Electoral College members must elect both a president and a vice president.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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