Object of the Month

The Deadlocked Presidential Election of 1800

Letter (retained copy) from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 16 January 1801

Letter (retained copy) from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 16 January 1801


  • 1
  • 2
  • "Hamilton is using his uttermost influence to procure my election rather than Colo. Burr's." Thomas Jefferson describes the contested presidential election of 1800 and the unlikely role of Alexander Hamilton in Jefferson's victory.

    Although most Americans probably now believe that they have read and heard all that they ever want to know about presidential elections, the election of 1800 remains remarkable both for the vituperative campaigns waged by supporters of President John Adams (the Federalists) and the backers of Vice President Thomas Jefferson (the Republicans or "Jeffersonian Republicans"—the forerunners of the present-day Democratic Party) and the outcome, an electoral college tie, that placed the election in the hands of the House of Representatives.

    The Constitution, as originally drafted, made the runner up (as Jefferson was in the presidential election of 1796) the vice president, so the election of 1800 pitted the president against the vice president. The election also witnessed a bitter struggle among the Federalists who remained more an alliance of political partisans than a modern political party. Alexander Hamilton and his allies attacked President Adams, their putative candidate, in terms as harsh as those used by his Republican opponents. At the same time, Jefferson's political fortunes were greatly aided by the political machinations of Aaron Burr in New York where he (Burr) and Alexander Hamilton had waged a long political battle.

    The election results that filtered in to Washington, the new national capital, during the late fall of 1800 revealed a second flaw in the original electoral system: it became clear that Aaron Burr—widely understood to be Jefferson's running mate—had received the same number of electoral votes (seventy-three—each elector voted for two candidates) as Thomas Jefferson. This should not have been a surprise and the Federalists had accounted for the problem by having one Rhode Island elector vote for John Jay rather than Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, so if they had prevailed, Adams would have been reelected president and Pinckney vice president. The Electoral College tie put the selection of the president in the hands of the House of Representatives where each of the sixteen states would have a single vote and a majority of nine votes would be necessary to win.

    Congress did not meet in joint session to record the electoral vote until 11 February 1801 and at that time the House of Representatives—a "lame duck" meeting of the previous, Federalist-dominated House—immediately turned to deciding the outcome of the election. Although the Republicans had won large majorities in the congressional elections, the new Congress would not meet until after the inauguration of the new president—if one could be elected by the divided House—on 4 March 1801.

    During the long period between the election and the meeting of Congress in February, Thomas Jefferson, as revealed in his personal correspondence, acted with surprising equanimity. He even dined with John and Abigail Adams at the "President's House" (now the White House) as events unfolded. Jefferson, as his letter to his daughter Martha demonstrates, clearly had very good sources of political intelligence and was forthright in stating his strong belief that his election would reflect the will of the people, but his letters to his daughters (Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes) and their husbands, Thomas Mann Randolph and John Wayles Eppes, primarily concerned the operation of Monticello and Jefferson's other properties and business interests during his absence, whether that turned out to be for the four years of his presidency, or only a matter of months if the House voted against him. In the meantime, there were instructions for Gabriel Lilly, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello about the operation of the nailery, the commercial nail cutting enterprise at Monticello, and lands that Jefferson had leased.

    Hamilton lends a hand

    In all of the political debates of the early Republic, one thing that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton agreed upon was that Aaron Burr was, in Hamilton's words, "the Cataline of America," a reference to the scheming Roman senator who tried to overthrow the Roman Republic. Hamilton had damaged his political standing by being outmaneuvered in the recent state and national elections in New York and his attack on the standard bearer of the Federalists in his Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States, published in October 1800, made him anathema to many of his former political allies. Now Hamilton urged his Federalist allies to abandon their attempts to take advantage of the situation and bargain with Burr for political advantage. It was Hamilton's "uttermost influence," as Jefferson described it to his daughter Martha, and Burr's apparent unwillingness or inability to make a deal with the Federalists that ultimately—after thirty-six ballots—led to Jefferson's final victory in the House of Representatives on 17 February 1801.

    Martha Jefferson Randolph

    Martha Jefferson was born in 1772 and named for her mother who died when she was a child. She accompanied her father to France in 1784 where she was educated in a convent school. The Jeffersons returned to the United States in 1789 and the following year she married a cousin and family friend, Thomas Mann Randolph. They had twelve children of whom the three eldest surviving daughters, Anne, Ellen, and Cornelia are discussed in Jefferson's letter where he manages to confuse granddaughter Ellen with the younger Cornelia. Jefferson's correspondence with Martha was a mixture of family news and personal business spiced with political gossip. After her marriage, through their correspondence she remained his valued sounding board and connection with home when public service took him away to New York, then Philadelphia and finally Washington. After Jefferson left the presidency in 1809, the Randolph family lived with him at Monticello, although Thomas Randolph's large debts compounded the financial problems Martha Randolph faced after Jefferson's death and the family was forced to sell his estate. She died in 1836 and is buried with her parents, husband, and some of her children at Monticello.

    Letterpress Copies

    The blurry copy of Thomas Jefferson's letter to Martha Randolph reproduced here in digital facsimile is an example of a copy of a letter that he had just written when he duplicated it with his copy press. From 1785 onward, Jefferson used a copy press to make thousands of copies of his outgoing letters. When he completed a page of a letter, he pressed against it a very thin sheet of dampened paper that lifted enough fresh ink from the original page to be legible when read through from the verso. As Jefferson had small but very precise handwriting—and was making the copies for his own personal use—they gave him an accurate record of what he had previously written, especially at a time when it might be days, weeks, or even months before he received an answer to a letter.

    Beginning in 1805, during his presidency, Jefferson began using his famous "polygraph"—a copying machine with an articulated arm holding a second pen to make copies of his letters. He did not invent the polygraph (his term for a modified version of a pantograph—a device for copying architectural drawings in different sizes), but he made improvements to it and became an ardent advocate of its use, dismissing the products of his previously-dependable copy press as "illegible." The polygraph made strikingly accurate facsimiles of letters as Jefferson wrote them, but it must have been challenging to maintain and keep in adjustment. The Massachusetts Historical Society holds thousands of copies of letters that Jefferson made with both devices, including in some instances, retained copies of letters Jefferson wrote when the original letters sent no longer survive, although the original letter he sent to Martha on 16 January 1801 is part of a large collection of his letters to her held by the Morgan Museum & Library.

    A Travelling Exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society

    This year the Massachusetts Historical Society is celebrating the 225th anniversary of its founding through a series of exhibitions, public lectures, seminars, and other programs. As part of the year-long celebration, Thomas Jefferson's letter to Martha Randolph was displayed at the MHS in an exhibition, The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and is now on display at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond through 22 January 2017 (Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM) and then travel in the spring of 2017 to the New York Historical Society in New York City.

    Further Reading

    Ackerman, Bruce. The Failure of the Founding Fathers. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

    Bedini, Silvio. Thomas Jefferson and His Copying Machines. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1984.

    Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. by Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, Jr. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1966.

    Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    ---. Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

    Jefferson, Thomas. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. by Barbara B. Oberg. Vol. 32: 1 June 1800-16 February 1801. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    Sharp, James R. The Deadlocked Election of 1800. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.