Constitutional Crisis: The 1800 Presidential Election

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

Charles Pinckney (Source: NNDB)

It isn’t easy to amend the United States Constitution. Article V requires that an amendment be proposed by Congress with a 2/3 majority in both the House and the Senate (or by a Constitutional Convention called by 2/3 of the States). The proposed amendment does not become part of the Constitution unless it is ratified by ¾ of the States. It is difficult to imagine how the current political divide would allow any further amendment to the Constitution in the near future. But the 1800 Presidential election generated change to the Constitution even in the midst of rancor between the two parties of the day, John Adams’ Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans.

The disdain shown by the Federalists and the Republicans might embarrass today’s Democrats and Republicans. Federalists called Jefferson an atheist. Republicans called Adams senile. Federalists feared Jefferson would bring America the worst of the French Revolution. Republicans were certain the Federalists would return America to its colonial status or impose a central government equally offensive as the British crown.

Aaron Burr (Source:

Aaron Burr (Source:

At that time, the parties did not nominate separate candidates for President and Vice President. Each party nominated two candidates, both for the Presidency. In 1800, the Federalists chose John Adams and Charles Pinckney as their two candidates. The Republicans chose Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The candidate who received a majority of the electoral votes became President. Under Article II of the Constitution, each of the state’s electors cast two ballots. The candidate who came in second became the Vice President.

The sixteen states had a mishmash of methods of selecting electors. In eleven, the state legislatures selected the electors, meaning that the state’s controlling party selected the electors. In the others, white male property owners or white male taxpayers voted for the electors. Some states used a winner-take-all system while others split the votes.

The Federalists exercised sufficient control over their electors to insure that Adams received at least one more ballot than Pinckney. The Republicans failed to exercise such party discipline; their electors cast 73 ballots for Jefferson and 73 ballots for Burr. Adams received 65 votes and Pinckney received 64.

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source:

Tally of Electoral Votes for the 1800 Presidential Election (Source:

With neither Jefferson nor Burr receiving a majority of the electoral votes cast, Article II gave the House of Representatives the duty to choose the next President. Because Jefferson was the clear leader of the Republican Party, one would expect Burr to step aside. Ambition trumped party loyalty. It was left to the lame duck Federalist House to select one of its two Republican enemies as the next President of the United States.

Ultimately, backroom deals would give Jefferson the White House, of course, but it was not easy. Each state delegation could cast only one vote. With 16 states, Jefferson had to win nine, right? The Federalists cast their lot with Burr, generating 19 ties during a February 11, 1801 snowstorm. The deadlock remained unbroken through another sixteen votes. Finally, on Monday, February 17, Jefferson won a majority on the 36th vote, not because he picked up an additional state, but because the Delaware delegation abstained in accordance with Jefferson’s agreement to make various accommodations to the Federalists.

The parties averted a near debacle and worked to prevent a repeat of the 1800 election. Within three years, Congress proposed and the States ratified the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides, among other things, that electors must cast separate ballots for President and Vice President.

Our white-wigged forefathers recognized that the original Constitution is an organic instrument that requires change from time to time. They made amendment a difficult process, but not an impossible one.


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Filed under 1800s, American history, history, Presidential elections, United States

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