Jefferson-Burr Election Dispute


In 1801, Federalists in the U. S. House of Representatives, exploiting a defeetive clause in the U. S. Constitution, almost thwarted the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as president, even though a majority of the Electoral College had desired that Jefferson become president.

The Constitution provided that each member of the Electoral College would cast two votes for president. The candidate receiving the greatest number of votes became president, providing that he received one vote from a majority of the elec-tors. The person receiving the second-highest number of votes would become vice president. If two candidates received a majority but with identical totals, the decision was to be made by the House of Representatives. The elector could not indicate which of the two men he voted for was his first choice for president.

Furthermore, the Constitutional provision failed to anticipate the emergence of political parties, which in 1800 nominated teams of candidates for national ofBces. Thomas Jefferson was the candidate of the Republican party for president, and Aaron Burr was the party’s choice for vice president. The party won 73 electors, more than half the total, and ali 73 voted for both Jefferson and Burr. So the final decision was up to the lame-duck House elected in 1798. The Constitution provided that each state cast one vote, with a majority of ali states required for a choice. Jefferson’s party controlled eight delegations, one less than a majority; the Federalists controlled six states; and two delegations were equally divided.

The Federalists professed to regard Jefferson as a dangerous radical, and they decidea to sup-port Burr, regarding Burr, a New Yorker, as more sympathetic than Jefferson to northern economic interests. Burr, nominally Jefferson’s ally, reck-lessly acquiesced in the scheme. For 35 ballots, the House divided along party lines, and Jefferson won no more than eight state delegations. The Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton hated Burr, but he participated in the Federalist plan in order to sew dissension in Republican ranks and in the hope of extracting concessions from Jefferson. Jefferson refused to bargain with Hamilton, and his supporters threatened to take up arms if he were denied the presidency. Finally, a few Federalists abstained on the 36th ballot. Jefferson secured the votes of ten states and was declared the winner of the elec-tion.

The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804, provides that members of the Electoral College ballot separately for the offices of president and vice president.

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