President John Adams chased the dawn right out of Washington, D.C., departing the half-built city shortly after four o’clock in the morning on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1801. He knew it was time to go. In a battering election that pitted the incumbent Adams against his friend-turned-rival Thomas Jefferson, the New England Federalist suffered a humiliating and life-changing defeat. His popular predecessor, George Washington, swung into a second term easily. But the rules of the game had changed: Adams faced violent factionalism from within his administration, a seething press, rampant electioneering and the eruption of party politics.
To many, Adams’s track record in office was controversial at best, thanks to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts that heavily restricted freedom of speech and the press, as well as an unpopular approach to protecting a badly strained peace with the new republic in France. While Adams spent the summer of 1800 at his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, largely ignoring the pending fall election, ardent politician Alexander Hamilton and a newly minted corps of campaigners trawled for votes. Fanning out across cities and towns, they set political fires in the local press that blazed across the very states Adams needed to win, and wouldn’t. He watched from afar, loathing the campaign tactics taking root. “If my administration cannot be defended by the intrinsic merit of my measures & by my own authority, may it be damned,” he wrote to his son Thomas Boylston Adams in late August. The elder Adams held strong opinions on elections, informed by his close study of classical republics and Renaissance state formation. He hoped to be known as the 18th-century ideal of a disinterested public servant, so the subsequent hard loss at the polls meant one thing: Transfer power peacefully to a new president, thereby safeguarding the office and the nation it served.
To many eyes, the process of choosing a president looked very different as of 1800. For the first time, both political parties, Adams’ Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, used caucuses to nominate their candidates. Adams and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a South Carolina politician, squared off against Jefferson and Aaron Burr, a former New York senator. Throughout the fall, the two sides tangled with each other in the press. At the time, only white, male landowners over the age of 21 could vote, and the popular vote paled in importance next to the actions of presidential electors.
The role of electors was much more than performative. Presidential electors ostensibly pledge to represent the states' interests (i.e. the popular vote), but the way that electors themselves were chosen in 1800 varied, and in some states, the legislatures picked electors who planned to pursue an openly partisan outcome. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans seized that ambiguity to great advantage, stacking the electors in their favor and cultivating their local agendas.
For many, the choice felt like a true fork in the road, since the candidates diverged widely on domestic and foreign policy. Federalist favoritism for British trade attracted some, while the Democratic-Republicans’ sympathy for France also held promise. The Federalists’ tax system, enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a split in party leadership were key, too. The election went on and on and on. Voting began in April and ended in December. The results among the electors were tight: 64 votes to Pinckney, 65 to Adams, and 73 apiece for Jefferson and Burr. Federalists swept their usual strongholds in New England, but then New York swung to the Democratic-Republicans, as did Pickney’s home state. “Your anxiety for the issue of the election is by this time allayed. How mighty a power is the spirit of party! How decisive and unanimous it is!” Adams wrote to his friend Elbridge Gerry in late 1800. Members of the House of Representatives readied to settle the dead heat between Jefferson and Burr in a contingent election.