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This Day in History: A tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr

On this day in 1801, Alexander Hamilton writes a scathing letter about then-presidential candidate Aaron Burr. “[G]reat Ambition unchecked by principle,” Hamilton told Congressman James Bayard, “or the love of Glory, is an unruly Tyrant.”

Did Hamilton’s letter sway Bayard’s vote, ensuring that Thomas Jefferson would be elected President? Maybe.

It had been an odd election year. Unbelievably, the 1800 election ended in a tie between Jefferson and his intended running mate, Aaron Burr.

Such a situation could never occur today, of course. Back then, the accidental tie was possible because of slight differences in how presidential electors voted. Those electors were unable to distinguish between their votes for President and their votes for Vice President. Instead, they cast two ballots: The first place candidate became President and the second place candidate became Vice President.

This process didn’t work so well once political parties were created. Thus, the Twelfth Amendment would be adopted in 1804, separating the voting for President and Vice President.

In the meantime, Congress had a problem to solve.

The Democratic-Republican Party had nominated Jefferson to run for President against incumbent John Adams. Everyone understood that Jefferson was supposed to be the presidential nominee while Burr was supposed to be the vice presidential nominee. A single Democratic-Republican elector should have cast one ballot for Jefferson, then abstained on his second ballot. In that way, Burr would lose to Jefferson by a single vote. The second place finish would make him Vice President.

Either intentionally or by accident, the vote was never held back. Thus, Jefferson and Burr tied at 73 electoral votes.

No one wanted this result. Nevertheless, because the men had tied, the election was thrown into a secondary election procedure in the House of Representatives.

That vote in the House should have been easy, too. Everyone knew the intent: Jefferson was to be President and Burr was to be Vice President. Burr could have bowed out gracefully. But, then again. . . . this was Burr. It would seem that he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it—at least not convincingly. Making matters worse, the Federalist Party still controlled the House. Why not create a little trouble? Many congressmen threw their support behind Burr.

The controversy dragged on and on. Jefferson needed the votes of nine states to win the election, but he could not get them. Over five days of voting, thirty-four ballots were taken: Each resulted in a vote of eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr, and two divided.

During all this time, Hamilton was working behind the scenes to convince Congressmen NOT to vote for Burr. He couldn’t stand the man! Needless to say, the letter that Hamilton wrote to Bayard was pretty scathing.

Can Hamilton be credited with Jefferson’s win?

Bayard was the only Congressman from Delaware, and he ended up breaking the stalemate. After the thirty-fifth ballot on the sixth day of voting, he indicated that he would switch his vote to Jefferson. His decision meant that Jefferson would get the nine states needed to win.

Bayard’s willingness to break the deadlock made his vote for Jefferson unnecessary. Instead, he abstained from voting on the last ballot, as did several other congressmen.

Jefferson ultimately won, ten states to Burr’s four.

Burr would later kill Hamilton in a duel, as you may know. Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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