The past isn't a road map to the present, but there's value in knowing how our predecessors tackled the challenges of their eras. The period of the early American republic, in particular, was a fierce and fractious time in our political history, with highly charged debates over the very foundation of self-rule and constitutional government. I want to take a look at the first and most consequential electoral crisis in American history: the election of 1800.
On Dec. 3 of that year, the 138 members of the Electoral College gathered in their respective states to choose between Thomas Jefferson and the incumbent John Adams for president of the United States.
The previous two years had been tumultuous for the young nation. Rising tensions with France brought paranoia, anti-French feeling and fears of armed conflict. It was against this backdrop, in 1798, that President Adams and the Federalist Party turned their eyes toward their Democratic-Republican critics in the press.
Faced with public contempt and slander, a Federalist-led Congress passed the Sedition Act, criminalizing opposition in the name of fighting French Jacobin subversion.
"I cannot but be of the opinion," Adams wrote a month after signing the bill, "that the profligate spirit of falsehood and malignity are serious evils, and bear a threatening aspect upon the Union of the States ..."
The Sedition Act came on the heels of the Alien Friends Act, the Alien Enemies Act and the Naturalization Act, all of which were aimed at a purported French revolutionary conspiracy to organize, as the Federalist congressman Harrison Gray of Massachusetts said, "bands of aliens as well as their own citizens, in other countries, to bring about their nefarious purposes."
The Friends Act gave the president the power to expel, without due process, any "alien" judged "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States."
To save the nation, Federalists would wield the state against foreign outsiders and domestic opponents, lest they poison the republic with their radicalism.
The Democratic-Republicans were appalled. Jefferson, then vice president, believed the federal government under Adams had "swallowed more of the public liberty than even that of England." The Federalists, he said, had begun an "experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution."
James Madison — Jefferson's longtime friend, ally and neighbor — similarly believed that the Federalists were seeking to "transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy."
Jefferson, Madison and their followers countered with resolutions, drafted for the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures, in which they laid out a state-centric view of American union. Historian Susan Dunn explains — in "Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism" — that Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions "had stated that the federal union was a compact among states and that if any acts of the federal government went beyond that government's delegated powers, states had the right 'to nullify ... all assumptions of power.' "
Madison didn't go so far as nullification in his Virginia Resolutions, but he still argued that "states could judge for themselves the constitutionality of acts of Congress."
This was the climate in which Federalist and Democratic-Republican partisans fought the 1800 election, each side convinced the other would unravel the American experiment and bring the republic to either anarchy or despotism. As a Federalist pamphlet called "A Short Address to the Voters of Delaware" asked: "Let these men get into power ... and what security have you against the occurrence of the scenes which have rendered France a cemetery, and moistened her soil with the tears and blood of her inhabitants?"
The Electoral College made its decision. The Democratic-Republicans had won the election, 73 for Jefferson to 65 for Adams. But there was a problem.
The framers had not anticipated political parties with slates of candidates. Jefferson and Adams had running mates, but there was no way for electors, who each had two votes, to back both members of a ticket and indicate which candidate they supported for president and which for vice president. Instead, to avoid causing a tie, electors had to carefully cast one vote for a losing candidate, so that the running mate would come in second and claim the vice presidency.
The Federalist electors were disciplined and made this happen. Adams won 65 electoral votes and his running mate won 64. Republican electors, on the other hand, gave 73 votes each to Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr.
This sent the election to the House of Representatives, where, under the Constitution, each state delegation would cast a single vote to decide the winner.
So Jefferson may have won the election, but a lame-duck Federalist Congress would decide his fate. And some Federalists saw an opportunity to keep their worst enemy out of high office.
They wouldn't try to negate the will of the legislatures and voters who chose a Democratic-Republican for president, but they would vote to give Burr the top spot. Here is Dunn: "The reasons for supporting Burr, admitted Theodore Sedgwick, 'are of a negative nature.' Burr was 'not a Democrat … not an enthusiastic theorist … not under the direction of Virginian Jacobins … not a declared infidel.' He was selfish, pronounced Sedgwick, transforming unfettered self-interest into a virtue."
Burr, for his part, did not reject the overture.
Republicans in the House were united in support of Jefferson. But this meant gridlock, and after that, the unknown. "What will be the plans of the Federalists," wondered Albert Gallatin, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. "Would Federalists elect Burr? Would they call for new elections? Would they force a stalemate and then hand power over to one of their own?" He continued, "Would there be civil war? Resistance? Shall we submit?"
The deadline to pick a president was March 4, when Adams would leave office. On Feb. 11, 1801, the House met to decide the election. To win, Jefferson needed 9 of 16 votes in his favor.
On the first ballot, Jefferson won eight delegations. Burr won six. Two states, Vermont and Maryland, couldn't decide, which sent the House to a second ballot, then a third, then a fourth. By nightfall, they were still voting, both sides refusing to budge.
The House cast 36 ballots over seven days before it came to a decision. The representatives from Vermont and Maryland were still divided on their choice for president, but rather than drag the fight out further, Federalist holdouts in both delegations abstained. Their Democratic-Republican colleagues then cast their states' votes for Jefferson. With 10 votes to 4 for Burr (two states chose not to vote), Jefferson had finally won the presidency. No Federalist congressman voted in his favor.
The United States had faced, and survived, its first constitutional crisis. The question is how.
Some of the credit goes to Jefferson's allies, who assured Federalist lawmakers in the House that the Virginian would preserve some Federalist policies and retain some Federalist officeholders.
Some of the credit goes to the president-elect himself, who in the wake of his win used his inaugural address to lower the temperature of partisan politics and affirm the bonds of union. "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," he wrote. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."
But a good deal of credit goes to the Federalist Party as a whole, both in and outside of Congress. They fought, they lost and then they stood down. There would be no violence, no coercive attempt to subvert the constitutional order. After holding power for 12 years and then losing it, the Federalists could see that nothing was permanent: not victory, not defeat.
This is important. Of all the elements self-government needs to survive, it's this awareness — the knowledge that power wanes, for you and your opponents — that matters most. When a democracy loses this awareness, when a party or a faction refuses to accept defeat, it finds itself on life-support.