Thomas Jefferson -- 1801
Statue of the third president at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The very complicated election of 1800 (sometimes called the Revolution of 1800) was a long, drawn-out contest between Vice President Thomas Jefferson (leading pro-decentralization, pro-French Revolution Republicans) and the anti-French Federalists under incumbent President John Adams. The campaign was dirty by any standard, characterized by vicious personal attacks. Adams was called “a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams returned the compliment, calling his opponent "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." If Jefferson won, Adams contended, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes."
Imperfections in the new, mostly untested Constitution allowed each state to choose its own date for the election, dragging the results out for months. When all the votes were finally counted, an electoral tie was found and the election was sent to Congress. Loopholes (in which votes for president and vice president were counted separately) allowed Federalists in the House of Representatives to attempt to make Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s running mate) the president over Jefferson himself, whom they despised. Jefferson finally prevailed only a few weeks before the scheduled inauguration. On the day of his swearing-in, a furiously angry John Adams left Washington without attending the ceremony.
Thomas Jefferson’s election marked the first time political power was transferred peacefully (relatively speaking) from one party to another in modern history. For this, the election of 1800 should be seen as a watershed moment. With the controversy and bile of the election behind him, Jefferson’s inaugural address evinced a conciliatory tone. He began the new nation’s new century by trying to unite Americans of both parties. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle," he said at one point. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Though he did speak of his own philosophy and political beliefs, his overarching tone was putting partisanship aside and working together for the good of the nation.
You can read the full text of Jefferson's speech here.
Return to the beginning of the slide show.