The Election of 1800: Hamilton’s Role

Michael Austin has written an interesting story for History News Network on the presidential election of 1800.  Austin draws parallels between the current state of partisan politics and the bitter rivalries that emerged during the presidential contest between incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

During that election, Hamilton and other high Federalists painted Jefferson and the Republicans as morally depraved atheists and fiery anti-government radicals who planned to set up guillotines on the banks of the Potomac and fill the new capital with blood. Republicans, on the other hand, portrayed Federalists as crypto-monarchists and usurpers of the Constitution. They pointed to the recent Alien and Sedition Acts as proof that Federalists would roll back the Bill of Rights at every available opportunity until they could declare Hamilton president-for-life and, from there, King of America.

And it got worse. Both Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians savaged the incumbent president, John Adams, a moderate Federalist who never quite managed to make either side happy. Hamiltonians worked as hard to throw the election to the other Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, as Republicans did to elect their hero Jefferson.

The unintended circulation of the Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States was considered a major factor in Adams’s defeat.  If you haven’t read the letter before- I highly recommend it- full text available from Open Library

In the letter, Hamilton begins with this premise: “Not denying to Mr. Adams patriotism and integrity, and even talents of a certain kind, I should be deficient in candour, were I to conceal the conviction, that he does not possess the talents adapted to the administration of government, and that there are great and intrinsic defects in his character, which unfit him for the office of chief magistrate.”

He describes Adams’s miliary plans during the Revolution and how these plans would have contributed to the defeat of the Continental Army.  For example, Adams “was represented to be of the number of those” who favored shorter troop enlistment rather than Washington’s policy of having soldiers enlist for the term of the war.  Hamilton also criticized Adams for ignoring the advice of his cabinet.  He accused Adams of rash decisionmaking, particularly when related to the quasi-war with France and drew a comparison between Adams and “the modest and sage Washington,” who “consulted much, pondered much, resolved slowly, resolved surely.”  Hamilton showcased instances of Adams’s uncertainty and found him to be “so much at variance with himself, as well as with sound policy, that we are driven to seek a solution for it in some system of concession to his political enemies.”  The purpose of Hamilton’s letter was to draw support from within the Federalist Party towards Charles Pinckney, a Southern Federalist.  However, after Adams won the Federalist nomination, the letter was circulated throughout the country by the Jeffersonians.  Hamilton’s reasoned and damning attack on Adams played a part in the contentious election.  Although Hamilton could have adopted the party line and backed Adams, he took the opposite course, understanding that he would lose the support of half his party in future races.  For better and for worse, Hamilton was a man of convictions and of impulse.

Mock Politics produced a humorous set of Jefferson v. Adams attack ads:

In an interesting post-script to the election, Hamilton eventually persuaded fellow Federalists to choose Jefferson over Aaron Burr.  Smithsonian Magazine has a great piece explaining the deadlock- because of the system in place, Congress had to decide between Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr.  Many Federalists saw Jefferson as the ultimate enemy and were pushing for a Burr presidency.  Hamilton stated:

Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government.–Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself-Thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement–and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands.–No compact, that he should make with any passion in his breast except Ambition, could be relied upon by himself.–How then should we be able to rely upon our agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson I suspect will not dare much. Mr. Burr will Dare every thing in the sanguine hope of affecting every thing.

(Visual from Digital History)

9 thoughts on “The Election of 1800: Hamilton’s Role

  1. […] The rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and John Adams during Hamilton’s lifetime is well documented.  During Washington’s presidency, Adams was openly suspicious of Hamilton’s role in the administration and his ambitions. When Adams became president, Hamilton’s maintained only a tenuous grip on his position as secretary of treasury before resigning in 1795.  When Adams was running for a second term, Hamilton published a letter to his supporters Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States.  When this letter was published more widely, it damaged Adams’ hopes of winning the election and fractured the Federalist Party. (You can read more about Hamilton’s role in that election here). […]

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