Many of the events surrounding our recent presidential election echo events of the election of 1800. The candidates were Federalist President John Adams versus Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson. It was expected to be close. Four years earlier, Adams beat Jefferson with 71 electoral votes against 68 electoral votes. In 1800, 10 of the 16 states’ presidential electors were chosen by the legislatures rather than directly by popular vote. New York’s electors were chosen by a joint ballot of the legislature. In 1796, New York’s electoral votes had gone to Adams. But in April-May 1800, Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s longtime nemesis, had managed a brilliant legislative election campaign, the Republicans had won a majority, and the state’s 12 electoral votes seemed certain to go to Jefferson when the newly elected legislature (controlled by 85 Jeffersonians and 65 Federalists) convened in the fall and chose the electors.
When this became known on May 3, a New York City Federalist Party meeting was held that evening. It was proposed at the meeting that Governor John Jay call the Federalist-controlled lame-duck legislature into session immediately, and that a new law be passed giving Jay rather than the legislature the power to appoint the electors. When it was pointed out that this subversion of the public will might result in a civil war, one participant argued “that a civil war would be preferable to having Jefferson for President.” A lot of the people at the meeting agreed.
Hamilton had been just as active as Burr in the spring legislative election and his party lost. But he didn’t give up. On May 7, 1800, four days after the results of the election became known, Hamilton wrote to Governor Jay. What he advocated was somewhat more reasonable than what had been proposed in the party meeting. Hamilton suggested that Jay call into session the lame-duck legislature, and that this legislature should change the law so that the electors would be chosen by the popular vote in districts rather than by the legislature. (Three states used this system.) Hamilton believed that this would assure Adams’s victory. He admitted that there were “weighty objections” to doing this, but, he wrote, “in times like these in which we live, it will not do to be overscrupulous. It is easy to sacrifice the substantial interests of society by a strict adherence to ordinary rules.” He argued that what he was proposing was legal and constitutional, and that scruples should not prevent steps to be taken “to prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State.” According to Hamilton writing to a friend in Massachusetts, this bit of legislative trickery was the only way to save the country “from the fangs of Jefferson.”
True to his character, Jay did not deign to answer Hamilton’s letter. On the back of the letter he wrote: “Proposing a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt.”
Jay, though little known today, was one of the greatest figures of the Revolutionary Era. He had been one of the main authors of the New York constitution of 1777 and was the first Chief Justice of New York. He was the primary negotiator, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, of the Treaty of Peace of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War very favorably for the United States. Before the Constitution, he was Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in which capacity he was, in essence, the de facto prime minister of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. He was one of the authors of The Federalist. President Washington appointed him the first Chief Justice of the United States. Adams, who did not throw around compliments, described Jay as “an honest Man . . . a Man of Honor, a Man of principle, a Man of Religion.”
True to his character, Jay did not deign to answer Hamilton’s letter. On the back of the letter he wrote: “Proposing a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt.” As a result, all 12 of New York’s electoral votes went to Jefferson, who got 73 electoral votes to Adams’s 65. Had Adams won just five of New York’s electors, he would have been reelected President.
Most people of good will today, including the members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the state legislature, would agree that giving the legislature the power to decide how to cast the state’s 10 electoral votes after the people have spoken in an election is a proposal that would not become us to adopt.
Author notes: A slightly longer version of this post was authored by Dr. Richard Leffler, the center’s former deputy director.