America’s unique electoral college system was designed to be both democratic and anti-democratic. From the very beginning, it has often been manipulated. As a staunch advocate of taking the initiative in both military and political matters, Alexander Hamilton actively intrigued with the electoral college. In the first presidential election in 1789, Hamilton lobbied with correspondents throughout the country to get electors to cast one of their votes for someone other than John Adams, arguing that there was a danger of a tie vote between Adams and George Washington in which case Adams might somehow become the first president. Adams never forgave Hamilton for the embarrassingly low vote that he received in 1789.
Hamilton also intrigued in the presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the incumbent president and vice president, respectively. The electoral vote, to take place in November 1800, was expected to be so close that whichever candidate received all of New York’s twelve presidential electors would be elected president. The state of New York itself was so evenly divided that whichever party won the New York City election would control the state assembly. Because New York’s assembly elected its state’s presidential electors, whoever controlled the assembly would elect the next U.S. president. Through adroit political maneuvering orchestrated by Aaron Burr, the Democratic Republicans clearly won the spring 1800 assembly elections not only in New York City, but also in Westchester County and the Long Island counties—all previously controlled by Federalists.
Rather than accept the expected loss of the presidency to Jefferson, who was thought to be an atheist, a friend of Revolutionary France, and an enemy of the measures of the federal government, Hamilton conspired with his father-in-law Philip Schuyler, with U.S. Representative John Marshall from Virginia, and with a number of other friends in Congress. Hamilton and Schuyler each wrote Governor John Jay encouraging him to act quickly to address “the Crisis and the great cause of social order.” The plan called for Governor Jay to call a special session of the lame duck legislature, which the Federalists still controlled for several months. The legislature would then change the manner in which presidential electors were elected and parceled out to the candidates. Instead of the legislature electing the electors and all of the votes going to one candidate, the presidential electors should be elected by the people in districts and each district’s electoral vote would go to the candidate winning that district’s election. In that way, no candidate would likely receive all of the electoral votes, which would result in Jefferson’s defeat in the November 1800 presidential election. (At that time, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina allowed their presidential electoral votes to be divided between opposing candidates.) Hamilton told Jay that Federalists and “the reasonable part of the world” would approve the measure while Democratic Republicans would condemn it, but the “intrinsic nature” of the plan “justified” it for “reasons of public safety.”
According to Hamilton, it was Jay’s “duty to give the existing Legislature an opportunity . . . to prevent so great an evil.” Governor Jay, however, felt otherwise. Refusing to call a special session of the legislature, Jay noted on the back of Hamilton’s letter: “Gen. Hamilton 7 May 1800 proposing a Measure for party purposes w[hic]h I think it w[oul]d not become me to adopt.”
Whether President Adams was aware of Hamilton’s proposal is uncertain. Philip Schuyler indicated to Jay that John Marshall approved the plan. Marshall was friends of both Hamilton and President Adams. Hamilton, however, did not want Adams to be re-elected president. He hoped that Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the presumed vice presidential mate of Adams, would be elected president, forcing an embarrassed Adams to retire rather than accept the vice presidency under Pinckney. Adams gave Jay no indication that he knew of or supported Hamilton’s plan. Without Hamilton’s plan in force, Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied and defeated Adams and Pinckney in the electoral vote 73 to 65. In the bitterly contested battle between Jefferson and Burr that ensued, it took thirty-six ballots in the House of Representatives to elect Jefferson. Ironically, Hamilton eventually lobbied for Jefferson’s election because he felt that Burr had absolutely no moral compass.