In the election of 1800, the Federalist candidate for president, John Adams, received one more electoral vote than the candidate for vice president, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. This was by design, as the Federalists had arranged for one of their electors to cast his second vote for John Jay instead of Pinckney, to ensure that their candidate for vice president would not tie their candidate for president.

However, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received the same number of electoral votes, which due to Burr's lack of integrity caused a constitutional crisis that had the potential to lead to civil war. Why did the Democratic-Republicans fail to enact a similar scheme in order to ensure that Burr would receive one vote fewer than Jefferson?

I want make sure it's clear that my question is not about why the candidates for president and vice president were on the same ballot, nor is it about how this problem was resolved.

I understand in full how the Constitution designed an electoral system without regard to political parties, awarding the vice presidency to the runner-up in the presidential election, how the emergence of political parties virtually guaranteed that the vice president would be the president's most prominent political opponent, and how the parties attempted to work around this issue by each promoting two candidates for president, with the understanding that one was running for president and the other was running for vice president. I also know in detail about the drama that ensued, how is was resolved with James Bayard's abstention, and how the problem was fixed by the Twelfth Amendment. None of that is what I'm asking about.

I'm asking specifically about why the Democratic-Republicans didn't ensure that Jefferson would end up with one more vote than Burr, as the Federalists ensured that Adams had one more vote than Pinckney.

Most sources I've seen simply state that Jefferson and Burr each received 73 electoral votes, without further explanation. Some sources assert, in very generic terms, that the Democratic-Republicans had a similar plan but that it somehow didn't work out. For example, the Wikipedia article states

The Federalists therefore arranged for one of their electors to vote for John Jay rather than for Pinckney. The Democratic-Republicans had a similar plan to have one of their electors cast a vote for another candidate instead of Burr, but failed to execute it

However, I haven't been able to find any source that explains what the plan was, and why it wasn't executed. I haven't even been able to find a source that affirms that such a plan actually existed (other than a vague assertion with no references or details, as in the Wikipedia article), or explains why not, if no such arrangement was made.

  • Was this scheme used in the 1792 and 1796 elections? Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 21:19
  • @AaronBrick, Yes generally. States controlled how the EC votes were awarded so that changed a bit between elections. Also in 1792 the development of Political Parties was not as evolved and Washington standing for his second term unopposed got 100% of EC votes. In 1796 the convoluted electoral college system was responsible for Adams getting saddled with Jefferson the opposition leader as his VP. The election of 1800 was special not just because it was so turbulent; but because it was the first time an opposition party took the Presidency peacefully in US history.
    – user27618
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 22:59

1 Answer 1


Just Sit Right Back and You'll Hear a Tale

You may or may not be old enough to remember the animated Saturday Morning reboot of Gilligan's Island. One episode of the show had the 7 castaways holding an election for "President" of the island. Each castaway thought they should be the one to run things, and voted for himself or herself. Everyone (but Gilligan) voted for Gilligan for Vice-President because they wanted somebody they could control. So, with no majority for President, Vice-President Gilligan was left in charge. The 1800 US Presidential Election was kind of like that.

But Seriously, Folks...

The bizarre outcome of the 1800 Presidential election was a combination of the poorly thought out electoral process described in the Constitution and extreme partisanship between the Federalists, led by President Adams, and the "Democratic-Republicans" as led by Jefferson.

Article II, Section I of the Constitution describes the process of the Electoral College choosing the President:

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves...The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot one of them for Presidentand if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner choose the President...In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice-President.

In other words, all of the candidates are in one pool for President and Vice-President. The candidate with the most electoral votes would become President and the one with the second most votes would become Vice-President. If the situation was any more complicated, the House had to decide who won.

But the hyper-partisan rancor in 1800 meant that no Federalist would vote for a Democratic-Republican and vice versa.Between 1796 and 1800, Adams's Vice-President was his bitter political rival Jefferson, and no-one wanted a repeat.

On top of all that, there were no nominating conventions in 1800. All the electoral votes were determined in state capitals, which were days or even weeks of travel away from each other, and then taken to Washington and tallied up.

Pinckney drops the ball?

In order to avoid a tie, South Carolina was supposed to cast one less vote for Burr than Jefferson. In A December 2 letter, publisher Peter Freneau tells Jefferson about the fact that all of the state's electors were Democratic-Repulicans:

The Vote tomorrow I understand will be Thomas Jefferson 8. Aaron Burr 7. Geo Clinton 1. you will easily discover why the one Vote is varied.—I take the liberty of giving you this information because Mr C. Pinckney is not on the spot, he is at his plantation about five miles distant and will not be in time for the Post of this day. I know that it is his most earnest wish to give you the earliest information of the result of all our labors.

Freneau appears to be writing on behalf of Senator Charles Pinckney, cousin of the Federalist candidate. Pinckney had switched sides in 1796 and was leading the Democratic-Republican effort to get Jefferson elected.

But Freneau spoke too soon -- this did not happen! When the actual vote occurred on December 3, there were 8 votes each for Burr and Jefferson. It's possible that in Pinckney's absence, no-one told the electors the plan. Pinckney's December 2 postscript to an earlier letter to Jefferson makes no mention of these machinations, and his December 3 letter goes on as if unanimity for Burr was the plan all along:

This will be delivered to You by a Very confidential young man Who carries our eight Votes for Yourself & Mr. Burr & We have been at some pains to get so confidential a [Man] to carry them

I hate when that happens

So at the end, all of the Democratic-Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr, and the two were tied in the Electoral College.

The resulting mess in the House of Representatives (Federalists kept voting for Burr to keep him tied with Jefferson) caused Congress to pass the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which made it clear that this wasn't to happen again:

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President...

  • 1
    Normally I don't like answers this long, but OMG I love this answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 14:16
  • If you want a note to this, the Federalist Party did manage to arrange for one electoral college voter from Rhode Island to not vote for their VP candidate Charles Pinckney (a faithful faithless elector?) to avoid this problem
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 22:20

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