How New York Decided the Election of 1800

Roundup: Media's Take

John Ferling, in the NYT (Oct. 31, 2004):

With the presidential election hanging on the outcome of the vote in eight or so swing states, we're approaching America's quadrennial obsession with the Electoral College. New Yorkers often complain that the Electoral College disenfranchises them because nobody bothers to campaign hard in our reliably blue state.

Once, however, New York was a swing state. In the most bitterly contested election of American history - no, it wasn't in 2000, but in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson ran against the incumbent, John Adams - New York State, particularly New York City, was the battleground that decided the election.

Many of the hallmarks of this year's election were present in 1800. The mudslinging and negative campaigning, for example, included attacks on Adams's foreign policy and Jefferson's war record - his comfortable lifestyle at Monticello during much of the Revolutionary War and his alleged failure as a wartime governor of Virginia. But there were also significant differences between then and now - perhaps none more important than that in most states, including New York, presidential electors were chosen by the state legislators rather than by direct popular voting. What's more, each elector cast two votes - for separate candidates. At the time, the Constitution stipulated that the candidate with the most votes, if those constituted a majority, was to be president. The runner-up became vice president.

From the outset in the 1800 election, it was widely presumed that New York's vote would be decisive. With 12 electors, New York had a level of clout that was surpassed only by that of Massachusetts (which was certain to give its votes to Adams) and of two Jeffersonian strongholds - Virginia and Pennsylvania. Adams had carried New York in 1796 en route to winning the presidency by a scant three electoral votes. His re-election depended on winning the state once again.

Adams's Federalist Party expected to retain its control of the New York State Legislature - and, thus, its electoral votes - in the state elections set for April 1800. Indeed, the Republicans, Jefferson's faction, were so despairing of winning a legislative majority that early in the year they proposed that New York change its method of selecting presidential electors. They sought to have the outcome of the popular vote in each district determine the elector for that district, a device through which the Republicans might pick up one or two of the state's electoral votes. But confident of winning control of the Legislature - a victory that would enable them to name all 12 electors - the Federalists rejected the proposal.

This Federalist Party decision to spurn the popular election of electors was one of the great blunders in the history of presidential campaigns. With New York City providing the decisive vote, the Republicans pulled off a stunning upset that gave them a hairsbreadth majority in the State Legislature....

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