- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

In February, 200 years ago,the House of Representatives deadlocked for a week over an attempt to steal the presidency from Thomas Jefferson and hand it over to his crafty running mate, Aaron Burr. The Republicans, victorious in the 1800 election, had intended that Jefferson should become president, and Burr, an ex-senator from New York, should become vice president.

In that faraway day, each elector voted for two candidates for president. The man receiving the most votes would be president, and the runner-up, vice president. Jefferson, then vice president, defeated the Federalist President John Adams by 73 electoral votes to 65. One or two votes were supposed to be thrown away from Burr so that he would come in second. But somebody blundered, so Jefferson and Burr were tied with 73 votes each.

The House of Representatives must break the tie, and the Federalists, who hated Jefferson with a passion, plotted to throw the presidency to Burr. Each state, large or small, cast only a single vote in the House. If a state delegation had a tie, it cast no vote. The winner must carry nine states, a majority of the 16 states then in the union.

The first ballot on Feb. 11 showed Jefferson with eight states, Burr with six, and two Maryland and Vermont each with a tie. Maryland was split 4-4 and Vermont, 1-1. The Federalists planned to pull over one congressman apiece from Maryland and Vermont, and switch one other delegation either New York or New Jersey from Jefferson and award Burr the victory. Simple arithmetic.

All through the afternoon, while a snowstorm raged outside, the House members droned through ballot after ballot with no change. Each time, the Federalists looked for someone to switch over to Burr, but the deadlock went on. Night fell. Candles were brought into the cold, drafty chamber and blankets and pillows were carried in for an all-night session. Some of the weary statesmen dozed in their chairs, others sneaked off to committee rooms between votes, for a nap. When a ballot was called, one witness said, it was "ludicrous to see them running from committee rooms with night caps on."

When they emerged at 8 a.m. Feb. 12, with the 8-6 deadlock still intact, "they looked banged badly, as the night was cold, and they had the most of them not slept a wink and those who had were none the better for it, as it was caught in a chair or on the floor in a cloak."

The balloting dragged on, day after day, and the battle lines on both sides stood firm. Jefferson, conferring with his followers in the Capitol Hill boardinghouse, recorded in his diary several of the Federalists' attempts to swing the crucial states to Burr. Rep. Edward Livingston of New York, a personal friend of Burr, was told that he could name his own price for delivering the Empire State. Gen. Samuel Smith, a Baltimore congressman, was informed that he could become secretary of the Navy if he would bring Maryland over to Burr. Rep. Matthew Lyon, who had the power to switch Vermont by going to Burr, said a Federalist insisted that he do just that for a price, demanding, "What do you want, Colonel Lyon? Is it office? Is it money? Only say what you want, and you shall have it."

Fearful that Inauguration Day would dawn March 4 with no president elected, the Republican governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania threatened to send their militia marching on Washington to install Jefferson by force. Federalists in New England vowed to stop them at the risk of civil war. When certain Federalists intimated that they would install their own "president pro temp" on March 4, by a little stretch of the Constitution, Jefferson's friends warned that such a "usurpation" could cause a bloody conflict.

James A. Bayard, the lone congressman from Delaware, who distrusted Jefferson, faithfully voted for Burr on ballot after ballot with his fellow Federalists. But Bayard became alarmed by the danger of having no president at all on March 4, because that would lead to the chaos of no government. His little state depended, for its very existence, on the Constitution's guarantees to each state. So he decided it would be safer to have the hated Jefferson in the White House rather than anarchy, and he started dickering for a deal.

The chief opposition to Jefferson arose out of fears that he would abolish the Navy, toss all Federalists out of office, and repudiate the debt which would, of course, bankrupt the holders of government bonds. Bayard sent Gen. Smith of Baltimore to see Jefferson and get positive commitments that he would do none of these things. Bayard acted on the advice of Alexander Hamilton, the great Federalist leader, who fired letters to congressmen begging them to reject Burr.

The next day Gen. Smith reported back that he was authorized to say that Jefferson would carry out these policies. Jefferson later denied that he had authorized anybody to say what he would do. Nevertheless, Bayard decided to throw the election to Jefferson and on the 36th ballot, on Feb. 17, Jefferson triumphed, 10 to 4.

In particular, Bayard had insisted, through Gen. Smith, that the collector of the port of Wilmington, Delaware, a Revolutionary War hero named Allen McLane, must be retained in his lucrative post. On the day of Jefferson's triumph, Bayard sent a bulletin to McLane, saying: "Mr. Jefferson is our President … I have taken good care of you, and think, if prudent, you are safe."

The manuscript of Jefferson's private journal, dated March 8, four days after his inauguration, contains a long list of faithful Republicans to whom he would award federal offices. One line also reads: "Delaware the collector McLane to be retained.

Frank van der Linden is the author of "The turning point: Jefferson's Battle for the Presidency."

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