History Research Paper Sample: Democratic Ideology in the Election of 1800

Through our history curriculum, Commonwealth students learn how to be historians rather than passive absorbers of facts. They read and analyze primary sources from a variety of voices in their historical contexts. They discover connections across continents and eras. And they graduate knowing that a single textbook could never tell the whole story. Core to this discovery process is an annual research paper, comparable to a college essay, that hones students’ analytical and writing skills and challenges them to dig deep into a variety of sources on any topic that interests them—whether it be debunking the "primitivist" myth around jazz, the effect of the breakup of the the AT&T monopoly, or evaluating the claim that the Wizard of Oz was a Populist tract. Keep reading for just one recent example.

“Brethren of The Same Principle”: A Radical Re-Evaluation, Stabilization, and Americanization of Democratic Ideology in The Election of 1800

By Tom '22

Why I wrote it: Early on in the year, when writing a short paragraph assignment for Ms. Haber, I stumbled across what seemed then an unlikely (and yet still fascinating), explanation for the popularity of Thomas Jefferson—the learned politician of gentle birth—over the likes of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton—the former son of a shoemaker, and the latter the bastard child of a merchant. I was beguiled by the possibility that, so early on in America's history, the rags-to-riches dream could have been proven dysfunctional. That is, until I realized the complexity of the issue at hand and the profundity of Jefferson's political message in the election of 1800. In my paper, I argue that the election of 1800 has, in the works of many modern scholars, come to represent the final articulation of a political and cultural tension that characterized the late Federalist period of the 1790s. Its key players—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—were made symbols of two radically opposed political doctrines, and the triumphs and pitfalls of each were consistently associated with the triumphs and pitfalls of early American government. I place particular emphasis on the vital shift in the public perception of democratic ideology that had to occur before the election in order to gain Jefferson his presidency, and, more importantly, the role of a particular group of "seditious" radicals in transforming democratic dogma from its prior status as tool to the French revolution into the functional and acceptable democracy that we associate with the American nation of today. The paper treats the events of 1800 not so much as a culmination of tensions but more as a remarkable fulfillment of public aspirations that led to further fruitful discussion of democratic ideology and as establishing the place of party above president, and of people above politician, in the early 19th century Jeffersonian utopia.


Fifteen days after Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States, John Adams left the “presidential palace” for his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. The date was March 4th, 1801, and is perhaps best known for the inaugural address issued by the new leader of American nation, in which those famous words were proclaimed: “we are all republicans: we are all federalists.” As Adams retraced his way along the route that, only eight months before, had acted as his campaign trail, it seems wholly unlikely that he would have felt himself a Republican. In fact, he may not even have received a copy of his opponent’s speech until his arrival in Massachusetts, for Adams had left Washington early—in the morning hours of that day, March 4th—in order to avoid the humiliation of Jefferson’s inauguration. It is possible, however, that he chose his early hour of departure for another reason. Such peace and quiet as Adams might have experienced as he left Washington would have been welcome to a high official of the American government like him. The preceding weeks were perhaps the most intense that Adams, and many of his colleagues, had experienced in their political careers. The election of 1800—or, as Edward Larson has dubbed it, “The Magnificent Catastrophe,” —had put a fledgling constitution to the test, had destroyed the Federalist party, and had pitted two members of the Democratic-Republican party—formed by Jefferson in opposition to the Federalists—against each other. For this reason, the election wields a certain symbolic power: whether as the “peaceful revolution,” or “Jefferson’s second revolution”; whether as a victory for a party, or a victory for democracy.

Undoubtedly, the election represents a new era of American political history, but to draw a parallel with a revolution would be to underestimate the re-evaluation of democratic dogma that had to occur before 1800 in order to provide a stable future for the American public, rather than a radically new one. A comparison of the election to a revolution implies a radicalism that was not visible in the years before 1800, a radicalism that many Americans would have feared as a result of the French Revolution’s failure, and a radicalism that had to be suppressed by Jefferson’s true supporters in an effort to certify a victory for democracy. Drew McCoy’s proposed definition of “revolution” as the cyclical and inevitable political process would seem more apt than our current, popular definition. America’s Revolution of 1776 can be compared to “Jefferson’s Revolution” not because of any radical shift, but more because both movements were fueled by a philosophically grounded realization that society was in need of a return to fundamentals, of a completion of the political cycle. America illustrated this revolutionary resolution in a number of ways during the years leading up to and after the election of 1800. First, the nation showed itself capable of establishing a functional democracy without submitting either to a radical fringe, like the Jacobins of France – or to an autocrat, like Napoleon, who followed quickly on their heels. Moreover, the voting public illustrated an unexpected willingness to support the uncommonly rich and privileged Jefferson over the self-made Adams, (son of a shoemaker), on the condition that liberty, and not tyranny, was the end goal. Jefferson possessed a political asset that his opponent lacked: humility. As he closed his famous address, he was quick to say: “I repair, then, fellow citizens, to the post that you have assigned me,” a phrase which, to the politically aware, would have immediately recalled the Declaration of Independence, and the immortal line: “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Jefferson’s conciliatory and nostalgic tones would have done more to make amends than threaten radical transition. Nevertheless, scholars have found it particularly difficult to reconcile this image of Jefferson as the “American Synecdoche,” a man fully representative of the American people, to the moderately popular victor of the election. If the image of Jefferson as an upholder of yeoman virtue is to be maintained, scholars are tasked with an explanation of his radical tendencies, his publishing Thomas Paine’s work, and, more importantly, his immense popularity among those who could not have been more different than him: domestic, urban radicals. Instead of the “fount” of democracy that Gordon Wood describes as having built up the strong American government of today, it becomes clear that much of the language and ideological structure that supported the doctrine of Jeffersonian democracy was greatly influenced by the work of these radicals. It was this group who played the vital role in Americanizing a political idea that had been associated for decades with a radical, violent, and anti-government fringe, maintaining their support for Jefferson in spite of his continued emphasis on the yeomanry. Seth Cotlar has put forward the argument that these radicals “sought to create a citizenry animated by the same sense of political urgency that drove ordinary Europeans to flock to the print shops.” And, in many ways, they seem to have succeeded; their publications were widely read, and contributed greatly to the intensity of political discourse that shook America at the close of the 18th century. But the contribution that these radicals made to the discussion and Americanization of democracy has often been glossed over by historians, with Michael Durey asserting that their newfangled socialist ideas had “no discernible impact at the time,” and other scholars seconding his notion that the fresh, hopeful utopianism that gained these radicals their name is of little help in the study of the political affairs of the late 18th century. Arguments for the insignificance of radical publications and other writings cannot account for the pressure felt by the Federalist government to silence radical immigrants, nor does it do justice to the various types of radicalism that had fundamentally different ends in mind. Certainly, Jacobins roamed the streets; but likewise, many radicals were actively against the violence of the French revolutionaries, and sought to make democracy as accessible as possible to an intensely religious American public. On many levels, then, the election of 1800 signaled a widespread re-evaluation of democratic ideology in America, establishing the place of liberty above privilege, of party above president, and of people above politician – all changes with their roots in the Americanization of a once radical doctrine on the part of radicals, citizens, and politicians alike. Instead of acting as a “second revolution” and giving rise to unanimous political upheaval, the election of 1800 set the precedent for an ultimately balanced form of political contention. This paper will challenge the popular conception of the election as won and lost by two men, and will argue that the victory for democracy—symbolized by the triumph of the Democratic-Republican party—was as much the product of re-evaluation as it was the cause of a future radical assessment of democratic ideology. 

Federalist Government and Democratic Opposition

Amidst the polarization that characterized late 18th century American political discourse, the Federalist administration made the foolish mistake of underplaying a popular patriotic fervor, a choice that led to a series of catastrophic losses for the Federalist party, culminating in the presidential election of 1800. In the early 1790s—as the French revolution raged in Europe—newspapers, political societies, and even low ranking artisans had naturally become involved and interested in the Jacobinian attempt to overthrow an unjust and entrenched monarchical regime. Two opinions seem to have prevailed among American citizens as to the import and implication of these revolutionaries’ success. The first was a radical, Painite enthusiasm, which emphasized a symbolic connection between the United States and France. As Gordon Wood notes, it was Paine who, on the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, “carried American flags symbolizing the connection between the two revolutions.” Rachel Cleves seconds Wood’s argument, asserting that the American and British “reformers encouraged continued identification with France in the early 1790s by demanding that their governments keep pace with the increasingly democratic tenor of French politics.” However, among Federalists—and later, much of the American public—this symbolic union was widely rejected, and became synonymous with the image of a morally unhinged Jacobin, who—just as was the case with Robespierre—would eventually suffer the paradoxical death that he stood against. The fear that a young America would be misguided by the violence and anti-government sentiment of French revolutionaries caused a near total repudiation of democratic ideology among much of the American public. Samuel Goodrich, writing from the 1850s during a period of political upheaval not unlike that of the 1790s, recalls an image of democracy under the Federalists as “hostile to good government,” and “associated with infidelity in religion, radicalism in government, and licentiousness in society.” He traces democracy’s ill repute to “Tom Paine, the French Revolution,” and “the great Father of Evil.” Clearly, it was these “unamerican” and irreverent traits, showcased by Paine and his supporters, that fueled early skepticism: whether radical reason, under the name of “deism,” or simply an encouragement of the extreme violence that had rarely been seen on a large scale since the American Revolution. 

The Role of Democratic Dogma and its Supporters in the Late 1790s 

By the mid-seventeen nineties, Democracy had become incompatible with American government under the Federalists. The words “democrat” and “aristocrat,” had, according to Wood, become “the derogatory terms” that Federalists and anti-Federalists used to reference each other. Ten months before his election as the second president of the United States, John Adams wrote to his wife, imparting his worry that “restless Democracy” battling against “Aristocracy, will destroy itself and introduce Despotism” in the coming years. On December 7th, 1896, he saw the personification of this democratic despotism in the “Rebells in the West and the corupt Mob of Philadelphia” that were threatening his victory over Jefferson in America’s first presidential election. Increasingly, then, a group of radicals—“Jacobins,” as he called them—were coming to be associated with democracy more than any other group. When Adams referenced the Philadelphian mob, however, he did not separate the more moderate Jeffersonians from the infamous Jacobins, nor did he attach the image of a “corrupt” group of Republicans to Jefferson, or to well-known supporters of Jefferson’s principles in Philadelphia. All Jeffersonians were violent Jacobins, as the Federalists saw it, and all Federalists were aristocrats, according to Republicans. This division was made particularly visible by a new group of Jeffersonians, who proudly denounced the federalist “prigarchy,” but who were developing a more moderate form of radicalism than their French counterparts.

Immigrants account for much of the anti-Federalist literature published at the close of the 18th century – their newspapers, such as the Aurora and The Temple of Reason, fought fervently against the unreasonable excess of the Federalist government. What was particularly unconventional about immigrant support of Jefferson’s politics was a disagreement over the role of infrastructure and early industrialization, under the name of “manufacture.” Support for new manufacturing techniques in the 1790s would have been widely associated with Hamilton’s Federalist aspirations, and would therefore have jarred heavily with the more traditional Jeffersonian yeoman ideal. Durey, one of the few historians to have differentiated between the radical ideas of these new immigrants, and natural-born anti-Federalists, has made efforts to explain away the seemingly contradictory political affiliations of these radicals with reference to the few options available to them. Those who “championed liberal representative democracy based on popular sovereignty” obviously “sided with Jefferson’s republican party” upon arrival in America. As should become apparent later in this essay, no such argument is needed to justify these radicals’ support of Jeffersonian republicanism. For men and women who had immigrated to America in order to gain a voice against tyranny, any democracy was better than none, and any acceptance was better than imprisonment on account of one’s “seditious” ideas. 

The exploits of the Federalist government in the late 1790s isolated the party from the public, often causing the ruling elite to be conceived as an anti-democratic and despotic group, whose faults were increasingly pitted against the virtues of the new Democratic-Republican party and those radicals who supported them. Some scholars have maintained that the Federalists were a misunderstood people, often more representative of the public than their political Republican counterparts. Stanley Elkins has upheld Douglas Adair’s view that “the term ‘aristocrat’ comes under strain when applied to the Federalists of the 1890s.” Elkins references the humble origins of those self-made men, key players in this early stage of American independence: the bastard Hamilton; Franklin, son of a “sope maker”; and—he might add—John Adams himself, fathered by a cordwainer. Wood has opposed this popular argument on a number of fronts, none of which are entirely convincing. “Middling aspirations, middling achievements, and middling resentments” he contends, “represented far more accurately what America was becoming” than the self-made Federalist elite. And yet, neither of these stances account for the unsympathetic image of a tyrannical, even monarchical, Adams that was circulated in Republican newspapers. Elkins and Adair simply make use of the historical hindsight available to them, and make the assumption that the image of the “self-made man,” persistently manifesting itself in American history, is proof enough of the same image’s popularity during the 1790s. Wood, on the other hand, denies the people of a radically “new world” the respect which they, as newspaper readers and a mobilized, politically active people, rightly deserve. Clearly, some criterion other than a lack of hereditary privilege gained a political leader his support. The fact that mediocre aspirations and a general lack of ambition to scale the political ladder may have been representative of the American people cannot explain why it was Adams’ excess, lofty assumptions – in short, the exterior and superficial traits of any aristocrat, that were so infuriating to his critics. It seems certain that aside from the obvious political and legal blunders that gave Adams his tyrannous reputation, much public resentment was derived from the examples of Federalist pomp that went hand in hand with the image of a strong, centralized government characteristic of the Federalist ideal, a government constituted of self-made aristocrats, rather than self-made democrats. 

It seems probable, in fact, that the term “aristocrat” was forced to take on a new significance upon arrival from Britain. For, without the embedded social hierarchies, old wealth, and idle elite, the American aristocrat could only be an imitation of his or her British counterpart. Moreover, those who were not born into this newfangled class of active aristocrats —like Adams and Hamilton—had no reason to assume that the “middling” mediocrity of the lower classes could not be exchanged for the comfort and virtue of the upper ranks. The Jeffersonian doctrine seems to have placed emphasis on the mere possibility of any citizen climbing the social ladder, and the importance of sharing this message among one’s community, rather than advocating for oneself and one’s own social trajectory, seems also to have been underlined. 

William Manning’s The Key of Libberty is a case in point. Manning was a self-proclaimed yeoman, insisting that he had never undergone more than “six months of schooling” in his life. And yet, in 1799, he contended that it was his “duty to search into… all matters that consarned me as a member of society,” adding that he was “a Constant Reader of publick Newspapers.” While Manning may not have aspired to the status of Hamilton or Adams, he possessed a social ambition that matched the egocentric idealism of the Federalist administration. What he—and many others like him—lacked in the aristocratic pretension of a scholar of “antiant history” was made up for in his distinctive optimistic outlook on society. “Selfe Defense” and “Selfe Love” were traits not particular to an individual, he said, but “implanted” in everyone. The example of Manning may also solve the puzzle of Adams’ “aristocratic” status. Instead of disseminating hopeful anecdotes concerning his rise to power, or patriotic speculations as to a fruitful future, Adams relied on frigid Federalist political theory to gain his support. It would not be surprising, in fact, to find that he and Hamilton made the image of the self-made man an unpopular one. And as is clear from the public’s support of Jefferson and Burr in the election of 1800, the prospect of a Federalist future was one devoid of the flexibility that had allowed Hamilton his high status; and it was the symbolic attempt of the hereditarily privileged to cast off the shackles of elitism that, with the support of low-ranking radicals, contributed to their success. This fact was made visible in Jefferson’s campaign tactics, and showed itself in his success in the election of 1800, which, importantly, was a victory for his party, and not a clear cut triumph for the privileged man himself. 

The First American Presidential Campaign 

Public skepticism of the two poles of American politics—radical Jacobinism and tyrannous Federalism—was given a moderate voice by Thomas Jefferson in the build-up to the election of 1800, whose weaving together the disparate threads of republican and democratic ideals yielded a tapestry that was attractive to both the southern yeomanry, and northern radicals. Where, by 1787, John Adams had become skeptical of “the capacity of the American people to make themselves into a benevolent and virtuous people,” Jefferson had illustrated an almost irrational confidence in his nation’s “yeoman class.” Wood attributes the southern slave-owner’s trust in democratic dogma to his “relative isolation from it,” arguing that “yeoman small farmers… found a common solidarity with large plantation owners,” and that, consequently, “great southern planters never felt threatened by… democratic electoral politics.” This would seem to paint a conservative image of a passive and unambitious politician, an image which jars heavily with that of the radical Francophile, who arranged, in 1791, for Paine’s The Rights of Man to be published; who witnessed the violence of the French revolutionaries first hand, and who later proclaimed that he was “satisfied of their objects.” It seems likely that the recent idealization of Jefferson’s image, which has shown itself in his new honorific, the “American Synecdoche,” has put obstacles in the way of a more radical imagining of “the fount of American democracy,” and the part that his non-yeoman supporters played in boosting that imagining. It is difficult to depict Jefferson as a supporter of violent Jacobins whilst simultaneously making efforts to illustrate his virtuous American traits and unwavering allegiance with the yeoman class. And although it is clear that the image of Jefferson as icon has become particularly popular in recent years, it is certainly not the case that the much repeated assertion: “if Jefferson was wrong, then America is wrong,” should have necessarily represented the sentiments of the American public in the 1790s. Jefferson was, in fact, very much aware of his lack of representativity. He was the figurehead of what might be described as a rebirth of political consciousness, and what Wood has defined as “the emotional need to justify a gentlemanly status by continually expressing an abhorrence of corruption and a love of virtue.” In a period dominated by Federalist rigidity, Jefferson symbolized an impressive flexibility, rather than a set American ideal. Certainly, his policy appealed to the southern, and not the northern, “elite,” but Jefferson’s politics—his emphasis on powerful state legislature in the place of a strong federal government, his idealization of the virtuous yeoman, rather than the virtuous ruling elite—all implied a certain humility, or reflection, that would have been immediately attractive to radicals and farmers alike. It is the inability to recognize the radical underlying structure of Jefferson’s polity that has made it consistently difficult for scholars to adjoin his agrarianism to the apparent support that his government saw from the radicals of urban areas. But it seems that a careful evaluation of the virtues of Jeffersonianism in comparison to Federalism, and a study of Jeffersonian Republicanism’s inherent flexibility, might prove helpful in the solving of this puzzle of a seemingly contradictory success story. 

Jefferson’s campaign for the election of 1800 was a calculated endeavor: after losing to the Federalists in 1796 on account of general skepticism surrounding democratic ideas, it was clear that emphasis would need to be placed on the reliable vote of the American yeomanry, rather than the shifting radical masses. The task that faced Jefferson in the build-up to the election was twofold: firstly, it was to deconstruct the association of democracy with the un-american traits of atheism and immorality; secondly, it was to illustrate the incompatibility of the Federalist opposition with the happiness and liberty of the American people. Jill Lepore has traced the ultimate conflict of the campaign to the question of religion. “Federalists would make Jefferson’s religion political,” and Republicans would respond by constructing “a religion of his politics.” While it is certainly true that Jefferson possessed an almost religious following, (which, presumably, is what Lepore aims to communicate), it is also arguable that for many of Jefferson’s supporters, the Democratic-Republican party presented a more religious alternative to the excessive and vein Adams administration. One newspaper published a Jeffersonian creed, which pled that the “Good Lord deliver us” from “all old Tories,” and, (perhaps more pertinent for the yeomanry), a “direct tax.” It was the symbolic image of Jefferson as the meek underdog, pitted against the lavish Adams in his horse-drawn carriage, that would have diverted attention from the former’s controversial religious perspective. And even if Jefferson made the decision to idealize the virtuous farming class, the radical city-dwellers who were so frequently ignored did not chastise him for it. Among these radicals were the publishers of newspapers like the Aurora and the Temple of Reason, who held the view that Jefferson should “do more,” but were clearly content that a self-proclaimed democrat was in the running for president. The Aurora proudly asserted that Jefferson was “a republican, as appears by all his writing and by all his votes in public life,” and that therefore, “he certainly deserves the public suffrage.” Although the publishers and writing staff of these Republican newspapers were quite often immigrants—and therefore, as Durey asserts, “less familiar with the long-running debates in America on the links between an agrarian society and republican virtue” —historians have tended to underestimate the impact that these writers and thinkers had on American political debate. As Jefferson was being dubbed “an infidel” by Federalist critics, it was the radical editors at the Temple of Reason and Aurora that fought to make Jefferson acceptable to “public suffrage” whilst simultaneously publishing letters from their friends in Scotland. Moreover, it is arguable that the powerful efforts of these radicals to push back against the “swinish multitude” that was their Federalist opposition were slowly aligning with the political justification of the southern working class to support a small government rather than a large one. The “direct tax” was as good an incentive as any. Thus, for the first—and quite possibly last—time in American History, the radical imagining of the ideal government was in parallel with that of the more conservative yeoman class: both ultimately wanted freedom and flexibility. The Alien and Sedition Acts, a direct tax, the pomp of the Federalist party, these all represented an effort to centralize and perpetuate a government that was wholly unattractive to two very different sides of the social spectrum. 

The transfiguration of democratic dogma from its prior status as a tool of Painite radicalism to its popularity among the yeoman class can be attributed to both Jefferson’s double-edged political affiliations, and the steady process of Americanizing democracy that took place at publishing houses around America before the election of 1800. Perhaps the most important development that occurred in radical democratic circles before the election was the rejection of Jacobin ideas as unmatched to American society. A line was drawn, it seems, by two fundamentally different groups of people. The first was the traditional yeomanry, who were disgusted by “accounts of mob cannibalism” that, according to Rachel Cleves, “served as a generalized element of trans-Atlantic anti-Jacobin discourse.” The second were the more moderate radicals, who saw violence as an obstacle in the way of their path to democracy, and who took “a gradualist view of social change.” Arguably, it is enough to mention the name of Jefferson to shed light on the new, moderate form of democracy that was gaining influence and popularity among the American public at the close of the 18th century. However, it remains unclear as to why exactly it was Jeffersonian democracy that was becoming so popular. Clearly, an early “cult of personality” is not the answer, (after all, Jefferson was not the “self-made man,” ever able to tap into the archetypical American success story). Some might argue that Jeffersonian democracy’s popularity was not so much the product of its particular relevance to the era in which it appeared, but more the result of a simple evaluation of alternatives. Just as had been the case with the immigrants that arrived on American turf in the early 1790s, and who had “naturally sided with Jefferson’s Republican party,” many Americans might simply have found it impossible to conceive of another four years under Federalist rule. And yet, it seems that to adopt this stance would be to discount not only the awe that many Republicans felt for Jefferson, but also the emphasis on one, central idea that characterized Jefferson’s campaign, and that can almost certainly be attributed to the radical literature: that is, the notion of “free” and “reasonable” political flexibility. It often goes unnoticed, of course, that those hardy radicals who had authored countless articles at the Temple of Reason—and who, like Jefferson, often leaned towards deist ideology—are, to an extent, as responsible as Jefferson himself for the success of those principles of rationality and liberty that won the Democratic-Republican party its success in the election. Testimony to this seemingly unconscious shift towards democracy that proud protestants made before the election is their rejection of Thomas Paine, who, upon return to the United States from Europe in 1802, was thrown out of every tavern he entered, and made to live a fairly solitary life until his death. Without awareness, they had voted in support of one of the great admirers of Paine’s work. Jefferson, (alongside his ever faithful editors at the Aurora), kept his doors open to Paine when few others did. Perhaps he, unlike the rest of the American population, had realized that the reason for this radical’s re-entrance into America was not the passionate ambition to spread irreverent Jacobinism, but more to flee the Jacobins himself. Those who decided to suppress violent Jacobin ideology or Painite sentiments were certainly aiding Jefferson’s campaign, but they could do little to respond to the unlikely popularity of Aaron Burr, who stood a good chance against his Republican running mate in the pre twelfth amendment political arena, and without the claims of deism that followed Jefferson everywhere.

One of the defining characteristics of the election of 1800—and one often glossed over by modern historians—is the internal party conflict and divided allegiance that made unanimous public approval extremely difficult to obtain. Except, of course, for Aaron Burr, with the political dexterity of a weasel, and the chameleonic ability to make himself invisible while Republican and Federalist newspapers hurled propaganda at a malleable public. Burr’s campaign was the most ingenious of them all. In the months preceding the election, he made his own home a headquarters, inviting reporters, politicians, and even passersby to sit on the mattresses laid out on the floor. He compiled an enormous list of eligible voters, and sent out a small group of supporters to do the job of electioneering. In this sense, Burr operated outside of the traditional conception of his party, and did little either to encourage or discourage the more moderate reading of Jefferson’s democracy that was so integral to the Democratic-Republicans’ victory. Burr’s best laid plans were conjured up as Adams commenced a long tour that would see him travel from Philadelphia to Washington, before finally making the long journey to his farm residence in Quincy, Massachusetts. What Edward Larson has described as “the first presidential campaign trip” in the history of the United States “visibly boosted the president’s sagging spirits,” and, presumably, the sagging spirits of his disillusioned supporters. The intention of this early campaigning on the part of the current president could not have been the same as that of Burr, and yet useful parallels can be drawn between the two men and their willingness, (unseen in the likes of Jefferson), to make extra efforts to achieve popularity. These were both political players who suffered attacks from within—in Adams’ case, from “high Federalists” like Hamilton; in Burr’s case, from the doctrinaire Jefferson—and from without. Burr’s popularity would certainly have made Jefferson worried in advance of the 1804 election, but it seems important to note that it was not these two men’s intention to be competing with each other during the lead up to the election of 1800. In fact, the tendency among historians to depict Burr—with “no general principles,” and no allegations of atheism—as Jefferson’s bane, seems wholly misguided. Certainly, it was in Burr’s conniving nature to make use of every opportunity available to him, but, as evidence suggests, the opportunity of a competition with Jefferson—whose very name was attached to Burr’s party—was a late-comer to the proceedings. In a letter to Samuel Smith, a Republican Congressman from Maryland, dated December 16th, 1800, Burr asserted that “it is highly improbable that I shall have an equal number of votes with Mr. Jefferson.” The polls had closed nine days earlier, and thus it would have been impossible for Burr to craft his campaign in such a way as to profit from the possibility of drawing with Jefferson. It is almost certain, then, that the former’s campaign had centered on the vice presidency, and nothing more. Nevertheless, Burr’s antics caused unforeseen complications for his party, and were ultimately responsible for the crisis that was the election of 1800, in which one, unfortunate Delaware representative was made to decide between loyalty to state and loyalty to nation. Thankfully, James Bayard made the difficult decision to be loyal to democracy. 

Chaos and Stabilization During the Election Deliberations

During the tense deliberation that resulted in Thomas Jefferson’s election as the third president of the United States, the foundations of the American constitution were put to the test, and the Union’s future came to rely on one man’s shoulders, a reality that, ironically, the constitution had sought to avoid. The election was a drawn out affair, with voting spanning from March to December, and complications causing the final result to remain uncertain until Tuesday, February 17th, 1800. By the time the popular and electoral votes had been tallied, it became immediately clear that the Democratic-Republican candidates had received significantly more electoral votes than their Federalist opposition, (75 for the former, and 63 for the latter). At this point, it might be intelligent to move swiftly on to the implications of this decisive victory, (as many scholars have done in the past), without dwelling on the political chaos that ensued, a chaos that has lead the renowned historian, Jill Lepore, to call the election of 1800 “the least democratic” in American history. And yet it is the chaotic nature of the deliberations of the house; the thoughts of civil war and disunion, that make Jefferson’s victory over Burr and his Federalist opposition so integral to the proper evaluation of the role of democracy not only in late 18th century American society, but also in the American political machine that allowed that society its voice for the first time. 

The Federalists, disunified in many ways, shared in the belief that a Republican government under Jefferson would lead not only to the imminent deconstruction of their policy, but also to the deconstruction of Christian morality. In the words of the New England Palladium, should “Jefferson be elected the Presidency… some infamous prostitute, under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” Of course, to those who believed that such may have been the case, a safeguard was needed against the election of the deist Jefferson. During the impasse in the house—in which representatives cast and recast their ballot—the Federalist scheme became painfully clear. Unlike the Pinckney and Adams ticket, Burr and Jefferson had both received 73 votes. The Federalists were willing to exploit Article II, Section I of the constitution, which stated that each elector would cast one vote for vice president, and one for president. It also made clear that if both vice presidential and presidential candidates gained the same number of votes, then the fate of the election would be passed over to the house of representatives. If this were the case, then the Federalists could, during the inevitable impasse in the house, appoint an “interim executive” who might withstand Republican opposition. This was not what the American public had bargained for. It became evident that in order to prevent disunion, (or perhaps civil war), one or more Federalist representatives would have either to drop their vote in favor of the opposition, or to cast their vote to avoid an elongated impasse. To James Bayard, the representative from Delaware, the prospect of any extra deliberation was a fearful one, according to Joanne B. Freeman. She argues that Bayard, worried that his home state would be consumed by the scavengers of a civil war brought on by the Federalist scheme, decided to drop his vote to Jefferson in order to avoid conflict. Had this really been the case, it seems likely that Bayard would have supported the more moderate Burr; but in any case, his decision was decisive. On February 17th, 1800, Jefferson won the presidency. Democracy was not the only one to triumph with him. 

Post-Election Re-Evaluation

The Democratic-Republican party’s victory in the election of 1800 became the symbol of political freedom in America, and, perhaps importantly, an illustration of the sheer trust that the voting public was able to put in a comparatively moderate governmental power. Historians of the election seem to place significant emphasis on the symbolic role that Jefferson and others like him played in the transfer of power that occurred in early March, 1800, with Gordon Wood asserting that the “aristocratic leaders of the Republican party” made an almost parabolic decision to become “the most fervent supporters of liberty, equality, and popular republican government”; and Larson, Elkins, and Susan Dunn adhering to the notion of Jefferson’s victory as a second American revolution. What is perhaps missing in this appraisal of the symbolic power of Jefferson’s victory is its avoidance of one defining factor, and that is the definitive lack of unanimous support seen by each of the two main candidates four presidency. It is important to stress that the Federalist party gained 63 electoral votes, which, although a substantially smaller number than that boasted by the Republican ticket, still represents a large proportion of the American public. In fact, it seems that the very word “revolution,” with its connotations of radical usurpation and complete upheaval, is rather inadequate in describing the implication of the events of 1800. More than anything else, Jefferson’s inauguration served to balance the tyranny of his predecessors. The Federalist’s two terms of power had been restricted to one, a reality that Jefferson would have been pleased with on a number of accounts. In a letter to Samuel Adams dated February 26th, 1800, Jefferson had recalled a maxim from his revolutionary days: “where annual election ends, tyranny begins.” 

Radical Freedom and Utopianism as an Example of Further Re-Evaluation

This language and that which surrounded the Democratic-Republican victory in the election of 1800 was drawn from a radical lexicon of a very specific and well-crafted nature, it was the language used by those supporters of Jefferson who had slowly Americanized democratic ideology during the 1790s, and who, during the first years of the 19th century, set to work once more, making full use of their newfound political freedom. Those values that Jefferson had underlined in his first inaugural: the condition that the people’s will, “to be rightful, must be reasonable”; the importance of various political and religious freedoms, and the reclamation of a “long lost liberty,” were all radical ideas “called by different names,” and thus made acceptable to much of the American public afraid of French radicalism. Furthermore, these ideas had become popular among radicals not only because of their definitional opposition to tyrannous Federalist policy, but also because in practice, they offered radicals the possibility of writing, thinking, and speaking with and for the American public, rather than against it. This sense of equality and acceptance that would have been felt by countless radicals after the election, was, according to Durey, particularly evident in the writings of John Lithgow, once editor of The Temple of Reason. The example of men like Lithgow, and their utopian writings that followed the election of 1800, serves to illustrate not only the trust that the American public were willing to place in Jefferson’s promise of freedom, but also the unprecedented sense of excitement at the prospect of America’s hopeful future. 

In the spring of 1802, midway through Jefferson’s first term, Lithgow published his first and only novel, aptly named Equality. Durey has noted that the book was “deeply rooted” in Lithgow’s “own Anglo-American” experience, both of monarchical tyranny, and the hopeful democracy of the New World. As was the case with Jefferson in his inaugural speech, it is evident from Equality’s prose that Lithgow’s intention was to reconcile the two ends of the political system with which he was accustomed. Aside for the impressive emphasis on a prototypical socialistic understanding of wealth, Lithgow also underlined the importance of the type of equality that was representative of Jefferson’s America, and that was an equality of purpose and citizenship. “Every man’s stake in the country is equal,” proclaims the narrator of Equality, a phrase which, among others, contributes to the argument made by Durey that Lithgow’s novel marks the entry of the western world into a new, “socialist tract.” John Mac Kilgore has preferred the term “anticapitalist,” in order to steer clear of “anachronistic and overdetermined political appellations” implying a political agenda which Lithgow seems to have lacked in his “experimental thought project.” Regardless of Lithgow’s political motivations, it seems overwhelmingly evident that his work was revolutionary, and differed in fundamental ways from the utopian literatures that had preceded it, such as Thomas Northmore’s Makar, or William Hodgson’s The Commonwealth of Reason, (both of which had been published seven years earlier, in 1795). These earlier works had simply fictionalized an accepted tradition of political thought, with Northmore making attempts to draw parallels between the values of Makar and those of ancient Greece, and Hodgson propounding a theory of equality that relied heavily on a fictional and unrealistic notion of the state. Hodgson argues that in those states in which “an inequality of rights exists… it very rarely or never happens that the collective body of the citizens find an occasion, where their common interest is united.” Lithconia, on the other hand—and with it the hopeful utopianism that defined social discourse during the Democratic-Republican administration—has been dubbed a “real utopia” by Mac Kilgore. That is to say that the book envisioned a society which was not so abstract and unreasonable as to fall into the category of pure fiction. Instead of hypothesizing about various ways to rid a monarchical society of its tyranny, it seems that Lithconia aimed to put forward a legitimate image of what a future American might—and, more importantly, could—look like. For a man like Lithgow, who was motivated to immigrate to America because of the lack of tyranny and repression that he would face there, the new, Jeffersonian America, would have looked good. With the election of 1800 came an end to the persecution of the more radical Republican publishers, and, perhaps more visibly, the significant shift in the public attitude towards the role of the Federal government in social organization, a shift that might almost be attributed to a newfound trust. This change is well illustrated in Lithgow’s work: the narrator of Lithconia asserts that work is the currency held among citizens of this land, and with it one gains a “certificate,” which, checked by a state official, or “Menardon,” allows one to travel. Arguably, it is the state which makes Lithgow’s fiction a “real utopia,” and it is this emphasis on the realistic, not to mention the ultimate trust in the state government, that embodies the inherently new—but yet still certain—connection to Jeffersonian America, in which the state claimed to act only to make the quest for liberty an easier one of its people. 


Lithgow’s America, and the Jeffersonian America of the early 19th century, was neither a Utopia, nor a product of a revolution. In no way did it fulfill the mystic prophecies of Thomas Northmore’s Makar, nor did it embody that breed of internationalist exploration that had been present in earlier colonial utopia’s like Gulliver's Travels. Trust in the Federal government saw a significant increase as the “Virginia Dynasty” took hold of the American nation, and a new, Americanized democratic ideology slowly became as inseparable from the popular image of the United States as the Constitution itself. Moreover, the period of domestic expansion that followed the election of 1800—particularly apparent in Jefferson’s controversial Louisiana Purchase— represented the ultimate vindication of Jeffersonian democracy’s emphasis on the stability of the American nation, especially in the context of a firm practice of isolationism that would persist until the end of the 19th century. The colonial yearnings for an abstract utopia, devoid of the traditionalism and inflexibility of the British Empire, were swiftly replaced with the creation of the “real utopia,” and with it the expectation that America could, and would become the place that its people held in their minds as the political, philosophical, and theological ideal. Jefferson the yeoman, Jefferson the radical, and Jefferson the deist had achieved the domestic growth that went hand in hand with yeoman patriot pride; the freedom of the press that was integral to the Democratic-Republican goal; and the reasonable policy so attractive to the writers of the Aurora who had suffered under the Adams administration. Although his election had been, by all accounts, a shambolic one, the institution of government had survived, and a feature of the constitution that had previously gone untested was proved functional. For this reason, Jefferson’s famous statement: “we are all republicans: we are all federalists,” wields a meaning far beyond that which most historians have given it. Aside from referring to the American public as a whole, it seems that Jefferson was speaking self-referentially; speaking for those citizens that made up the government itself. Under this reading, Jefferson’s famous phrase places the government above the partisan conflict of Federalists and Republicans, and the people even higher in the political hierarchy. The stability of the institution of government has priority over the immortality of specific factional doctrines; and the voting public comes to be associated with the constructive two party dialogue, rather than with destructive factionalism. Where Jefferson’s opponents had fought tirelessly to perpetuate Federalism, Jefferson seems to say, the Democratic Republican party would fight to provide support for the very mechanics of American government. In assigning government a higher place in his metaphorical hierarchy than partisan ideologies, Jefferson was also able to accentuate the importance of a small federal power, in which people were free to pursue “federal and republican principles” simultaneously, unhindered by the efforts of one branch to assert its power over the other. Finally, it was clear that the pride and joy of the American people—a Republican government—had been realized. As Jefferson closed his historic inaugural with his reassuring and placatory gestures, it was clear that before him, in his audience, working on the great American plains, and in the great American publishing houses; weaving cloth and writing “homespun,” were “brethren of the same principle.” That principle had been guided by the steady hand of the constitution, and the steady hearts of a proud public. That principle was American democracy. 


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