Aaron Burr And The Electoral Tie Of 1801: Strict Constitutional Construction

AuthorJennifer Van Bergen
PositionAdjunct Professor, The New School University.

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Although it has long been established that Thomas Jefferson came into the presidency in 1801 by a bargain struck with the Federalists and that Aaron Burr repeatedly refused to forge a deal with that party in exchange for their votes, scholars still claim that Aaron Burr was an apostate who schemed to steal the Presidency. This view of Burr began in 1801. Prior to that, Burr enjoyed over twenty-five years of favor in the public eye. But, during the tie of 1801, the tables turned. At first, Jeffersonians were pleased that Burr willingly disclaimed competition with Jefferson during the electoral tie. But, Burr's refusal to agree to Republican requests that he resign if the Federalist-dominated House elected him, ultimately came to be viewed by Jeffersonians as virtual treason.

This was the start of Burr's fall from grace. From that point on, others viewed Burr's actions through the lens of this event-or rather, through the inferences and erroneous judgments built upon this event.

Whatever Burr's role may have been in the genesis of these inaccurate views, there is no doubt that Burr's life was shattered by them. At this late juncture, there is no way to put Burr back together again. To many, Burr's place in American history seems just, if not preordained. Once a portrait becomes settled in our collective memory, our memory may serve in place of fact. It is difficult, then, to undo a false impression and put a life back together again once it has been shattered. I make no attempt herein to do so.

However, no special treatment is needed to discover the utter lack of mystery behind Burr's actions in the tie of 1801. Put simply, Burr acted in strict adherence to the Constitution, while Jefferson and his cronies did not. Because Burr refused both to agree to resign if electedPage 92and to make a bargain with the Federalists, he was, as he put it, "insulted by those who used my Name for having suffered it to be used."1

If the facts are viewed objectively, it seems clear that Jefferson won by contravening the Constitution and Burr lost because he upheld that document. Which man would you rather have had as President?

In this article, I will show that Burr adhered strictly to the United States Constitution, and that he would have been contravening the Constitution if he had promised to resign. Although this conclusion requires a strict construction of the Constitution, I will establish that this was the only way for Burr to construe the new Constitution. Any other interpretation of that document would have been a betrayal of a far greater magnitude.

Burr's interpretation is open for discussion and analysis, but no scholar has bothered to make that effort. Indeed, it appears that neither historians nor Burr's colleagues considered the Constitution at all in judging his actions or their own.2 This collective oversight is even more unusual since it has long been established that Jefferson was a strict constructionist until 1800.3 In fact, Jefferson had himself been elected vice president in 1796 pursuant to Article II of the Constitution. However, when Burr, in refusing to manipulate the votes of Congress, relied on a literal interpretation of the same article of the Constitution-that the House, not he, was to control the election-the Jeffersonians cried treason. Why? For one thing, Jefferson being elected vice president in 1796 against the wishes of the Federalists was not the same to the Jeffersonians as Burr being elected president in 1800 against Jeffersonian wishes. Furthermore, Burr was supposed to have been campaigning for Jefferson, not for himself. The Republican Party had chosen Jefferson, not Burr, as the presidential candidate on their ticket. Thus, Burr's refusal to defer to Jefferson, if Burr were elected, seemed like an auda-Page 93ciously ambitious and selfish act. It was difficult then, and is more difficult now, for people to see that it was, in fact, an act of principle.

It is also interesting, however, that Jefferson considered Burr "a crooked gun" for not manipulating the votes once the election reached the House, for it would have been totally unethical if Burr, rather than the House, had decided the election. Jefferson would ostensibly have been happier had Burr done what Jefferson had been prepared to do in 1796, when he and Adams looked like they might tie. In that instance, Jefferson declared he would "defer" to Adams-in other words, resign. The United States Constitution clearly provided for the election of candidates by representatives of the people, not by the personal preferences of candidates. Jefferson's proposed deference to Adams reflects his belief that he could, by withdrawal, choose the president despite the electoral results.

Burr's refusal to resign in the event he was elected certainly was not treason. Indeed, strict adherence to the Constitution cannot be treason. It is, on the contrary, the mark of a leader and statesman. On the other hand, Jefferson's secret-if plausibly deniable-concessions to the Federalists could very well be viewed as contravening the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution. I will take a close look at Jefferson's actions later. Jefferson's disapproval of Burr's refusal to agree to resign did not justify undermining the very Constitution Jefferson claimed to stand for. The audacity and hubris of Jefferson's attitude is undeniable. If the House had not elected Jefferson, but instead elected Burr, the will of the people would have been voiced through their representatives. Jefferson was not empowered to speak for the people, especially in the context of his own election. He had no right to interfere with a properly constituted electoral process.

The year 1800 marked a turning point in Jefferson's views regarding constitutional construction. In 1802, Jefferson again loosened his scruples when it served his agenda to interpret the Constitution broadly rather than strictly. Although Congress had no constitutional authority to acquire new territory, Jefferson urged "as little debate as possible, and particularly so far as respects the constitutional difficulty," during the ratification of the Louisiana Purchase.4 He was similarly "undeterred by his principle of strict construction of the Constitution" when he retained part of Hamilton's financial program, and again when he decidedPage 94to embargo Great Britain in the years leading up to the War of 1812.5 As these remarks attest, scholars have noted this shift in Jefferson's policies before and after his election. But when considering Burr in comparison, scholars have ignored the discrepancy between Jefferson's view of the Constitution when it enabled him to become vice president and his view when it would have enabled Burr, instead of him, to become president. Jefferson viewed the Constitution as being dissolvable by the people at any time-not a strong endorsement of that document from one of the nation's leading statesmen and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Burr, on the other hand, showed complete confidence in the Constitution. Perhaps foolishly, he bet his career on this confidence, and lost.

The Federalists lost, too, when they bet on the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's presidency marked the beginning of almost thirty years of Republican rule. However, the Republicans were not, at first, the clear victors in the election. As the final votes were tallied, it became clear that the Republican running mates for president and vice president, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, respectively, had received the same number of electoral votes. Pursuant to Article II, 1, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, in the event of a tie in the Electoral College, the vote was to go to the House of Representatives. When Jefferson and Burr tied, this is exactly what happened. Yet, the House of Representatives immediately deadlocked.

It had been clear by mid-December 1800, that Burr and Jefferson were going to tie, but the Electoral College votes would not be officially counted in Washington until February 11, 1801. As the congressmen filtered into Washington throughout January, rumors swirled that Burr might be convinced to accept a deal with the Federalists in exchange for their House votes. By the time official voting began, there was tremendous confusion regarding Burr's loyalties, the Federalists' intentions, and the fate of the country itself.

Electioneering Under Article II

The Framers of our Constitution intended that our government be nonpartisan. They did not anticipate the rise of a two-party system.6

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Alexander Hamilton wrote in the very first issue of The Federalist Papers that "nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties."7 Late eighteenth century Americans had lived through the Revolutionary War. They knew what partisanship could do. To the men who worked to design a government that could withstand the test of time, providing for political parties "would have seemed perversely self destructive."8

Thus, the Framers of the Constitution attempted to create a fair electoral system that balanced a variety of interests.9 Hamilton considered this electoral system if "not perfect ... at least excellent," and "much less apt to convulse the community" than a direct popular vote.10 He added that the "mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate"- e.g., the Electoral College-united "in an eminent degree all the advantages, the union of which was to be wished for."11 This system, then, was included in the new Constitution under Article II, 1, Paragraph 3.

This paragraph provides that the "[P]erson having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President," and "after...

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