On this day in history, February 17, 1801, Jefferson is elected president as party politics divide new nation

Jefferson Adams split2

Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States, following a deeply divisive race against John Adams that threatened to tear apart the young nation, on this day in history, Feb. 17, 1801. 

It was the first American presidential race pitting party rivals — Federalist Adams vs. Democratic-Republican Jefferson — and the first to unseat a sitting president. 

“By early 1799, both parties, Republican and Federalist, were convinced of the other’s determination to subvert the government and overthrow the Constitution,” writes Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in its online account of the election. 

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The election was underscored by shocking accusations of defective ballots, politically partisan media, even ominous threats of civil war – proving that little has changed in American presidential politics in more than 200 years. 

Jefferson himself dubbed the election “The Revolution of 1800.”

Jefferson and Adams

Challenger Thomas Jefferson, left, defeated President John Adams in the bitterly divisive election of 1800. The two men were allies in the cause of liberty and political enemies in the new nation — but developed a warm friendship in later life. Jefferson portrait: photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images. Adams portrait: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.  (Getty Images)

He first defeated President Adams in the electoral college in the autumn of 1800. 

Jefferson became chief executive over party ally Aaron Burr only after an incredible 36 votes in the House of Representatives that followed the general election.

“By early 1799 both parties … were convinced of the other’s determination to subvert the government and overthrow the Constitution.” — Monticello

Thousands of people reportedly gathered in the streets of Washington, D.C., as the political drama mounted in Congress, with Federalists seeking ways to block a Jefferson presidency. 

The Virginian was inaugurated president, with Burr his vice president, on March 4. 

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Just three years later Burr, in 1804, the sitting vice president of the United States, famously shot and killed political rival and Adams ally Alexander Hamilton in a duel that appeared to portent a tragic trajectory ahead for the United States. 

Hamilton had written earlier that the election of 1800 was a contest to save the new nation from “the fangs of Jefferson.”

Said Smithsonian Magazine in 2004 of the election, “Only a quarter of a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first election of the new 19th century was carried out in an era of intensely emotional partisanship among a people deeply divided over the scope of the government’s authority.”

Burr Hamilton duel

American politicians Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) and Aaron Burr (1756-1836) take aim at each other in 1804 in the duel that would end Hamilton’s life in Weehawken, New Jersey.    (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

President George Washington had warned against the corrosive potential of rising political factions during his farewell address in September 1796. 

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people,” Washington said.

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It took just one election cycle for party politics to tear apart the Founding Fathers. 

Jefferson and Adams were intellectual allies in rebellion. 

The combination of each man’s incredible intellect forged the philosophical foundation of the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson portrait

Cropped image of the official presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, Dec. 31, 1799).  (Public Domain)

They gave the world the Declaration of Independence, inspired hopes of freedom around the world and reshaped people’s relation to government for the better.

Yet they proved ferocious enemies in the new nation. 

“A civil war, or a surrender of independence is not more than a twelvemonth’s distance,” Federalist William Cobbett, under the pseudonym Peter Porcupine, wrote ominously as divisiveness grew during the Adams presidency of the late 1790s.

“A civil war, or a surrender of independence is not more than a twelvemonth’s distance.” — William Cobbett, political pundit in the 1790s

Voters quarreled over party lines, most notably differences over the French Revolution, America’s quasi-war with France, and Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts — widely perceived by historians as a black mark on the otherwise incredible legacy and brilliant political mind of Adams. 

American voters were also regionally divided.

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New Englanders supported Adams and the Federalists. 

Southerners supported Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. The mid-Atlantic States were divided — what we now might call “purple states.” 

Yet the American people overcame the divide.

Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, marking the first of many peaceful transfers of power between the parties in the United States — and among the very first in human history. 

Founding Fathers approve Declaration of Independence

This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman, was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The words “all men are created equal” are invoked often but are difficult to define.  (AP Photo)

Jefferson and Adams became friends again in their later years, their friendship cemented by voluminous mail correspondence in which both reflected on their incredible role in forging the new nation. 

By the 20th century, their vision of a representative constitutional republic — a revolutionary concept in the 1700s — had become the world standard of governance. 

“Time had allowed partisan and ideological passions to recede and a friendship that was forged in the crucible of war was rekindled through the quill,” writes the Adams National Historical Park.

Both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826 — 50 years to the day after pledging their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” together in the Declaration of Independence. 

“We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun, for this whole chapter in the history of man is new,” Jefferson wrote after his election. “The momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our republic.”

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