Alexander Hamilton and the first contested election

[previously posted on a now defunct blog – 30 August, 2016]

The compromise rules governing the Electoral College could not even stand up to the first contested election in 1800. The original writing had the candidate with the most Electoral College ballots becoming president; the second place candidate would be vice-president. Those at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention had not even conceived of there being political parties.

Hamilton Letter

In 1800, there was a tie between Jefferson and Burr; and even had there not been, two candidates from different parties would have been president and vice-president. The deadlock in the House in 1800 was broken on the 36th ballot (!), but only after Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton made known his preference for Jefferson, in words that ring eerily salient today: “In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

EXCERPT of the letter:
“Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands – No compact, that he should make with any other passion in his own breast except his Ambition, could be relied upon by himself – How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him? Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much; Mr. Burr will dare every thing in the sanguine hope of effecting every thing.”
[Letter to Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts Congressman, from Alexander Hamilton]

Responding to the problems from those first elections, the Congress proposed the Twelfth Amendment in 1803—prescribing that electors cast separate ballots for president and vice president, and replacing the system outlined in Article II, Section 1, Clause 3. By June 1804, the states had ratified the amendment in time for the 1804 election. However, should there ever be a tie, or if no candidate receives the requisite majority of Electoral Votes, the vote for president will go to the House and Senate, who will vote separately on president and vice-president.

Initially, the Electoral College provisions conceived a set of knowledgeable persons, gentlemanly statesman of the political class who would put nation above self-interest. We have only to look at the 1800 election, where it is clear those involved were motivated more by what would be better for their state and their party than with the concerns of the nation to see how hollow that conception was.

I’m not casting aspersions on those Representatives. The 1800 election was a political struggle, with the clamor and rancor we would recognize today between contending visions of what is best for the nation. But it was hardly statesman-like.

When people defend the Electoral College as a way of putting country over the self-interest of the popular will, they are hearkening to a pre-political time that never existed, or more cynically, they are defending and advocating the ability of a small group to impose their self-interest on the majority. For all the criticism political parties routinely get, they are the only way non-political people (the majority) can have influence. The enduring recession has exposed how easily moneyed interests can manipulate rules at the heart of the Constitution itself.

The novel, Faithless Elector, shines light on the weakness of the system as well as the opportunity for narrow, special interests to exploit that weakness and thwart the will of the majority.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

This post is from a previous (now defunct) blog, originally published 30 August, 2016

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