“The Election of 1800”

Think about what Lin Manuel-Miranda has just put his audience through over the past six songs. They’ve sat through the intensity of “We Know” and “Hurricane,” the angry dissonance of “The Reynold’s Pamphlet,” the haunting pain of “Burn,” then had a minute of so of a happy song that immediately turned into tragedy in “Blow Us All Away,” followed by the mournful “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

All but the stoniest members of the audience are sobbing by now. In fact, when Madison walks onstage at the start of  this song he’s crying too as if he’s been through it all with us. As Madison dabs his eyes with a handkerchief  Jefferson asks –with an eye roll clearly implied in his tone — “Can we get back to politics?” Madison stammers out “Please.” Jefferson says “Yo” and away we go.

For me that felt like a spell being broken. Once again the show pushes us down and then lets us pop back up for air…but only so we aren’t numb when we plunge back down a few songs later.

So to get back to politics. If you think the Electoral College is a crazy idea now (I do) it was even crazier in its earlier iteration. Each elector got to cast two votes — the candidate with the most votes became President and the candidate in 2nd place became Vice President. So as parties developed, they deliberately nominated two candidates each with the intention of having their electors without one vote for the candidate intended to be Vice President. (This was later changed in the 12th Amendment, which established the practice of President and Vice President running as a package.)

In the election of 1800, the Federalists nominated John Adams for a second term and Charles Pinckney, who they intended to be Vice President. The Democratic Republicans nominated then VP-Thomas Jefferson to be president and Aaron Burr to become Vice President. They planned that one elector would withhold a vote for Aaron Burr to assure Jefferson gained one more vote and thus the Presidency. But whoever was supposed to hold back a vote for Burr screwed up and Jefferson and Burr ended up tied. (Ooops. I can picture someone saying to them “Thou had one job!”)

Under the Constitution, the tie  sent the decision to the House of Representatives. The House was controlled by the Federalists who mostly supported Burr as a more palatable alternative to their arch foe Jefferson. Burr professed his support for Jefferson but worked behind the scenes to win the vote. (Oh, Burr….) The House deadlocked 35 times before finally choosing Jefferson on the 36th vote. The reason? After weeks of lobbying, Alexander Hamilton persuaded one Congressman from Delaware to change his vote from Burr to Jefferson and end the tie.

That’s right — despite their long adversarial relationship, Hamilton lobbied hard for Jefferson and even threatened to quit the Federalist party if they supported Burr. His biographer Ron Chernow called it “the most improbable reversal in an improbable career….If forced to choose, Hamilton preferred a man with the with the wrong principles to one devoid of any.”

In my own personal history, the genesis of the Virtually Hamilton blog was actually a silly Facebook post I tossed off noting that “The Election of 1800 is the best song written about the Election of 1800.” I stand by that assertion. Take a listen and let me know what you think.




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