JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed as President-elect ("Th: Jefferson") to [James Hillhouse (1754-1832)], President pro tempore of the Senate, Washington, D.C., 2 March 1801. 1 page, 4to, on paper watermarked "Magnay & Pickering," faint browning at edges.
THE "REVOLUTION OF 1800": PRESIDENT-ELECT JEFFERSON PREPARES TO TAKE "THE OATH WHICH THE CONSTITUTION PRESCRIBES TO THE PRESIDENT"
Jefferson's bitterly contested election in 1800-01 represented the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another in American history. It was also the first of only two occasions when the House of Representatives selected the president after an Electoral College deadlock. Here, Jefferson prepares to take the oath of office, telling Hillhouse (the president pro tempore of the senate): "Sir, I beg leave through you to inform the honorable the Senate of the U.S. that I propose to take the oath which the Constitution prescribes to the President of the U.S. before he enters on the excecution of his office, on Wednesday the 4th Inst. at twelve o clock in the Senate chamber. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect Sir your most obedient and most humble servant ..."
The campaign of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams was notable for its extreme partisan rancor and for widespread, often scurrilous personal attacks upon Jefferson in the Federalist press. These attacks acheived a virulence "rarely to be matched in the entire history of American presidential campaigns" (Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President, 1970, p. 6). One Federalist journalist fulminated that if the Virginian were elected, Americans should expect to find that "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced." Federalists in some areas also employed the Sedition Act to handicap the Republican campaign by prosecuting opposition editors.
When the electoral votes were tallied, in February 1801, Jefferson received 73, his vice-presidential running mate, Aaron Burr, won the same amount, and Adams 65. Although it had been clear during the campaign that Jefferson was the presidential candidate and Burr the vice-presidential candidate, electoral votes were not so designated under the Constitution, which called for the election to be thrown to the House, to be decided between whomever were the top two elector vote-getters. Die-hard Federalists, who considered Burr the lesser of two evils, attempted to promote Burr's election as President, in flagrant disregard of the electorate's clear intent. "There was grave uncertainty and at least a threat of chaos. There was even talk of civil war" (ibid.) In the House, each state cast a single ballot based on the majority of that state's delegation. A total of 36 ballots were cast between February 11 and 17, 1801. In the end the great Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, who viewed Burr as unacceptable, elicited Federalist support for Jefferson, who was finally declared President-elect on February 17th. This deadlock resulted in the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804.
On Wednesday, March 4, 1801, shortly before noon, Jefferson took the oath of office in the Senate chamber, administered by Chief Justice John Marshall. To the crowded chamber Jefferson delivered his First Inaugural, which ranks among his most distinguished writings. His foremost task was to reunite the divided country, and ensure continuity in its governance. He uttered his frequently quoted line: "We are all republicans: we are all federalists." In later years, Jefferson, recalling his difficult path to the Presidency, wrote to a friend of the "revolution of 1800," which, he pointed out, although it was effected by public ballots of the electorate rather than by armed insurrection action, still constituted "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form" (TJ to Spenser Roane, 6 September 1819, Lipscomb and Bergh, eds., Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 15:212).
Provenance: A Virginia Gentleman (sale, Christie's, 18 May 1991, lot 210).