JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th: Jefferson") as Vice-President elect, to Virginia Senator and President pro tempore of the Senate Henry Tazewell (1753-1799), Monticello, 16 January, 1797. 1 full page, 4to (7 7/8 x 7¼ in.), two tiny fold separations neatly mended, small spot affecting one word.
"I MAY SUPPOSE THAT THE CHOICE OF VICE PRESIDENT HAS FALLEN ON ME": THE NEW VICE-PRESIDENT WEIGHS PROTOCOL AND CONSIDERS PRECEDENT
In the election of 1796, neither John Adams nor his opponent Thomas Jefferson were formally nominated: with the endorsement of outgoing President Washington, Adams became the de facto Federalist candidate, with Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) of South Carolina as the Federalist Vice-Presidential nominee. Jefferson and Aaron Burr were the obvious candidates of the Republicans. With Washington's retirement, announced in September, the deep divisions between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians came into the open, making this "the first genuinely contested election for the chief executive's post" (B.A. Weisberger, America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the First Contested Election, p.161), In it, a vocal, highly partisan press played a strident new role. By a quirk of the Constitutional electoral provisions, each elector cast two votes without specifying which was for President and which for Vice-President. The candidate with the highest total became president, the candidate with the next highest Vice President. Alexander Hamilton--who distrusted both Adams and Jefferson--attempted secretly to exploit this flaw by inducing enough southern electors to cast their ballots for Pinckney that he, rather than Adams, would become President. The plan failed, though, when the Federalists got wind of the scheme and deliberately cast ballots for Jefferson to offset the new votes for Pinckney; this had the unexpected result that Adams (with 71 votes) became President and Jefferson (with 68) his Vice-President. News of the outcome of the balloting reached Jefferson at Monticello at the end of December, and by early January, not having received formal notice of his election, Jefferson decided to write to Tazewell, President of the Senate, to verify the election results and to inquire about the proper protocol for his notification:
"As far as the public papers are to be credited, I may suppose that the choice of Vice president has fallen on me. On this hypothesis I trouble you, and only pray, if it be wrong, that you will consider this letter as not written. I believe it belongs to the Senate to notify the V.P. of his election. I recollect to have heard that on the first election of President & Vice President gentlemen of considerable office were sent to notify the parties chosen. But this was the inauguration of our new government  & ought not to be drawn into example. At the 2nd election both gentlemen were on the spot and needed no messengers. On the present occasion the President will be on the spot, so that what is now to be done respects myself alone: and considering that the season of notification will always present one difficulty, that the distance in the present case adds a second, not inconsiderable, and may in future happen to be sometimes much more considerable, I hope the Senate will adopt that method of notification which will always be least troublesome and most certain. The channel of the post is certainly the least troublesome, is the most rapid, & considering also that it may be sent by duplicates & triplicates is unquestionably the most certain. Inclosed to the Postmaster of Charlottesville with an order to send it by express, no hazard can endanger the notification. Apprehending that, should there be a difference of opinion on this subject in the Senate, my ideas of self-respect might be supposed by some to require something more formal and inconvenient, I beg leave to avail myself of your friendship to declare, if a different proposition should make it necessary, that I consider the channel of the post office as the most eligible in every respect, & that it is to me the most desirable; which I take the liberty of expressing, not with a view of encroaching on the respect due to that discretion which the Senate have a right to exercise on the occasion, but to render them the more free in the exercise of it by taking off whatsoever weight the supposition of a contrary desire in me might have in the mind of any member. I am with sincere respect Dear Sir your friend and sevt. Th: Jefferson."
The same flaw in the electoral process which Hamilton attempted unsuccessfully to exploit in 1796 would cause severe and nearly critical disruptions in the election of 1800, when both Jefferson and Burr received the same number of electoral ballots and the election was thrown into the House. The defect was finally corrected by the 12th Amendment, passed in 1804 (see notes to lot 33).