Jefferson – the apostle of American freedom

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On this day (March 4) in 1801, Thomas Jefferson took an oath, administered by his distant cousin Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall, to “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States,” thus becoming the third chief executive of the young American Republic.

This inaugural was the first held in Washington, D.C., and also was the first time in U.S. history when there was a transfer of power, without violence and bloodshed, from one political party (Federalist) to another (Republican).

The Election of 1800 was one of the most confusing and contentious of the 57 presidential elections in American history. This confusion and contention was caused in part by the fact that electoral votes for president and vice president were not listed on separate ballots, which resulted in each elector (there were 138 electors and therefore 276 electoral votes cast in 1800) casting his two votes without designating them for president or vice president.

In the election of 1800, electors were selected in the 16 states between April 29 and Nov. 19. Then, on Dec. 3, electors cast their votes, usually in the state capital. Finally on Feb. 11, 1801, the electoral votes received from the various states were tabulated in the unfinished Capitol building before a joint session of Congress.

Interestingly, the sitting Vice President Thomas Jefferson, as presiding officer of the Senate, officiated over the counting of electoral votes in an election in which he was one of the two leading presidential candidates.

The final official electoral vote was Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, 73; Aaron Burr of New York,73; John Adams of Massachusetts, 65; Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, 64; and John Jay of New York, 1.

According to the Constitution, such electoral ties were to be decided by the House of Representatives, in which each state delegation would have one vote. Finally, on Feb. 17, on the 36th ballot, the House voted – 10 states for Jefferson, four for Burr, and two making no choice – to elect Jefferson president and Burr vice president.

The elections of 1800 and 1824 have been the only two that have been decided in the House of Representatives. Happily, the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1804) corrected the ambiguity and confusion of the 1800-1801 electoral voting by establishing the system still followed of providing for the separate balloting by presidential electors for president and vice president.

On this Wednesday (March 4, 1801), the 57 year old president-elect Jefferson awoke early, soaked his feet in a tub of cold water (a ritual that he had long practiced every morning “to promote good health”), and made the short walk from Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house to the Capitol to be sworn in as president and to deliver his inaugural address.

In his conciliatory address, he declared famously that, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. ... We are Republicans, we are all Federalists.” His first inaugural address became a blueprint for his largely successful two terms as president.

Jefferson later referred to the election of 1800 as “the Revolution of 1800.” However, although claiming to be an advocate of “small, non-intrusive government,” Jefferson, as chief executive, actually expanded presidential powers, as every president has since Washington.

In Jefferson’s case, It often has been asserted that he used Hamiltonian means (i.e., strong executive leadership) to achieve Jeffersonian ends (i.e., individual liberty and freedom). Whether this assertion is true or not, Thomas Jefferson now is canonized as the apostle of American freedom.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net

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