The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the fourth in the series.
Thomas Jefferson called his election "the Revolution of 1800" because it marked the first time that power in America passed from one party to another. He promised to govern as he felt the Founders intended, based on decentralized government and trust in the people to make the right decisions for themselves. Ever since, these have become known as Jeffersonian principles.
"The election confirmed the emergence of a two-party system in American politics, a development that must have seemed ironic to some Federalists and Democratic-Republicans," writes historian Thomas Connelly, "because most of them had believed with George Washington that the appearance of parties would do more harm than good. Washington commanded respect enough to engineer unanimous presidential victories in 1789 and 1792, but during the presidency of Washington's successor, John Adams, political factions began warring openly. Adams and the Federalists had led the nation into an undeclared naval war with France and in the process expressed an activist concept of government that Vice President Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans thought contradicted democratic principles."
Under Adams, there was deep public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and rising divisions. Crises multiplied. In particular, there were regular confrontations with France over the revolutionary Paris government's searching of American ships on the high seas and other abuses. At times, open conflict seemed likely.
With anti-French hysteria rising, the Federalists in Congress had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, aimed at stopping radical French influence in the United States and limiting the influence of foreign-born people who were critical of Adams' policies. The acts gave the president the right to expel or imprison any alien who was "dangerous" or "suspect" of treason—giving wide latitude to the government. The laws also authorized fines and prison terms for anyone who wrote or distributed "any false, scandalous, and malicious writings" against the government with the goal of defaming U.S. officials or bringing them "into contempt or disrepute." Jefferson opposed all this.
Different factions were increasingly at each other's throats, with Adams's policies and his abrasive personality often at the center of the disputes. In January 1798, tempers got so inflamed that Federalist Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut engaged in a fistfight on the House floor with fellow Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a vehement critic of Adams. As Griswold questioned Lyon's military record, he flailed at his adversary with a cane; Lyon counterattacked with fire tongs.
Jefferson's ascent wasn't easy. Building on the support of a Virginia-New York alliance of anti-Federalists, Jefferson defeated Adams in a highly negative campaign on all sides, but tied with Aaron Burr of New York at 73 electoral voters apiece. (Adams had 65). He was chosen president by the House of Representatives after 36 ballots. Ten states voted for Jefferson, four for Burr.
Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and steeped in the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, now had the chance to put his philosophy into action. He continued to express his trust in well-informed citizens (albeit all of them men) to govern themselves through majority rule over a few landed aristocrats. He opposed specialized federal aid as antidemocratic.
But Jefferson turned out to be more of a conciliator than his critics expected. In his inaugural address, the tall, eloquent Virginian said, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." He quickly decided to adopt some Federalist policies and some Republican ideas. "In general, he maintained a middle course between the ideas of both parties," says historian and journalist Stefan Lorant. "He was pragmatic, abandoning theories when they were in the way."
The Alien and Sedition Acts were not renewed, and unpopular taxes were repealed, rolling back major Federalist initiatives that had embittered much of the country. Jefferson also calmed war zealots who wanted to confront France, and this enabled him to limit expenditures for the military. In 1802, he acquired the vast territory of Louisiana from France, 828,000 square miles that more than doubled the land area of the United States. He also ordered the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the American West, which opened trade routes, made contact with native populations, provided extensive information about the region, and encouraged more public interest in settling the area.
In the process, Jefferson abandoned his commitment to a strict construction of the Constitution and moved toward a stronger central government. Jefferson had said he favored limiting the executive branch only to the powers specified in the Constitution. But that document was silent on acquiring more territory through purchase. Jefferson went ahead anyway, fearing that the opportunity to buy the vast Louisiana tract from Napoleon would be lost if he waited for Congress and the states to pass a constitutional amendment specifically authorizing it. Jefferson argued that, "to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws, would be to lose the law itself."
With the country peaceful and prosperous, he was re-elected easily in 1804.
More from our Most Consequential Elections series:
George Washington and the Election of 1788
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980