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The Election of 1800

Summary : On December 3, 1800, the College of Electors cast their ballots for president, resulting in a tie between Jeffersonian-Republicans candidates, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr. Though they were running mates, the constitution required the election be decided by the House of Representatives. In the House, party, personal animosity, and partisanship reared its ugly head. After 36 ballots, Thomas Jefferson was named the winner and elected President of the United States, marking the first transition of power between political parties. This transition put the American experiment of self-government to the test. On Wednesday, March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was given the oath of office by Federalist Chief Justice, John Marshall, and delivered an inaugural address in which he acknowledged the challenges of political divisiveness in the nation. In this eLesson, students will analyze excerpts of Jefferson’s inaugural.

Directions: Read the excerpts for Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural and answer the questions that follow.

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye — when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Source: “Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address.” The Avalon Project. Yale Law School, 2008.

  • How does Jefferson characterize his feelings towards assuming the office of President?
  • What does Jefferson say the Constitution will provide him?
  • Jefferson says the legislature will provide him with “guidance and support” in order to, “steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked.” What vessel does he mean?
  • Jefferson calls the election a, “contest of opinion”. In your own words, what do you think he means by this?
  • Jefferson emphasizes the rule of law by saying the election has now been decided, “by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution” Why is this an important statement?
  • Finish this sentence, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail,
  • Rewrite the sentence in question 6 in your own words.
  • What does Jefferson say results from religious intolerance that could result from political intolerance?
  • Jefferson states that not all difference of opinion is a difference of principle and that, “we are all Republicans, and we are all Federalists”. What common cause is he arguing they share?
  • Jefferson concludes this excerpt by calling on individuals to show restraint and self-governance by stating, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” Why do you think Jefferson argues self-governance is important after an election?

Extension : Jefferson famously ordered James Madison not to deliver several judicial appointments made by his predecessor, John Adams, resulting in the landmark Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison. One could argue that this action calls into question Jefferson’s rhetoric in his inaugural. Others may argue that John Adams lame duck appointments did not represent the will of the people and so Jefferson was only acting to ensure the political will of the people was represented. What do you think? Did Jefferson’s action call his unifying rhetoric into question or were his actions consistent with his views of the “voice of the nation”?

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