The Antecedent #3: A Compromised Position



In 1787 members of the Continental Congress met to find a replacement for the failing Articles of Confederation. Continuing under the Articles of Confederation wasn’t an option: the new nation (really an association of autonomous units more than a nation) faced bankruptcy, sectional conflict and the constant threat of war from European powers.

Under the old system, all states were represented equally in the Continental Congress. Rhode Island and Delaware (the two least populous states) had as many representatives as Massachusetts and Virginia (the two most populous states). Unwilling to subjugate their needs to a minority in government (particularly when it came to “that peculiar institution;” a popular euphemism for slavery) the large states wanted representation based upon population; and given the discrepancy in eligible voters (read: white, male, land-owners) between North and South some sort of compensation for the slave population.

In the end, the legislative branch of the government was split in two, with one half apportioned equally and the other based upon population. Fearing that the North’s larger population of eligible voters would cause sectional imbalance, the southern states lobbied for slaves to count towards representation in the Legislative Branch. Needing the southern states for successful ratification, a compromise was written into the Constitution: 3/5 of the slave population would be counted towards taxes and representation. This “Federal Ratio” is commonly referred to as the 3/5th Compromise.

One of the most peculiar aspects of the political system of the United States is no doubt the Electoral College. Even today, casting a ballot for a particular candidate in the presidential election isn’t really a vote for the executive. The president is chosen based upon “electoral votes.” In today’s system, these votes are apportioned by popular vote (on a state by state basis); in early American elections, this wasn’t the case.

In the 1800 election between Republican Thomas Jefferson and Federalist John Adams only 5 of the 16 states apportioned electoral votes based by popular election. The majority of states instead had their electoral votes assigned by the majority party in the state legislature (in some cases on a district by district basis, but largely as a whole). If for example, the Federalist Party had the legislative majority in the state of Massachusetts (as they did in 1800) the legislature could choose to assign their votes to whomever they saw fit (read: their party), as long as one of their two choices were from out of state (until the 12th amendment, two votes were cast for president. See below.).

The 3/5th Compromise in 1800 had a direct impact on the executive branch of the government. By giving the slave states a legislative/electoral bonus (and the slave states largely voted Republican) states with a vested interest in continuing the institution of slavery were given control of two thirds of the government.

Before the 12th Amendment, one didn’t vote for a Vice-President; instead electors cast two votes for President. The person with the most votes became President; the one with the second highest total of electoral votes became Vice-President. In the case of a tie, the Presidency would be decided in the House of Representatives. This was the case in the 1800 election; Thomas Jefferson [the de facto choice for President] and Aaron Burr [the choice for Vice-President] both received 79 electoral votes. The decision was sent to the House of Representatives. This resulted in a legislative deadlock that lasted from November until March. Eventually Thomas Jefferson prevailed (after months of behind the scenes political maneuverings by Republicans and Federalists). In 1804, the Constitution was amended to create political tickets, with electors voting for both President and Vice-President with a single ballot.

“We are all republicans; we are all federalists” is a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural speech.

The 1800 election cast the Federalists from power. Political shenanigans divided the party in two: the High Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and the moderate Federalists of John Adams; it never again surfaced as a national force, instead limited to local office in the North. Jefferson and his Republicans immediately swept the Federalists from positions of power by appointment or in the case of the judiciary, through impeachment.

In only three years, the Federalists went from the peak of their power (which they abused in the ugly Alien and Sedition Acts) to their almost total annihilation. The mercantile and abolitionist interests that they represented were now a minority, subjugated to the interests of the agricultural slave-holding states.

Timothy Pickering, a senator from Massachusetts and a member of the Hamilton wing of the Federalist party, served as Secretary of State under both Presidents Washington and Adams. He’d been cast from the cabinet of President John Adams when it was discovered that his interests lay more with Alexander Hamilton than John Adams. Of the Federalists still in power, Pickering was one of the most vocal opponent of slavery. Convinced that the Federal Ratio prevented an insurmountable obstacle for the Federalists and the cause of Abolition, he briefly flirted with the idea of secession. Later historian Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) placed him at the head of a sinister cabal called The Essex Junto: a group of New England politicians who supposedly plotted to use the rhetoric of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to leave the Union.

According to popular 19th century legend, The Essex Junto hoped to create a new country consisting of New England, New York and Canadian territory liberated from England. Instrumental in this plot was Aaron Burr, the Vice-President for Thomas Jefferson’s first term in office. Burr had alienated himself from the majority of the Republican party by refusing to step down when he and Jefferson tied in the Electoral College in the 1800 election. Federalists hoped to persuade Burr to defect to the cause of secession, bringing the state of New York with him.

In July of 1804, Vice-President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton squared off in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. They had a long standing feud stemming from a series of ugly political confrontations over the course of their political careers. By 1804, both men had fallen from grace in Washington: Aaron Burr was persona non grata for his role in the 1800 electoral quagmire; Alexander Hamilton’s acerbic pen and his infamous extra-marital affair made him a target of both Federalists and Republicans. More than just an affair of honor, their duel at Weehawken was an attempt to resurrect dying political careers.

By July of 1804, Alexander Hamilton was aware of Timothy Pickering’s supposed plot for secession, and Aaron Burr’s role in it. Though he was perhaps at the most extreme pole of the Federalist party, Hamilton wouldn’t hear talk of disunion. To Hamilton, the Union was everything. Some have tried to frame the duel as a battle to save the Union.


Mostly they just really hated each other.

Though it still makes for a nice metaphor.

“This is a mortal wound:” the first words spoken by Alexander Hamilton after being shot by Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton died a day after the duel.

Aaron Burr was eventually replaced as Vice-President in the 1804 election by George Clinton (of Parliament Funkadelic fame).

No, not really.

Bryant Paul Johnson

Bryant Paul Johnson was born in Boston, grew up on Cape Cod, educated in Montreal and now lives in Northampton.

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