Divorcing Ourselves From Akhil Reed Amar (Part IV)

The following is the fourth post in a five-part series on Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar’s criticism of Thomas Jefferson. Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

My argument is rather than jettisoning Thomas Jefferson as Amar demands, we should ditch Amar, who is a darling of the Federalist Society and has no trouble persuading the “conservative” editors at NR to give him space. Amar’s popularity among Conservatism, Inc., to borrow a term from Paul Gottfried, is a symptom of why the right is content to simply follow the left and occupy the ground that the left abandons as it moves in a more radical direction. 

In this post, I deal with Amar’s assertion that Jefferson was a January Sixer whose very existence posed a danger to ordered liberty. Amar frames the matter here: “He came perilously close to urging his backers to march on Washington with guns to bully Congress into handing him the presidency in the contested election of 1800–01. (Shades of January 6!).”

To respond to this allegation, some context is required. Once George Washington retired from public service, the Federalist and Jeffersonian Republican parties wrestled for control of the national government. Serious flaws were exposed in the constitutional mechanism for choosing a president and vice president. In the 1796 election, Federalist John Adams won 71 electoral votes to Republican Thomas Jefferson’s 68. Jefferson became Adams’s vice president, and tensions mounted because the two men held irreconcilable views of constitutional construction, foreign policy, and the development of the United States.

In the following presidential election, matters became more complicated despite a bitter campaign and Federalist assertions that a vote for Jefferson was a “sin against God.” Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who was viewed by Republicans as their vice presidential candidate) tied with 73 electoral votes each. Adams received 65 electoral votes, and Charles Pinckney (viewed by the Federalists as Adams’ vice presidential candidate) received 64. (Note that presidential electors could not designate which of their two votes was for president and vice president under the original Constitution. The 12th Amendment ultimately cured this defect.) The tie between Jefferson and Burr could have been avoided had one elector voted for someone other than Burr. But electors feared that the election would be close, and Republican electors thus were understandably skittish about throwing away votes. The tie resulted in the presidential election being thrown to the House of Representatives—and this was not the newly elected House, which was solidly Republican, but the lame-duck House that had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

Federalists in the House were determined to prevent a Jefferson presidency. They therefore cast their votes for Burr to prevent Jefferson from receiving the votes of a majority of the states. A deadlock ensued for multiple votes. The tide turned when Republican Samuel Smith informed Federalist leaders that Jefferson was not inclined to dismiss Federalist civil service members for political reasons. Upon hearing that news, James Bayard, Delaware’s sole representative, urged his fellow Federalists to relent. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Federalist congressmen from Maryland and Vermont declined to vote, an act that shifted these two states toward Jefferson’s column. South Carolina and Delaware abstained, and Jefferson was elected to the presidency.

While it is true that Pennsylvania’s Governor McKean concocted a plan to march militia units on Washington, D.C., if the Federalists stole the election from Jefferson, McKean was acting alone. Jefferson’s future Treasury Secretary and confidant Albert Gallatin wrote to Virginia’s Governor James Monroe that he hoped rumors of the people picking up arms and preparing to march were untrue because “anything [like] a commotion would be fatal to us.” In other words, Jefferson and his inner circle realized that if hotheads undertook violent measures, this would hurt the Republican cause and likely end all arguments that the House should elect Jefferson to the presidency. Jefferson did not resort to violence but gave in to Federalist extortion and promised he would not fire all Federalist members of the civil service.

Although Amar desires to paint Jefferson as the Q-Anon Shaman, nothing could be further from the truth. Amar’s kindred spirits—rather than yield to the voice of the people—extorted a deal to preserve the Federalist deep state in exchange for ratifying the sentiments of the people and their electors. If anyone should be castigated for their conduct in the 1800 election, it should be the Federalists in the House and not Thomas Jefferson.

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty, Reclaiming the American Revolution, and Patent Trolls.
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