Delaware Public Archives to present program on controversial election in which Delawarean James Bayard II played a pivotal role.
With the nation in the midst of celebrating its 237th birthday, it's only natural to take a look back to see how what we are now has been shaped by events in the past.
One of those history-defining events was the election of 1800, only the fourth in the history of the young United States but inarguably one of the most contentious.
Most Americans know Thomas Jefferson won that contest, but few realize Jefferson came out on top because of the actions of James A. Bayard II, Delaware's lone member of the House of Representatives.
What Bayard did – or didn't do – to assure Jefferson's victory still is the subject of debate and will be one of the topics discussed during a program about Bayard planned for this Saturday at the Delaware Public Archives
The discussion, "The Presidential Election of 1800: A Delawarean Makes a Difference," is presented by Dr. Cynthia Newton, associate professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover.
Still pertinent, still germane
Even though it took place more than 210 years ago, the 1800 contest still is relevant today, Newton said.
"Americans tend to have a very short view of history, particularly in politics," Newton said.
"We don't seem to realize that we have the same debates and the same arguments over and over and over again," she said, "and don't realize what has happened over the past 200-plus years of American history and politics to get us where we are now."
The election exposed major flaws in the Electoral College as set up in the original Constitution, Newton said. It also gave rise to the modern concept of political parties, a feature deliberately omitted from the Constitution because the Founding Fathers feared the extreme partisanship they would engender, she said.
"The people of that era were trying to figure out how they stayed loyal to their ideology and their party, but also were torn between regional and national interests," Newton said.
That brought up the Delaware connection and the conundrum Bayard faced: should he work with Delaware's interests in mind, which among other things favored the Federalist view of a strong central government, or should he work toward his Democratic-Republican Party's vision of a smaller, less powerful central government?
The historic contest was a four-way race between two Federalists, incumbent President John Adams and Charles Pinckney and two Democratic-Republicans, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
At the time there was no concept of a running mate, so each man was vying for the presidency itself; under the Constitution, whoever received the highest number of electoral votes became president. The runner-up ascended to the vice presidency.
The problem arose when Jefferson and Burr outpolled Adams and Pinckney, eliminating them from the race.
But Jefferson and Burr each received an equal number of electoral votes, thus tossing the election to the House, where each of the then-16 state delegations would cast a single ballot to decide the contest. After a week of voting involving 35 ballots, the issue still was unresolved.
That's when Bayard came into the picture.
"One of the big allegations was that Bayard had made a deal, that Jefferson had agreed to certain conditions in exchange for his support," Newton said.
"Jefferson maintained until his death that he had done no such thing, but Bayard maintained that he did," she said.
Bayard's actions, which Newton will reveal in detail, changed the course of the nation, resulted in revisions to the Constitution and still affect his descendents today.