Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How the Twelfth Amendment might have saved Alexander Hamilton's life!

Tomorrow, February 17, will be the 209th anniversary of the tie-breaking decision in the election of 1800, between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. This election, only the fourth in America’s history, had far reaching outcomes and ultimately changed the way elections in our country work.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams for the Presidency. According to the original version of Article II of the Constitution, whoever got the most number of votes in the Electoral College became president, while whoever came in second became vice president. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did so in the hope that America would not have political parties. But parties formed anyway, the first two being the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists.

This “first party system” caused electoral problems in 1796 when John Adams, a Federalist, became president, and Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, became his vice president. The two clashed over how they thought the country should be run. In 1800, Jefferson ran against Adams and hoped to secure Aaron Burr, also a Democratic-Republican, as his vice president. When the Electoral College casts its votes, however, there was a tie between Jefferson and Burr.

Do you students know what happens when there is a tie among candidates in the Electoral College? Have your students read Article II, section 1 of the Constitution, which stipulates that in the event of a tie, the House of Representatives decides who will be president.

But back to the election of 1800 – after much debate and struggle, and ironically with the help of his longtime nemesis Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was elected president by the House of Representatives, with Burr becoming vice president. The first vote in the House of Representatives was held on February 17, 1801.

The 1800 election testified to the fact that political parties were to be a feature of American politics despite the Founders’ wishes. In the wake of the contentious election, there was a movement to adjust the Constitution to take account of this reality. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified on June 15, 1804, stipulated that the Electoral College would cast separate ballots for the president and vice president, thus making a tie between candidates much less likely.

Another outcome of this important election was to ignite enmity between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, which ultimately resulted in the duel between the two men on July 11, 1804, in which Burr shot and killed Hamilton, less that a month after the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment. Had the Twelfth Amendment’s language been part of the original Constitution, might this duel have been avoided?

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