3-Minute Civics: Reflecting on the election of 1800 and John Adams’ precedent

July 28, 2022 5:35 am

John Adams could have set himself as a major actor in the political drama that was unfolding in Congress during the early months of 1801. (Source:

This summer, much of the nation’s attention has been focused on the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 coup. The coup, inspired by Donald Trump’s unwillingness to accept the results of the 2020 election, was an attempt to disrupt Congress’ certification of the Electoral College’s votes. With political tension at a high as campaigning for November’s midterm elections is now underway, it may be beneficial for Americans to look for some historical perspective: I turn to the presidential election of 1800 and the actions of John Adams.

The election of 1800 was popularized by Broadway’s “Hamilton,” and many Americans are familiar with the basic plot of this political crisis that threatened the life of America’s fledgling democracy. President Adams ran for a second term and lost against incumbent vice president and political rival Thomas Jefferson, but not until an Electoral College tie would force the House of Representative to decide between Jefferson and “running mate” Aaron Burr. 

The tie between Jefferson and Burr deservedly draws attention as it was the first constitutional crisis centered on a presidential election. However, as members of the House struggled to decide between Jefferson and Burr, finally choosing Jefferson on the 36th ballot after a week of tense politicking that threatened to pull the union apart, the nation’s outgoing president was setting his own precedent that would guide the nation for generations to come.

As told by David McCullough in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the second president: “Adams, who could have applied influence behind the scenes, refused to say or do anything. Firm in his belief in the separation of powers, he saw it as a question for the legislature in which he, as President, had no business and he would stay far from it.” 

Adams could have set himself as a major actor in the political drama that was unfolding in Congress during the early months of 1801 – Jefferson had even asked him to intervene in Congress’ deadlock. He could have rejected the election results outright, as many states still had some very undemocratic methods for choosing their electors. But instead, he chose to conclude his unfinished business as president, including his controversial appointment of several federal judges, and he made plans for his retirement back in Quincy, Massachusetts. For the first time in American history, a sitting president peacefully handed power to an opposing political party he knew would move the country in a different direction, and he went home.  

Adams didn’t even have interest in engaging in legal affairs from his Old House at Peace field. When former partner William Tudor asked Adams to reunite in a law practice, Adams replied, “I must be farmer John of Stoneyfield and nothing more (I hope nothing less) for the rest of my life.” By design, Adams left the spotlight to Jefferson, Burr, and Hamilton; he knew it was time to move on. 

McCullough tells how Adams, as hurt as he was by his political defeat and all the personal attacks that had been launched against him by his one-time friend and fellow revolutionary, even hosted Jefferson at the executive mansion for dinner or tea on several occasions after Adams learned of his defeat.  

In a Jan. 16, 1811, letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson recalls how Adams, after hearing of his impending defeat, came to Jefferson: “Well, I understand that you are to beat me in this contest, and I will only say that I will be as faithful a subject as any you will have.” There is no evidence to suggest that Adams ever deviated from Jefferson’s account.  

Several U.S. presidents since Adams have lost their bid for re-election. Some tried again a third time with varying levels of success – Martin Van Buren unsuccessfully sought re-election in 1848 representing the Free Soil Party after losing as the Democratic incumbent in 1840, and Grover Cleveland famously came back to win the presidency in 1892 after losing his 1888 re-election bid. Presidential elections in 1824, 1876, and 2000 all had disputed results. But just like Adams, the losing side in each of these contests put their faith in the Constitution, they put their trust in the people, and they put their confidence in Congress to certify the Electoral College’s votes.

On Jan. 20, 1993, defeated incumbent president George H. W. Bush left a note in the Oval Office for the man who was replacing him that day, Bill Clinton. As part of the letter, Bush wrote words that echoed the sentiment of the second president: “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” Just as Adams had done 192 years earlier, Bush, who had just gone through a campaign full of blistering attacks, put his ego aside and put his country first. He instilled Americans with faith in our democracy and a belief that no matter what politics divide us, we are all Americans and we all benefit from a successful nation.

Times have obviously changed, but the lessons that Adams provides us are clear. As this fall’s election season heats up, let us look to public servants who are humble, willing to serve their country when they are called, and more importantly, willing to go home when their time is done, all the while “rooting hard” for our country’s success.

Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.

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Jeff Frenkiewich
Jeff Frenkiewich

Jeff Frenkiewich is a teacher at Milford Middle School and adjunct professor of education at UNH. His views are his own and do not represent Milford School District or the University of New Hampshire.