This Day in the Law
February 17

House Elects Jefferson Over Burr as Third U.S. President (1801)

On February 17, 1801, the U.S. House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr as the third President of the United States. In fact, this election is one of the most classic presidential elections in American history – which eventually led to the passing of the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a fatal duel!

The 1801 presidential election saw a very rare occurrence – a tie. In particular, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr both received 73 electoral votes in the election. John Adams, the incumbent president, placed third with 65 votes, and Charles Pinckney received 64 votes. Pursuant to Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution the "Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President," and "after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President." However, in 1801, the U.S. Constitution did not require the presidential electors to distinguish their votes between the President and Vice-President. So, the 73 electoral votes each for Jefferson and Burr did not distinguish between whether Jefferson or Burr should be President or Vice-President.

Under the rules of the Constitution, presidential ties are sent to the House of Representatives where the representatives of each state can cast only one vote on behalf of a candidate. The winning candidate must obtain a majority of states to gain the presidency. In 1801, there were only 16 states, which meant that Jefferson or Burr needed 9 of the 16 states to claim a majority of states to win the presidency. In the first tiebreaking ballot, Jefferson won eight states, Burr won six states, and two states did not cast a vote because of deadlock.

Over the course of the next six days, the House was deadlocked and conducted 35 ballots without a winner! In particular, the two main parties at the time, the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists could not comprise on who to elect. Finally, on this day February 17, 1801, a small group of nine Federalists refrained from voting and Jefferson won on the 36th ballot and the presidency by capturing 10 out of the 16 states. Burr was then elected to the office of Vice-President with the second most electoral votes.

A few years later, in 1804, Congress passed the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that requires electors to "name in their ballots the person voted for as president, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as vice president."

Also, in 1804, Aaron Burr squared off in a duel with Alexander Hamilton – the kind where they faced each other’s back, walked a certain number of paces from each other, then quickly turned around and shot at each other (we sure don’t hear about duels like these anymore)! Hamilton, a longtime antagonist of Burr, played a key role in getting Jefferson elected as president and breaking the deadlock in the House. Burr didn’t forget Hamilton’s actions and the hostility between the two men eventually led to a duel. Burr fatally shot Hamilton and Hamilton died a day later.