GLENN: In recent years, America has had its share of memorable elections, but what our country has gone through recently in 2016 is not completely unique.
The ink was barely dry on the Constitution before the nation was embroiled in one of the craziest elections of all time. It was the presidential election of 1800.
The first two American presidential elections might have been the smoothest transitions of power in world history. Nothing had been done like this before. There was so much unanimity among Americans as to who should lead the country, that George Washington was elected unanimously to office two times.
In 1796, Washington's vice president John Adams seemed the logical choice to succeed him. And despite some challenge from others, Adams became the second man to serve as second president of the United States. But just when it appeared that electing Founding Fathers to the highest office in the land would be easy, as easy as powdering a wig, Thomas Jefferson decided to oppose Adams and try to stop his reelection.
Jefferson and Adams had in the past been very, very close friends, as well as president and vice president during the previous four years. But as the dawn of the 19th century loomed, huge disagreements began between the two of them, and it began to boil over. One of the biggest areas of contention between the two friends was Adams' support for and signing of the Alien and Sedition Act. It was an act that essentially allowed government to put anybody who spoke out against them in prison.
Oh, I'm glad that's gone.
The act was absolutely un-American and unconstitutional. And Jefferson was not about to let this stand.
Bernard Weisberger, he's the author of American of Fire, talked about Adams' support of this controversial act.
VOICE: John Adams' defense of signing the Sedition Act, by the way, which he knew was a pretty harsh measure --
VOICE: Which put journalists in jail for criticizing the president.
VOICE: Which put journalists in jail for criticizing the president.
John Adams said there was a real threat of riot and revolution in the streets, that -- of mob rule.
And, you know, he was thinking, as they all were thinking of what was going on in France at the time, where a revolution had taken place that established a constitutional monarchy and that had degenerated into a bloody slaughterhouse with people killing each other and executing each other.
GLENN: The political divide had begun. And so after Washington's warning to Americans about the painful effects of the spirit of the party kicked into full gear.
VOICE: The Jeffersonian party is the first party to recognize that it has to regard party behavior seriously and mobilize voters at the state level. And to regard the election as a kind of contest in which, what we would now regard as modern political organizing is necessary.
The Federalists don't understand that. The Federalists think that they just have to present their candidates, and the people will naturally gravitate towards them. Federalists remained more deferential and more classic in their notions of what politics is supposed to be.
GLENN: At Yale, which is hard to believe now, was founded by Puritans, and in the 1800s was a religious college run by clergy, the president of the university warned during a sermon about the horrors of a potential Thomas Jefferson president.
VOICE: The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciplines of Voltaire and the dragoons of Marat. Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of distress. The soil will be soaked with blood. The nation, black with crimes.
GLENN: This was from the clergy. In an age where negative ads are commonplace to us and every election is called the nastiest ever, the election of 1800 may have actually been the nastiest ever. And the political ads were happening in the center of churches.
Reason TV did a series of mock campaign commercials in the style of today that accentuate the tone of the election of 1800. Now, these are real attacks in their actual words from Jefferson and Adams and their surrogates.
VOICE: John Adams is a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who wants to start a war with France. While he's not busy importing mistresses from Europe, he's trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George. Haven't we had enough monarchy in America?
VOICE: I'm Thomas Jefferson, and I approve this message because John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness or sensibility of a woman.
VOICE: If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced. The air will be rent with the cries of the distressed. The soil will be soaked with blood. And the nation, black with crimes. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames? Female chastity violated? Children writhing on a pike?
VOICE: I'm John Adams, and I approve this message because Jefferson is the son of a half-breed Indian squaw raised on hoecakes. And Hamilton is a Creole bastard brat of a Scot spindler.
GLENN: It was so bad that Adams even tried to circulate the rumor that Jefferson had died. In the end, John Adams, the sitting president didn't even finish in the top two. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in electoral votes with 73 a piece. So the decision, mandated by the Constitution, in the event of a tie, wound up in the House of Representatives. So over the course of a week, in February of 1801, the House voted 35 times, still unable to break the time.
Nine states were needed to win, but Jefferson and Burr kept winding up with eight. Alexander Hamilton who was a Federalist disliked Jefferson, but hated Aaron Burr. Sound familiar? He worked hard behind the scenes to swing the vote Jefferson's way. His message to his fellow Federalists was, Jefferson by far, not so dangerous a man as Aaron Burr. He told them that he would much rather have someone with wrong principles than someone devoid of any.
Well, it worked. Enough congressmen were convinced of burr's unsuitability for office, that Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States on the 36th ballot. Aaron Burr, the second place finisher, became Jefferson's vice president. It was the very first transfer of power from one party to another. And while it certainly was contentious, it wasn't bloody. That was historic in those days. But it didn't last long.
Four years later, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a duel in New Jersey over lingering political animosity. John Adams refused to attend Thomas Jefferson's inauguration, and the two men became really bitter enemies. The healing in their relationship wouldn't begin until 1812, when they began writing letters to each other once again. They reconciled and wrote to each other as friends until their deaths, famously on the same day, July 4th, 1826. That was exactly 50 years to the day of the American independence.
Only one other time in American history has a presidential election been decided by the House of Representatives. And that second time happened in 1824. There were four candidates vying for the job. But the top two candidates were John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams. He was a war hero. And then Andrew Jackson, who had risen to fame during the war of 1812, when he was sent to New Orleans to head off the British invasion force there.
Jackson had gathered together a ragtag group of volunteers from Tennessee and Kentucky, along with some militia men to fight off the invading British regulars, fresh from their victory in Europe over Napolean. While Jackson managed to put together 4500 men to face 8,000 British troops trying to gain control of the Mississippi River via New Orleans -- while using some ingenuity and brilliant strategy, in a battle that was over in just 30 minutes, Jackson and his men killed 2,000 of the British, while losing only 100 of the American troops.
So when the votes were counted...
VOICE: The Washington establishment was stunned to discover that Andrew Jackson had won the most popular and electoral votes. But with four men dividing up the electoral vote, Jackson did not win a majority. And the election was thrown into the House of Representatives.
Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, had finished last and was out of the running. But he had enough support to play kingmaker. Clay believed with all of his heart that Andrew Jackson was unfit to be president. So he threw his support to John Quincy Adams. And with it, Adams was elected president.
Adams then immediately offered Clay the job of Secretary of State.
GLENN: Many say that Adams offered the position of Secretary of State before he won and that there was a corrupt bargain struck between the two. Clay's position: In exchange for his electoral votes. We'll never know for certain. The one thing we do know for sure is that Andrew Jackson, having won the vote, but lost the election, was lived. He campaigned over the next four years on the corrupt bargain theory. And, of course, won the rematch with Adams in 1828. And the Indians began to weep.
The all-important and wild election of 1860 in the next episode.