In a shocking turn, Aaron Burr was elected as the third President of the United States instead of Democratic-Republican Party leader and former vice-president Thomas Jefferson. The election was expected to be a monumental one as the Federalists, who had reigned in American politics since the days of Washington, had become exhausted in public opinion during the term of second president John Adams. When Washington had resigned rather than seeking a third term in 1796, the two parties had fought a bitter campaign with Adams narrowly winning. They favored centralization of power and improved terms with Britain, but taxation in the Quasi-War with France as well as the unpopularity of the Alien and Sedition Acts drove voter-support toward the Republicans. Further, the Federalists became divided between Adams’ legal mindedness and the belief of Alexander Hamilton’s “High Federalists” that a heavy hand was needed for a strong America.
During the election itself, both sides worked to ensure winning the maximum number of votes in whatever manner possible. Popular election was replaced with electors chosen by the state legislature in Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Virginia removed its practice of election by district to voting as a whole, ironically removing some of the Jeffersonian ideal of de-centralization to assure it would be seen on the national level. Further plans took place among the electors themselves. At the time of election, each elector put forth two votes, and the one with highest vote became president while the runner-up became vice-president. The Federalists put into effect a plan where one elector would vote for John Jay, thus establishing a firm choice for Adams as president with Pinckney as vice-president. The Democratic-Republicans intended to make a similar action, but the plan never materialized.
When Burr caught wind of the idea, however, he determined to use it. Anthony Lispenard, a New York faithless elector had determined to vote for Burr twice, and Burr suggested he simply cast his second vote for someone else, thus giving Burr a head start if he and Jefferson did, in fact, otherwise tie. The gamble paid off as Lispenard voted for Madison in secret ballot, giving Burr the election with 73 votes and Jefferson again serving as vice-president with 72. Jefferson was furious, and the matter arose of the improper form of the Georgia ballot results with demand for a recount. The decision was finally put to rest when the Supreme Court received the proper documentation from the Georgia electors, and Chief Justice John Marshall (himself in office for only 17 days) proclaimed Aaron Burr rightful president.
Burr’s term in office started by clearing the Federalist acts, clarifying election issues with the Twelfth Amendment, and the landmark Marbury v. Madison, in which the Marshall court established the principle of Judicial Review. Also in 1803, Burr presided over the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States and opening huge areas to settlement beyond Ohio. Burr, however, felt that war with Spain was eminent, and he was glad to have established the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. Under the authorities granted by Congress to fight the Barbary War, Burr greatly expanded his Navy and especially Marines and refused the first offer of treaty on payment of $60,000 to protect American shipping. He also worked to ensure his re-election, winning over much of Jefferson and Madison’s camp while diminishing the waning power of Hamilton with use of his own Sedition Act. Burr was reelected with a begrudged Madison as his new vice-president.
In early 1808, war began with Spain, guaranteeing Burr an unprecedented third term as commander-in-chief during a crisis. Although there were tensions with Britain or France to defend American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars, Burr had picked a fight with Spain after ordering American troops into Florida in pursuit of Seminoles who had attacked Florida. The Spanish homeland was in disarray as Napoleon worked to conquer his former ally, and American victory came easily. Burr expanded westward in 1810 as Baton Rogue requested US protection. Britain, meanwhile, was in a difficult position of to defend its ally at home or abroad, and finally peace was brought about in 1812 as part of Burr’s campaigning for a fourth election with the Treaty of Veracruz, which defended American ships abroad as well as seizing the Spanish territories of Florida as well as Tejas. While land-hungry settlers applauded, the expansion would cause violent turmoil over the question of the expansion of slavery only twenty years later.
Many believed that Burr’s continued naval build-up despite the treaty would become a push to conquer British colonies in the Caribbean, and calls of conspiracy arose. Burr’s plans were upset by the election of fellow New Yorker DeWitt Clinton under a reformed moderate Federalist party. Politics forced Burr into retirement, and he lived out his days as one of the most famous and infamous early American presidents.
In reality, Jefferson won the Election of 1800. Lispenard voted for Burr twice, which was illegal and translated into a vote for Burr and one for Jefferson. Jefferson and Burr tied, and campaigning by Hamilton gave Jefferson the presidency. Hamilton would upset Burr again as the latter ran for governor of New York, and Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Afterward, Burr fled to unsettled territory with arms in expectation of war with Spain and was eventually brought to trial for treason, left for Europe, and finally returned to law practice in New York, where he died in 1836.