Broadway’s Hamilton and the Twelfth Amendment

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, at a table with other founding fathers, competed in the contested 1800 election

Hamilton … Lin Manuel Miranda’s celebrated musical retelling of the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton … enjoyed a sold-out run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater last month. Having been lucky enough to see the original production on Broadway six years ago, I was pleased by this touring company’s fantastic production. And I was reminded that controversial presidential elections are nothing new in the United States of America.

In 1796, George Washington helped cement his legacy as “Father of His Country” by declining to seek a third term as president (which the Constitution permitted until passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1951). With the larger-than-life Washington off the political stage, partisan politics took hold in the United States. Vice-President John Adams, a Federalist, won 71 electoral college votes in that year’s election, narrowly defeating Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Republican candidate, who garnered 68 electoral college votes and, under the rules of the day, became Adams’ vice-president.

Four years later, the two political parties geared-up for a rematch between the same candidates. This time, the Democratic Republicans advanced a ticket with Jefferson at the head and Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr as the vice-presidential candidate. President Adams enlisted Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina as his running-mate, hoping to court southern voters. Far from the “landslide” described by Miranda’s lyrics, Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans slipped by the Federalists with 73 electoral college votes to the Federalists’ 65 votes.

The real drama ensued when the victors realized that, having run as a slate, Jefferson and Burr received equal votes for president. The opportunistic Burr refused to stand aside, thereby sending the tiebreaker to the Federalist controlled House of Representatives under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. Jefferson found himself seeking aid first from Adams (who declined) and then from Hamilton. (In Miranda’s words, “It might be nice to have Hamilton on your side.”) Although Hamilton did not decide the question as the musical implies, he did throw his support to Jefferson, who ultimately prevailed after 36 ballots in the House.

Party politics aside, Congress recognized the constitutional flaw that allowed Burr to challenge Jefferson. The 12th Amendment, passed in 1804, amended the Constitution to require separate electoral college voting for the offices of president and vice-president. Jefferson won re-election in 1804, and his successors in the Democratic Republican party controlled the White House until 1828. Burr famously killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804, dooming both men’s political aspirations.

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