Long Tom Tweets: Perhaps the storm is over

Jefferson's controversial election of 1800

Here’s the context behind Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “perhaps the storm is over, and we are in port”.

The comment originated in a letter to Samuel Adams, preserved in the National Archives, just after Jefferson took office as president. It’s short enough that I’ll share the whole thing at the end of this post.

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The presidential election of 1800 was every bit as contentious as our current vote, and with a great deal at stake.  The Framers understood that factions would arise and designed the constitution with institutions that could check expected public passions inherent to political discourse.

The Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties emerged in the early years following the ratification of the Constitution.  By the 1800 election, Federalists had occupied the presidency for 12 years, first with President Washington and then followed for a term by John Adams.  Additionally both chambers of Congress had also been controlled by the Federalists party coming into the presidential election cycle.  At stake was whether the new republic could navigate a peaceful transition of power.

President Adam’s term was marked by dissension.  The Adams and Hamilton wings of the Federalist Party were split concerning negotiations to end hostiles with France over their attacks on American merchant vessels at sea.  The more extreme Federalists were beating the war drums fixing for a fight with France.  Adams was in favor of finding a peaceful solution.   Congress fearing a French threat to the fledgling United States passed legislation that provided government powers to curb citizen protest, deport immigrants, and increase residency requirements for immigrant voting.  The Democratic - Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson were united against the Adams administration and in opposition of the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Jefferson felt that these acts were more centered on squelching domestic political opposition than to address foreign matters.

The election results were incredibly close.  Jefferson and Burr received 73 electoral votes and Adams 65.  The Democratic - Republican Party intention was that Jefferson would head the ticket and Burr be elected vice president.  At that time there was no differentiation between “tickets” in Electoral College voting; the second place candidate became Vice President until the 12th Amendment did away with that poor joke. In 1800, the tie needed to be resolved in Congress by the lame duck and Federalist control House.  You can imagine that every kind of backroom deal was in play.  It should remind us of what is happening in our current election cycle.  On the menu was an outright deal with Jefferson or even Burr.  There were threats of insurrection by both parties.  Federalists hinted at plans to delay the cogs of the Electoral College for months.  Schemes surfaced to invalidate or change elector slates and deals made to persuade (“strong arm”) state electoral votes.

In the end, the Delaware delegation of a single electoral vote abstained on the 36th ballot granted Jefferson a majority and victory.  Evidence exists that Jefferson pulled the trigger on a deal.

The Smithsonian Magazine aptly summarized in the following statement what Jefferson meant by being safe in port.

In the days that followed the House battle, Jefferson wrote letters to several surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence to explain what he believed his election had meant. It guaranteed the triumph of the American Revolution, he said, ensuring the realization of the new “chapter in the history of man” that had been promised by Thomas Paine in 1776. In the years that followed, his thoughts often returned to the election’s significance. In 1819, at age 76, he would characterize it as the “revolution of 1800,” and he rejoiced to a friend in Virginia, Spencer Roane, that it had been effected peacefully “by the rational and peaceful instruments of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

That’s the story behind Jefferson’s comment that “the storm is over and we are in port.” And, as promised, here’s the letter to Adams.

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From Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams, 29 March 1801

To Samuel Adams

Washington Mar. 29. 1801

I addressed a letter to you, my very dear & antient friend, on the 4th. of March: not indeed to you by name, but through the medium of some of my fellow citizens, whom occasion called on me to address. in meditating the matter of that address, I often asked myself, is this exactly in the spirit of the patriarch of liberty, Samuel Adams? is it as he would express it? will he approve of it? I have felt a great deal for our country in the times we have seen: but individually for no one so much as yourself. when I have been told that you were avoided, insulated, frowned on, I could but ejaculate ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ I confess I felt an indignation for you, which for myself I have been able under every trial to keep entirely passive. however, the storm is over, and we are in port. the ship was not rigged for the service she was put on. we will shew the smoothness of her motions on her republican tack. I hope we shall once more see harmony restored among our citizens, & an entire oblivion of past feuds. some of the leaders who have most committed themselves cannot come into this. but I hope the great body of our fellow citizens will do it. I will sacrifice every thing but principle to procure it. a few examples of justice on officers who have perverted their functions to the oppression of their fellow citizens, must, in justice to those citizens, be made. but opinion, & the just maintenance of it shall never be a crime in my view; nor bring injury on the individual. those whose misconduct in office ought to have produced their removal even by my predecessor, must not be protected by the delicacy due only to honest men.—how much I lament that time has1 deprived us of your aid: it would have been a day of glory which should have called you to the first office of the administration. but give us your counsel my friend, and give us your blessing: and be assured that there exists not in the heart of man a more faithful esteem than mine to you, & that I shall ever bear you the most affectionate veneration & respect.

Th: Jefferson