The Most Consequential Elections in History: Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800

Jefferson's election confirmed the emergence of a two-party system in American politics
President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)
The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic.

Thomas Jefferson called his election "the Revolution of 1800" because it marked the first time that power in America passed from one party to another. He promised to govern as he felt the Founders intended, based on decentralized government and trust in the people to make the right decisions for themselves. Ever since, these have become known as Jeffersonian principles.

"The election confirmed the emergence of a two-party system in American politics, a development that must have seemed ironic to some Federalists and Democratic-Republicans," writes historian Thomas Connelly, "because most of them had believed with George Washington that the appearance of parties would do more harm than good. Washington commanded respect enough to engineer unanimous presidential victories in 1789 and 1792, but during the presidency of Washington's successor, John Adams, political factions began warring openly.

Adams and the Federalists had led the nation into an undeclared naval war with France and in the process expressed an activist concept of government that Vice President Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans thought contradicted democratic principles."

Under Adams, there was deep public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and rising divisions. Crises multiplied. In particular, there were regular confrontations with France over the revolutionary Paris government's searching of American ships on the high seas and other abuses. At times, open conflict seemed likely.