As our new Congress begins a long, hard fight over a new budget, political commentators ring their hands and worry that our country is too divided. The speech is too visceral. While I think there is plenty of room to argue for more civil conversations in Washington, D.C. I think its important to remember that it was on this day in 1801 that the presidential election was decided for Thomas Jefferson by the House of Representatives. The election laws were quite different at the time. Each elector in the Electoral College was allowed to cast two votes. On top of that, each political party nominated two candidates. So the election was between four men, two from each party, and the result was a tie between Jefferson and his fellow Republican Party member Aaron Burr. The tie meant that the election had to be decided in the House of Representatives.
The first vote in the House was held during a blizzard on February 11, 1801. By 3:00 a.m. the following morning, 19 roll calls had been taken, but they'd all been deadlocked. Three days later, the deadlock was still unbroken. Commentators began to worry that Congress would have to adjourn before selecting a new president, meaning that the country would be without an executive branch for several months. John Adams feared that this situation might result in civil war. Some people in Virginia said that they would secede from the Union if Jefferson didn't take the presidency. Others in the Republican Party announced that they would drive the Federalists from Congress by force if necessary.
The election was finally decided when the lone representative from Delaware chose to abstain from voting. And so, on this day in 1801, Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States. Aaron Burr became Vice President and of course is fondly remembered for mortally wounding his friend and political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel while he held that office.