Donald Trump and the Election of 1800

Many have drawn parallels between Donald Trump and Aaron Burr, who Alexander Hamilton described as ‘one of the most unprincipled men in the United States’. But a more useful, if surprising, comparison might be drawn with Thomas Jefferson.

Rhys Jones | Published in 19 Oct 2016

Aaron Burr

‘He’s not very forthcoming on any particular stances,’ says Thomas Jefferson. ‘Ask him a question: it glances off, he obfuscates, he dances,’ replies James Madison. In these lines, from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, the pair of rapping Founding Fathers discuss the presidential bid of Aaron Burr, a New England businessman, who, in the election of 1800, came within striking distance of the top job. Unscrupulous and unprincipled, Burr has been compared to Donald Trump. While both have proved adept at dodging questions and dancing around the truth, the similarities are only superficial. In reality, Trump owes a great deal more to the eventual winner of that election: Jefferson.

Comparing the campaigns of 2016 and 1800 throws up some surprising parallels. The election of 1800 was marred by political intrigue and accusations of malpractice: the Governor of Virginia, James Monroe, openly wondered whether the result might be stolen by a faction of conspirators. The partisan mudslinging, meanwhile, focused upon the ‘temperament’ of the candidates. John Adams, the sitting president and leader of the Federalist party, was disqualified by his Democratic-Republican party opponents for apparently possessing ‘an ungovernable temper’. In return, Federalists spread rumours that the Democratic-Republican candidate, Jefferson, suffered from chronic illnesses and had recently died. As the results came in, Jefferson and Burr found themselves tied for electoral college votes, which meant that the final decision had to be turned over to the House of Representatives, a body overwhelmingly hostile to Jefferson. It suddenly became possible that the peaceful, democratic handover of power would descend into violence. ‘A civil war was expected’, Adams later wrote. The Federalists in the House were confronted with a quandary: should they vote for their ideological nemesis Jefferson or for the deviously unprincipled Burr? They turned for guidance to Alexander Hamilton.

Like his musical incarnation, the real-life Hamilton also reviled Burr, describing him as ‘one of the most unprincipled men in the United States’, ‘a profligate, a voluptuary’, who played upon ‘the weak sides of human nature’ and manipulated ‘the passions of all with whom he has intercourse’. If Hamilton was ambivalent about supporting Jefferson, today many Republicans also wonder whether they can bring themselves to back Hillary Clinton. During the deadlock, many Federalist congressmen tried to rationalise a vote for Burr by claiming that he would shake up the system. Fisher Ames, a delegate from Massachusetts, consoled himself with the thought that Burr ‘might impart vigour to the country’. The embattled chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, recently excused Trump’s manifold flaws by arguing that only he could ‘bring an earthquake to Washington’. Hamilton eventually swung his support behind Jefferson, breaking the stalemate. His reason was simple: ‘the appointment of Burr as president would disgrace our country abroad’. Hamilton might as well have been describing Trump.

During the 2016 presidential election many column inches have been dedicated to making sense of Trump’s bid for the Whitehouse. The hunt for historical comparison repeatedly throws up one candidate: Aaron Burr. In July, the Easy Bay Times in California wondered why the Republican Party had chosen ‘to nominate the most reprehensible candidate since Aaron Burr’. The Baltimore Sun agreed, contending that, ‘with the possible exception of Aaron Burr, there has never been a more unqualified and dangerous candidate of a major party for the presidency of the United States’. It seems that Trump is not an unfathomable political aberration at all: he is simply Burr incarnate.

There are certainly similarities. Burr was a narcissist and skilled self-promoter, whose addiction to adulation outweighed any consideration of political principle. ‘Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself’, observed Hamilton. Burr also saw the pursuit of profit and the practice of politics as interchangeable. A quirk of the electoral college rules meant that the second place candidate was automatically appointed as vice president. In 1804, Burr used his position and power to conspire in a putative secessionist movement in New England; in 1806, he tried again, this time leading a group of adventurers into the American south-west to found an independent country on Mexican territory. Jefferson indicted him for treason, a charge that followed Burr into exile in 1811. It is widely alleged that if Trump also fails in his presidential bid he has post-election plans to launch a cable news network – Trump TV – to capitalise upon his success at manipulating the press corp. For Burr and Trump alike, defeat may simply be the launch pad for future money-making schemes.

It is here, however, that the parallels begin to break down. While Burr possessed progressive views on women’s rights and admired the works of Mary Wollstonecraft – even hanging a portrait of the feminist author above his mantlepiece – Trump’s attitudes towards women would not have seemed out of place in the 18th-century taverns of Philadelphia. And whereas Burr eventually killed his political nemesis, Hamilton, in a duel in 1804, we can be thankful that Trump has only obliquely called for the assassination of his own opponent. If we move beyond the outsized personality and look towards Trump’s ‘principles’ (bear with me here), the comparison with 1800 flips: in fact, Trump shares less with Burr than Jefferson.

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton prepare to duel

This might seem absurd. After all, Jefferson was a lettered man of the Enlightenment, an inventor and introvert who so despised public speaking that he skipped his Inaugural Address of 1801, choosing instead to mail the speech to Congress for it to be read aloud in his absence. Trump is a loud-mouth demagogue, the latest in a long line of political opportunists who trace their ancestry back to Burr.

Yet in terms of their political instincts, Trump owes much to Jefferson. Both consider the US to be a world unto itself. In 1803, Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana territories from Napoleon at the firesale price of two cents per acre. The resulting westward expansion enabled him to reorientate America away from its eastern seaboard, away from Atlantic trade, and towards the promise of a simpler future, in which traditionalism and localism would take precedent over global commerce. Jefferson often referred to America as an ‘Empire of Liberty’, a continent that would mind its own business, safely cocooned from the complicated politics and warfare of Napoleonic Europe. These same instincts for isolationism fixate Trump and his base. In his disregard for NATO and adherence to economic protectionism, Trump imagines that America can – literally – wall itself off from the outside world. And while Jefferson was not a rabble-rouser like Trump, he certainly indulged the politics of populism. During a series of agrarian revolts in Massachusetts in 1787, which threatened to violently overturn local government, Jefferson applauded the rioters. ‘A little rebellion now and then is a good thing’, he wrote. The revolt was stimulated by economic hardship among the rural population who demanded financial relief and the printing of paper money – sentiments that earned Jefferson’s sympathy. Populism always ends in the potential for crowd violence and the promise of free money: Trump is no different, having recently encouraged his supporters to harass voters at polling stations and proposed $4.4 trillion in tax cuts despite having no plan to pay for it.

Superficially, Trump and Burr might seem similar. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that Trump has tapped into a rich vein of political instincts – anti-globalisation, anti-elitism – that many of the Founding Fathers, notably Jefferson, openly indulged. 

Rhys Jones is Research Fellow in History at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge. @rhyshistorian