A National Cliff-Hanger

Most Americans are not aware of the fact that in early 1801, we did not know who the third president would be—Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr. The two of them were running for president independently. They both handily beat John Adams. But they were both tied with electoral college votes. So there was a national cliff-hanger that took weeks to resolve. It made the Bush versus Gore contest of 2000 look like a child’s picnic in comparison. What follows is what we said about it in our book, Doubting Thomas, which deals with the religious life and legacy of Jefferson.

On February 11, 1801, the House of Representatives finally determined on its 36th ballot that Jefferson would be the next president. (This was a political cliffhanger that lasted for weeks. Jefferson beat Adams handily. But Jefferson was tied with Aaron Burr; tied ballot after tied ballot created a logjam. When Jefferson finally won, Aaron Burr became his Vice President—this was obviously before presidents and vice-presidents ran on the same ticket.) Jefferson sent a message on February 20 to Congress accepting the call to the Presidency saying: “…whatsoever…it has pleased providence to place within the compass of my faculties, shall be called forth for the discharge of the duties confided to me.”

When Jefferson was sworn in as president on March 4, 1801, with his hand on the Bible, he also followed it with religious references in his public address. In his First Inaugural Address he said: “…having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered;…enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed and practiced in various forms…; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which…with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? …And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”

It is noteworthy that in this speech, Jefferson not only spoke of religious freedom but of an enlightenment that came not from unaided reason, but from religion—in a country which was overwhelmingly Christian in profession. He spoke not of a disengaged Deist God, but of a Providence and a Power that overruled human affairs and guided councils of government. As Gregg Frazer shows in The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, Jefferson certainly did not hold to a view of a disengaged god as Deists typically believed.

Also note this: Sadly very few modern scholars have studied the material offered in this book, and have relied on the same few circle of sources and commentary that had led to a view of a general anti-clericalism that is simply incorrect. To correct this misrepresentation, we have inserted in this book the descriptive words similar to his term here (words such as: “eastern,” “northeastern,” “northern,” “Federalist,” “medieval” or “Catholic”), so that the reader can accurately grasp the limited focus of his criticism. Our insertions are hopefully faithful to the context in each case.


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