The presidential election of 1800 is generally considered the nastiest in American history. Indeed, the campaign did not reflect well on the Founders or their new government. The race between Federalist John Adams and Republican Thomas Jefferson was raucous, bitter, and unpredictable. Historian David McCullough wrote that according to the opposing campaigns, "if Jefferson was a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a 'howling' atheist, Adams was a Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, 'quite mad.''"1
The charges and countercharges addressed the candidates' courage, patriotism, religion, race, morality, mental health, as well as their political viewpoints. Foreign developments fueled domestic fears which fueled political unrest. Historian Joanne B. Freeman wrote: "The fuel for these fears was the seemingly implacable opposition of Federalists and Republicans, largely a battle between northerners and southerners. With partisan animosity at an all-time high and no end in sight, many assumed that they were engaged in a fight to the death that would destroy the Union. Of course each side assumed that it alone represented the American people, its opponents a mere faction promoting self-interested desires."2 Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote: "In the first knock-down, drag-out campaign, Americans proved they preferred newspapers to pamphlets to books, and, further, that they preferred their newspapers crammed with items of scandal. It was the first modern campaign."3 But the election was also very different from the modern norm. The editors of the Alexander Hamilton Papers wrote: "It is difficult, and probably impossible...to determine popular interest in an election in which most voters did not vote directly for the electors, in which the candidates did not publicly campaign for votes, and in which few newspapers bothered to report campaign news or election results."4
Candidates Adams and Jefferson agreed on many subjects of political policy and theory although they had very different attitudes toward the benefits and dangers of democracy. Their personalities, however, were dissimilar. They "were the odd couple of the American Revolution: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian," wrote historian Joseph J. Ellis. "Adams, the highly combustible, ever combative, mile-a-minute talker whose favorite form of conversation was an argument; Jefferson, the forever cool and self-contained enigma who regarded an argument as dissonant noise that disrupted the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head,"5 The two men, who had collaborated in 1776 on the Declaration of Independence and later worked together as diplomats in Europe, had grown apart politically in the 1790s. Adams, ever sensitive to slights, was injured by Jefferson's rebuffs and appalled by Jefferson's embrace of the French Revolution. The breach between their supporters was even wider, deeper, and more vicious.
The period leading up to the election of 1800 became a witches' brew of personalities, innuendo, ideology, and rumor. Through newspapers and pamphlets each side attempted to demonize the other as well as the foreign governments with whom they were perceived to be allied. Historian John Ferling noted: "The Federalists...left no stone unturned in their attempts to link the Republicans with the blood excesses of the French Revolution."6 Jefferson scholar Jerry W. Knudson wrote: "Federalist newspapers viciously denounced Jefferson for his alleged atheism, his philosophical attitudes, his pro-French, revolutionary leanings, and his attachment to democracy - a scare word in 1800 - and opposition to Federalism. There were other charges in this most virulent of American presidential campaigns - that Jefferson had not paid his British debts, that he would emancipate southern slaves, that he maintained a 'Congo Harem' at Monticello, and that…