The Presidential Election of 1801 – The Emergence of Disinterested Constitutionalism

What might have happened if the nation's fourth election hadn't yielded a winning candidate and if a president hadn't been chosen by the date set by the Constitution as inauguration day? What role did disinterested constitutionalism play in the election's resolution? And does the election have any link to Marbury v. Madison?

Lecture Description

In our era of disputed elections, the presidential elections of 1800 and 1801–one involving voting in each state, the other in the House of Representatives–have new salience. This outcome of this duo of elections, arguably the first “critical election” outcome in the United States, created a Democratic majority that lasted for 60 years, threatened the constitutional fabric, and laid the groundwork for path-breaking constitutional developments. But there’s more to say about it than we’ve recognized, especially if we focus directly on the election of 1801, which resolved the deadlocked electoral college vote. The effort to resolve the deadlock offered the first instance of disinterested constitutionalism–a commitment of which we could use more today–in the nation’s history. And, as the lecture argues, close examination of the resolution of the electoral deadlock brings to the fore the election’s possible, and so far overlooked, links, personal as well as juridical, to John Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison only two years later.


Elections, Electoral College, Voting Rights Politics

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