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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

* John Dennis And The Election Of 1800

Salisbury Times - January 17, 1962

In the early days of our government under the Federal Constitution, we did not have the democratic process for the selecting of presidential candidates as we have today. The National Convention did not come into fashion until around 1830. And, until the election of 1824, the party caucuses in Congress dominated the choices of candidates.


Thus, in the interesting election of 1800, the presidential candidates were selected by party caucuses in Congress. The Republicans (the present Democratic Party) for the second time in a row supported Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. The Federalists (in a way the present day Republican Party), with some misgivings renominated John Adams, with C. C. Pinckney for vice president.

BUT IN THE meantime there had developed a major split within the Federalist Party, and Alexander Hamilton, probably its leading member, was determined to force President Adams from the scene. Most of the campaign material published was by Federalists attacking one another. And, of course the Republicans made good use of this. It was a very bitter campaign, and one in which the religious issue played an important role. Jefferson was accused of being anti-religious.

Although the Republicans received a majority of votes, 73 as against 65 for the Federalists, an unusual situation resulted. Not one of the Republican electors had dared throw away his second vote, and so Jefferson and Burr tied for first place with 73 votes each. Before the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1804, each elector had two votes, not a single vote for the President and a single vote for the vice president as we have today.

THUS THE possibility of a tie between two candidates on the same ticket became a reality. Now it was up to the House of Representatives, voting by states, to choose between Jefferson and Burr. An opportunity was seen by the Federalists to defeat their archenemy, Jefferson, by supporting Burr. Aaron Burr, although he had been Jefferson's running mate, decided this was a good opportunity to obtain the White House, and thus he favored a corrupt plan.

Party division was so close and bitter that during 35 ballots, the House of Representatives was unable to give a majority vote to either man. Anger and bitterness had reached a point where there was even talk of civil war.

All of this was avoided when Alexander Hamilton exerted his influence upon some Federalists not to vote for Burr. History books have given Hamilton much credit, and rightfully so, for the election of Jefferson as the third President of the United States.

Yet a man from the Delmarva Peninsula also had an important role in drama of American politics. John Dennis was one of the Federalists, who, by withholding votes, enabled Jefferson to enter the White House instead of Burr.

JOHN DENNIS was a member of a family, which has given many men into the services of the state and nation. His branch of the Dennis family stems from Donnach Dennis who settled in Maryland in 1660. John Dennis's parents were Littleton Dennis and his wife Susanna, daughter of Col. John Upshur of Northampton County on Virginia's Eastern Shore. John was born on Dec. 17, 1771 at "Beverly," the family estate in Worcester County. His pre-college education was undertaken at Washington Academy in Princess Anne. Later he attended Yale, but did not graduate. He left college to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1793. He began his law practice in Somerset County, but before long was more active in politics than law. In 1797 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served on the Judiciary Committee which framed the bases for the present judicial system of the United States. When the plan was brought to the floor of the House he was the ablest supporter for its adoption.

A FEW YEARS later, while still a member of the House, he had a vital role to play in the famous disputed election of 1800. He had a majority of the House been Jeffersonian Republicans, Thomas Jefferson would receive their votes and been elected without trouble; however, the Federalists were in control and felt that they were entitled to choose the one (between Jefferson and Burr) who was least likely to do them harm. Neither Jefferson nor Burr would make definite promises, but Burr did give the impression that he would "cooperate" with the Federalists.

After the many fruitless ballots, three Federalists, who still could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, cast blank ballots, and Jefferson was elected by a majority of two states. One of the three to cast a blank ballot was John Dennis of the Delmarva Peninsula.

THE SIGNIFICANCE of this event should not be overlooked. The people's choice was now to occupy the President's chair, and at the same time a type of democratic revolution came about in the young nation.

It was a courageous stand for Dennis to take, for this region was rather strong in its support of the Federalists. Yet, Dennis' action must have met with the approval of the voters, for he was re-elected to his seat in Congress.

It was on his way to a session of the 10th Congress that he was stricken, and died in Philadelphia on Aug. 17, 1807. He was buried there in the famous Old Christ Church grounds.

Later, his son, John, was elected by the Whig Party to the House of Representatives for the 25th and 26th Congresses.

The senior John Dennis' stand in the bitter, selfish contest in the House between the various factions is a good example of "profile in courage" and the placing of country above party. John Dennis is another Delmarvan who has enriched our heritage.


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