The election of 1800 was the first hotly contested election in our nation's history. Up until that time the elections of 1788 and 1792 were obviously won in unanimous fashion by George Washington and John Adams basically ascended to the office as Washington's successor after eight years as vice-president. Incidentally, Adams loyally sat in the U.S. Senate day after day in total silence listening to much lesser thinkers and politicians than he as they argued the big issues confronting the new republic. For a leader, speaker, and thinker of Adams caliber that was absolute torture. But Adams loyally fulfilled the only constitutional duty mandated for the vice-president.
Adams's presidential term had been a stormy one with many crises, both in domestic and foreign policy. Besides the brewing problems with Britain mostly of an economic nature, he had to deal with the war between Britain and France. Both countries were trying to sway the U.S. to their side and understandably France felt they had a claim to the U.S. due to the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. As relations between he U.S. and France deteriorated, a Quasi War between France and the U.S. from 1798-1800, further complicated Adams's problems. The "XYZ" Affair was a particularly controversial problem that nearly led to a war with France. Adams was under a tremendous amount of pressure from all sides. Adams was able to weather that crisis, however the treaty between France and the U.S. was signed too late to save his presidency.
The great mistake of Adam's presidency was due to his hypersensitivity to criticism. Under a tremendous amount of pressure he listened to his most trusted advisor, his wife, Abigail and signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Sedition Act allowed the jailing of those who criticized the president. Many newspaper writers and others were jailed. This left an opening for Thomas Jefferson who was behind a lot of criticism of Adams, although in those days directly criticizing an opponent was unseemly, so many surrogates did the dirty work for their candidates. Jefferson fired the first shots of the 1800 election in his 1798 Kentucky Resolution that advocated the theory of nullification which stated that an unconstitutional law should be nullified by the states. The Sedition Act was his target.
The election was a mess that ended with Jefferson and Aaron Burr, one of Jefferson's most zealous surrogates, tied with 73 electoral votes. Adams finished a distant third. The Constitution called for the election to be decided in the House of Representatives. Jefferson was declared the winner over Burr who became his vice-president. This election was an occassion of several firsts.
As for the election itself, because of the electoral problems the twelfth amendment was passed that mandated that voters would vote for a president and a vice-president, hopefully precluding another tie. More importantly it was the first peaceful exchange of power. In a contested election the incumbent Adams was defeated and volutarily gave up power to the winner of the election. This demonstrated that a republic was feasible as a form of government. In other words, man was capable of governing himself. The Constitution was proven as a firm foundation for a functional form of self-government.
The election of 1800 was a monumental election for a lot of reasons, but it was outstanding for the personal attacks on both candidates conducted by surrogate newspapers and others. This election stands out among others for the vile nature of the attacks. The Sally Hemmings rumors were born during this election and plagued Jefferson the rest of his life and has stained his legacy. He never answered the charges but they persist to this day. Adams was attacked mercilessly in the press favorable to Jefferson. Make no mistake, Jefferson was responsible for a lot of the criticism that was leveled at Adams. The Sedition Act was a particularly poisonous piece of legislation that surely was unconstitutional as it went against the first amendment.
Finally, this election was between two friends who were there at the very beginning of the country, signed the Declaration of Independence, and argued valiantly for freedom together. This election estranged them from each other and that enstrangement lasted for better than a decade. Thankfully, they reconciled and wrote many letters to each other later in life. Incidentally, they both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That seems fitting doesn't it?
For those who pontificate about the polarizing nature of today's politics, it hardly stacks up to the election of 1800.