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Election of 1808
Posted November 28, 2005 at 09:25pm by Chronicler

James Madison won an impressive 122-47 victory in the presidential election of 1808. The totals have been used by historians to show that the Federalist Party was well on its way to extinction.

Research I have done in the past few days leads me to dispute this understanding. The following overview of the election of 1808 demonstrates that this interesting four-way race had several interesting potential outcomes.

As the year 1808 began, the Federalists were discouraged. They were outnumbered in the U.S. House by a 4.5:1 margin, and most of their leaders were elderly. The party did not express interest in fielding a ticket for President and Vice President until late summer.

A contested presidential election would have taken place even without a Federalist ticket in the field. At the DR Caucus on 1/23/1808, three men vied for the nomination. VP George Clinton felt that he was entitled to the nomination, since historically the VP had always succeeded a retiring president. Clinton felt that it was his turn. Pres. Jefferson appeared to support Secy. of State James Madison, a fellow Virginian. Madison was well-liked in Congress, particularly in the Senate - as many Senators were unhappy with VP Clinton sleeping through their sessions. The third candidate, James Monroe, was supported by the Quid faction of the DRs, which was concerned that the party was moving too far to the middle. Monroe and Madison had challenged each other both directly (the U.S. House race in 1789) and indirectly, for two decades.

When Madison won the Caucus endorsement with ease, the two losers decided not to give up. They apparently settled on a strategy of campaigning in their areas of strength, with the hope of precluding Madison from winning a majority of the electoral vote. Clinton focused on New York's 19 electoral votes, which were to be selected by the legislature. Monroe vied for electoral votes in VA, NC, and OH, where the electors were popularly elected.

The growing unpopularity of Pres. Jefferson's embargo on shipping from England was becoming increasingly noticeable. In the elections in New York State in the spring of 1808 (for the term 1809-1811), the Federalists scored a major victory. Although they did not gain enough seats to control the legislature, the divided DRs (with pro- and anti-George Clinton factions) provided the Federalists with opportunities to make coalitions.

When the results from the North Carolina state election became known, the Federalists decided to call a national caucus. Although time was running out for the campaign season, the Federalists gathered in NYC around 8/22/1808 to discuss their strategy. Their victory in NC gave them the governorship and an additional three seats in Congress. Thus far, two states had voted (NY and NC), and these two states had elected 17 DRs to Congress and 12 Fs - for an increase of eight seats for the Federalists. Prior to the caucus, it was assumed that the Federalists would support the interest of George Clinton in the presidential race. It seemed pointless to sponsor another national ticket. However, the Federalist victories suggested that their party was not dead. The party leaders decided to nominate Charles C. Pinckney for President and Rufus King for VP. This strategic move announced to Clinton that they were not placing their popular NY leader against him (King), keeping open the possibility of making some kind of agreement in the legislature. This was actually a mistake, since nominating King would probably have given them the electoral votes of VT, NY, and NJ at the very least.

Elections in the two weeks following the Federalist caucus emboldened the Federalists. NH and RI voted the next week, and the Federalists swept out the entire congressional delegation in each state: switching their U.S. House delegations from 7 DRs to 7 Fs. VT voted on 9/6/1808, and the Federalists gained an additional seat (winning 3 of the 4). At this point, six states had voted, electing 24 DRs and 22 Fs - a gain of 16 seats for the Federalists.

As the fall campaigning season began, the national strategy was clear. Madison could count on 62 certain electoral votes from 7 states, 27 shy of victory. Monroe was vying for 30 electoral votes, and Clinton was vying for 19. The Federalists had electoral slates in the field in the Monroe and Clinton states in case the divided DR vote provided opportunities. Pinckney had 34 safe electoral votes: the 14 he won in 1804 plus the 19 of Massachusetts and the one stolen from him in 1804 (the Fayetteville district in North Carolina). It would be difficult, but possible, for Pinckney to win. Pinckney and Madison were facing off in 6 states for 31 electoral votes. If Pinckney won all 31 votes and convinced the Clinton DRs in NY to give him that state's vote, he would have 84, five short of victory.

The non-Madison candidates were counting on the rising unpopularity of Pres. Jefferson to win the race. The entry of the Federalists fostered the chances of Monroe and Clinton, since the old Federalist electoral votes were now set in stone against Madison. If they could prevent Madison from receiving a majority, the vote would go to the U.S. House - where the DRs controlled 13 delegations to two for the Federalists. This meant that the real race in the contingent election would be between Madison and whoever managed to place in the top three with him and Pinckney. It was clear the Pinckney would stand no chance in the House.

Although the situation was troubling, the race was still Madison's to lose. He had several winning options. If he could win Virginia, he would only need three electoral votes from the 31 toss-up votes he and Pinckney were vying for. Alternatively, if he could carry New York, he would need eight additional votes. If he lost VA and NY (which was a real possibility), he would need 27 of the remaining 37 electoral votes in play. The Madison campaign decided that it needed to go for every electoral vote in play. He had several things in his favor. Most importantly, he had the Caucus endorsement. Although the Caucus lost its savor later, in 1808 it was a major factor in elections. The party leaders around the nation had chosen him to lead the country, and he was also the President's choice. Second, Madison was the only candidate actually running a nationwide campaign. He was not running as a spoiler candidate. And although Pinckney actually had little chance of victory, the possibility of Monroe and Clinton throwing the race to the House bothered DRs in the battleground states.

When election day arrived, Madison managed to sweep Monroe's electors off the field and defeated his Federalist rivals by a decent margin. Madison won 18 of the electoral votes the Federalists contested and the 30 that Monroe contested. The vote stood Madison 110 to Pinckney 47, with NY's 19 undecided. Meanwhile, in the four states electing U.S. House members at the same time as the presidential electors, the Federalists picked up an additional nine seats. The chamber stood at DRs 70 to Fs 49: a much-reduced margin but almost a majority of the 142 seat chamber. The two states left to vote for U.S. House were solidly DR: TN and VA.

In the meantime, jockeying for position in the NY legislature was taking place. The Clinton forces were demoralized by the fact that he had no chance of being elected. The Madison DRs in the state finally consummated a deal with the Clinton DR faction by which Madison won 13 electoral votes to 6 for Clinton. When the presidential electors met, Madison received 122 electoral votes (one KY elector abstained) to 47 for Pinckney and 6 for Clinton.

Congress was called into session early in 1809, so TN and VA held their congressional elections earlier than usual. The Federalists gained an additional four seats in VA, extending their gains. The new House breakdown was DR 89, F 55. The Federalist Party had made significant gains, forcing the early repeal of the embargo and making them a major force in politics once again.

Three events changed the fortunes of the Federalists. As had taken place a decade earlier, the new apportionment of the U.S. House favored the DRs. Second, the War of 1812 was increasingly popular once the British forces landed on U.S. soil. The voters rewarded the DRs for taking a stand against the British. When Federalist leaders met to consider pulling out of the Union just as news arrived of Jackson's victory at New Orleans, the party was humiliated. Within five years, it was reduced to contesting a handful of state offices in New England and a few other states.

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