The Democratic-Republican Party Conundrum of the Election of 1808

The United States of America had been an independent country for 25 years. Its population, according to the Constitutionally mandated census of 1800, was 5,308,483 and growing fast. Two years later, the 1810 Census documented the U.S. population as 7,239,881, an increase of 36.4%!!!

In 1788, when George Washington was elected our first president, 13 states could cast 69 electoral votes. In 1808, there were 175 electoral votes from 16 states.

By 1808, the Federalist Party, which had its primary strength in New England, was on its last legs. It was now a minority party, having lost seats in both the House and the Senate in the 1802, 1804, and 1806 elections. Yet, the Federalists still wanted to hold the presidency.

Unlike today, where the contending presidential candidates and their running mates compete for your vote, back then, the man with the second most electoral votes became your vice president, even if he was from a different party. And states were allowed to split their electoral votes.

James Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, chose George Clinton, the Governor of New York, as his preferred running mate. However, both Clinton and James Monroe, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Clinton also sought the top job as the Democratic-Republican Party candidate.

Federalist Charles Pickney won the nomination of the Federalist Party. At the time, he was the U.S. Ambassador to France, and he chose a former ambassador to the United Kingdom as his running mate.

Back in 1808, one could run for several national offices at the same time. Clouding the presidential election picture were the men running for VP – Democratic-Republicans George Clinton, James Monroe, Jefferson’s Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, and Senator John Quincy Adams who had left the Federalists, the party of his father, John Adams.

The primary election issue was the economy. The Embargo Act of 1807 was an attempt by the Jefferson Administration to force Britain to change its economic policies. It failed horribly and caused the U.S. economy to contract by five percent. (See Blog Post #172 dated 8/7/2022, The Tale of Ograbme – ).

The states hit hardest by the Embargo Act of 1807, a.k.a. the Non-Importation Act of 1807, were those in New England who protested that the act reflected Jefferson’s love for France. This issue, along with the continued impressment of seamen by the Royal Navy and British Army support of Native Americans in the Northwest Territories were the major issues of the election.

Jefferson’s shadow hung over the election. As one of the leaders of the American Revolution, Jefferson was still immensely popular and campaigned hard for Madison and Clinton.

Madison carried 12 states and won handily with 122 electoral votes when all the votes were cast. Pickney/King garnered only 47. Two of North Carolina’s and two of Maryland’s electoral votes were cast for Pickney/Rufus.

George Clinton became Madison’s Vice President. Neither Madison, Dearborn, nor John Quincy Adams had a role in Madison’s first administration. Interestingly, two of the candidates Madison defeated – James Monroe and John Quincy Adams – later became presidents.

Map shows the distribution of electoral votes from the 1808 Election courtesy of the National Atlas of the United States.

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