Revolutionary events abroad lead to the peaceful election of 1800

Students will briefly discuss the fear of political parties during Washington’s administration, culminating in the passage of the Sedition Acts during the administration of John Adams. Leading into the election of 1800, both the Federalist and Democratic Republican Parties resorted to what is called “negative campaigning” today, as both sides distorted each other’s views on government. Despite all of the rhetoric and vitriol, the United States remained united with the peaceful transfer of power from the Federalists and John Adams to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans in this election.

Historical Background

George Washington’s Farewell Address specifically denounces “factions” that might mislead or influence the public. This fear of political parties was born out of the violence of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. It was believed that political dissent would lead to factionalism and violence. To control the increasing dissent and criticism of the Federalist Party by the opposing Democratic Republican Party, President Adams signed the Sedition Act into law in 1798. This law restricted speech critical of the government and was designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party.

Leading into the election of 1800, both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republican Parties campaigned for the presidency. Both sides resorted to what is now called “negative campaigning”, frequently distorting or lying about each other’s stances on the issues and the personal lives of the candidates. Some historians have referred to this election as “the dirtiest campaign in history”.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to describe the long-term political importance of the Election of 1800 by writing an extended response that details the importance of political parties in the electoral process both in the past and present.



  1. Direct students to read portions of Washington’s farewell address. Focus their attention to the line where Washington warns of the potential danger of “factions” that specifically is he warning against? What events would lead Washington to have such a strong reaction to what we call political parties?
  2. Next, share with the students the image of the execution of King Louis XVI. (Optional: share the quotes from Wordsworth and Robespierre about the Reign of Terror.) Lead a discussion with them that the French Revolution was inspired (and caused) by the American Revolution. Yet, despite starting with such hope, the French Revolution spiraled into a spectacularly bloody civil war and revolution. Washington, like many of the other Founders, felt that this could also occur in the U.S.
  3. Despite the fear of political parties, Washington’s cabinet developed marked differences of opinions as to how the country should be run. These two differences in opinions were expressed by the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. The fact that both of these political leaders were members of Washington’s cabinet added to the tension of the situation. At this point, the teacher should highlight/teach the differences between these two men and their ideas government and the country. It must also be emphasized that Jefferson’s followers were pro-French in who the U.S. should trade with. This made the Federalists feel that Democratic-Republicans would potentially desire a French intervention in U.S. domestic affairs. It must be emphasized that this is the beginning of what we call the “Two party system” of politics that we have today.
  4. During the administration of Washington’s Federalist successor, John Adams, the Federalist controlled congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798. Have the students read the main parts of the law and ask if something similar could occur today? What was happening at this time (1798) to make the U.S. Congress pass this type of law (the French Revolution was escalating to its most violent point)? Emphasize that this law was specifically written by the Federalist controlled congress to curtail and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party, which was perceived as pro-French.
  5. Now, point out to the students that both parties were primed and ready for the election of 1800. The slowly declining Federalists nominated John Adams for reelection and the rising Democratic-Republicans nominated Thomas Jefferson, the standing vice president. It must be clearly pointed out that both sides resorted quickly to what is now known as “negative campaigning”. Have the students read portions of “A Short Address to the Voters of Delaware”. Focus the students on the second and third paragraphs that describe the dangers of the French Revolution coming to the U.S. As a contrast, have the students read portions of “Address to the Republican Committee of the County of Gloucester New Jersey”. Focus the students on the fourth paragraph, where the address states that Alexander Hamilton was against a democratic government and that the President was assisting him in increasing British influence in the U.S. It is probably helpful to have the students list or outline the concerns and fears of both authors in regards to the upcoming elections.
  6. Finally, as way to emphasize the vitriol that both sides used, show the students negative attack ads from YouTube. Be aware though, that some of the rhetoric used in the ads might be inappropriate for some students.


Have the students make their own attack ads from either the Federalist or Democratic-Republican perspective.


Have the students answer the following questions in extended form:
What was the true importance of the election of 1800?

Explain the differing views of the two candidates, their visions for the U.S.’s future and what areas of the U.S. supported them.

Do political parties still have such differences today? Provide examples from the present.


Excerpt the length of documents. In addition, one may drop the quotes from Wordsworth and Robespierre.


Washington’s Farewell Address (excerpted), The Avalon Project,

The Sedition Act (excerpted),

A short address to the voters of Delaware. [Signed at end] A Christian federalist. Kent County. Sept. 21, 1800:

Address of the Republican committee of the County of Gloucester, New-Jersey … Gloucester County, December 15, 1800:

“Execution of King Louis XVI of France,” (image).

YouTube video on election of 1800:

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