New England was easily going to Adams, but Jefferson had a chance of winning if he could carry New York. Without New York, he would have to win New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which the Democratic-Republicans thought nearly impossible. Burr knew the political climate and electorate in the state, and realized the key to controlling the legislature would be winning 13 assembly seats in New York City. He recruited the best candidates for the seats and helped organize and strategize their campaigns. Jefferson repeated Burr’s message to Madison that, “if the city election of New York is in favor of the republican ticket, the issue will be republican.”
Long before he went off the rails later in life, Burr was an incredibly smart political operator. He would go down in infamy for worse, but among his nefarious acts was inventing the notorious political machine that went on to dominate New York politics.
Burr also recognized a gem in a social club known as the Society of St. Tammany, which he helped turn into the first political machine in getting out the vote for Democratic-Republican legislative candidates by holding out the promises of government goodies and jobs on the other side as payback for delivering the vote. After demonstrating the power of New York politicos, it stopped being a social club and became the powerful political force known as Tammany Hall, which defined the New York state Democratic Party well into the 20th Century, with immense clout in the national Democratic Party.
Delivering the New York State Legislature to the Democratic-Republicans – which would select presidential electors for the state – was a devastating blow to Federalist President John Adams, whose victory over Jefferson in 1796 rested on carrying New York.
The questions for the 2016 presidential race is whether the reliably blue New York could change in the November, in a contest between the billionaire Manhattan developer and a former senator elected twice statewide. Either way, ahead of the results, it’s worth noting when New York made Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and the nation’s first peaceful transfer of power possible.
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(An original version of this post was published on the Stairway Press blog.)