The presidential election of 1800 brought the Federalist split into the open. Adams wanted the second term for which he had been nominated by congressional caucus; thus, he appeared willing to endure the enemies in his party as long as he had a hope of reelection. That hope was considerably lessened on 1 May when the Republicans captured the New York legislature, which would cast the state's electoral vote. Adams then moved quickly. He confronted McHenry with the charge of disloyalty and accepted his resignation on 6 May. The following week Adams demanded Pickering's resignation and dismissed him when he refused to resign. John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist loyal to Adams, was immediately confirmed as secretary of state. Apparently fond of Wolcott despite his disloyalty, Adams permitted the secretary of the treasury to remain in office until the end of 1800. The president had refused to raise Hamilton to the top command of the army after Washington's death, and in May he gladly signed the congressional acts that provided for a drastic reduction in the army.
By now Hamilton was determined to end Adams' political career, regardless of the consequences to the Federalist party. He wrote, "If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures." He urged Pickering to gather as he left office any material in the archives that could be used against Adams. From Wolcott he also sought "the facts which denote unfitness in Mr. Adams."
In July, Hamilton abandoned his plans for military conquest and returned to his law practice. He advised his followers to manipulate the electoral votes in their states so that the Federalist vice presidential candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would receive more votes than Adams and thus be elected president. His final stroke in this campaign marked the conclusion of his decline from brilliant statesman to bungling, vindictive politician. Against the advice of his closest supporters, he wrote and printed the Letter . . . Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams . Ostensibly prepared only for private circulation, the Letter somehow reached the press, and Hamilton then published it as a pamphlet. For nearly fifty pages, he reviewed the "great and intrinsic defects" in Adams that rendered him "unfit" for the presidency. The Letter had little apparent effect on the outcome of the election, and numerous replies from men of both parties applauded Adams' refusal to bend to the will of the former secretary.
The division among Federalists left Adams annoyed and discouraged but undaunted. In May 1800, after Congress had adjourned and Mrs. Adams had set out for Quincy, he traveled by a circuitous route to inspect the capital being built at Washington. The enthusiastic receptions he received along the way buoyed his spirits and led him to regard more highly his chance of reelection. As he journeyed from Philadelphia to Washington and then to Quincy, he defended his administration and himself with such vigor that one historian of his presidency has concluded that Adams was "the first presidential candidate in history to carry his appeal directly to the people." Then he spent the summer at home, conducting the nation's business by mail and addressing only those delegations that called on him at Quincy.
By 1 November he was in Washington, where he took up residence in the President's House, later known as the White House. In this unfinished but habitable building, he felt at once a sense of destiny as he prayed, "May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof." Mrs. Adams joined him after two weeks and endeavored to preserve the dignity of the presidential household while living in a house with still damp plaster walls and lacking stairways, firewood, and bells to summon the inadequate number of servants. This remarkable woman, on whose strength her husband had constantly depended, would perhaps be pleased to know that posterity did not forget that the First Lady had hung her laundry to dry in the "great unfinished audience room"—later the East Room—of the White House.
The president's fourth annual message to Congress on 22 November radiated pride in the results of his administration. The nation had a permanent seat of government, the provisional army had been disbanded, the victories of the navy had increased the self-esteem of Americans, a treaty of amity and commerce had been concluded with Prussia, negotiations were under way to settle the remaining issues with Great Britain, and a peaceful accommodation with France was expected. But this message proved to be his valedictory. By the second week in December, Adams knew that he would not have another term. News had arrived that South Carolina had deserted its favorite son, Pinckney, to choose electors favoring the Republicans. Although the electoral ballots would not be formally counted until February, the unofficial tally revealed the Republican victory.
The bitterness of defeat mingled with elation in the Adams household, for at about the same time as the news from South Carolina, Commissioner Davie arrived in Washington bearing the treaty concluded with France at the end of September. In the exalted language of diplomacy, this Convention of Môrtefontaine called for "a firm, inviolable, and universal peace, and a true and sincere Friendship between" the two nations. It provided for the restoration of commercial relations on the most-favored-nation principle and the ending of the Quasi-War. The president promptly submitted the treaty to the Senate, where the High Federalists delayed its ratification until 3 February. But the country as a whole, especially the merchants, welcomed peace. The necessary two-thirds vote for ratification was finally obtained when the Senate accepted reservations on the most objectionable points. Unhappy with the reservations, Adams nevertheless approved the ratification and ordered the navy to cease hostilities against French ships.
When the electoral votes were counted in the Senate on 11 February 1801, Adams had sixty-five, Pinckney sixty-four, and Burr and Jefferson seventy-three each. Despite the split of the Federalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Fries Rebellion, the gall of the opposition press, and above all the heavy taxes for defense, the president had run remarkably strongly. A shift of a few hundred votes in the New York legislative election would have given a second term to the president from Massachusetts, who had received all of New England's electoral vote and had improved his vote of 1796 in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
President Adams took no public part in the political crisis created by the inadvertent tie in the Republican electoral vote for Jefferson and Burr. When Burr, the vice presidential candidate, refused to step aside, the decision fell to the lame-duck House of Representatives, with its Federalist majority. In keeping with his view of his office, Adams let the House fulfill its constitutional responsibility without the influence of the chief executive.
Both the Adamses much preferred Jefferson to Burr. Mrs. Adams likely spoke her husband's mind when she wrote that "neither party can tolerate Burr." The Republican leadership counted on a presidential veto of any congressional bill that attempted to take advantage of the tie to thwart the Republican victory. Adams could hardly have failed to learn that Virginia and Pennsylvania threatened civil war if the Federalists used the deadlock to remain in power. Yet he refused to commit himself in his one recorded meeting with Jefferson. He feared not so much Jefferson, whose integrity he had come to respect while they had been together in France during the Revolution, as he feared the horde of radicals who, he believed, would come into office on Jefferson's coattails. Nonetheless, when the House finally ended the crisis on 17 February by selecting Jefferson, Adams was relieved that he could leave office with the nation intact.